Parenting / How to Raise a Prodigy

In her hotly debated best seller, Amy Chua espouses a rigid parenting line, but mocks herself and then suggests that she saw the error of her ways. Is she telling us the whole truth?


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Penguin Press, 256 pages, $25.95 Hebrew edition:Himnon Hakrav Shel Ima Nemara (translated from the English by Daphna Levy ) Modan, 221 pages, NIS 88

Amy Chua

Even before you open the Hebrew edition of the memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," you learn from its front cover that this best seller caused an "uproar in America." In order to understand how to cause an uproar in America, or perhaps how to write in a way that will enrage America, I had only to read the very short first chapter. Amy Chua uses it to slap her astonished readers in her face. "A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies," she writes, and then proceeds to list some of the things her daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu ), never were allowed to do - including attending a sleepover, having a playdate, being in a school play, and watching TV or playing computer games.

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In effect, these are several of the routine, even banal, activities in the life of a Western child - almost synonymous with childhood experiences. Many consider denying children these activities to be denying them their basic rights, and view this as behavior that is liable to have far-reaching psychological and social consequences. And that is even before we have encountered the imperatives of Chinese parenting, as laid out by Chua, such as: Schoolwork always comes first, an A-minus is a bad grade, and never compliment your children in public. Then there is the perfectionism that Chua learned from her father, a theorist of advanced mathematics. In eighth grade she placed second in a history contest and lost the competition for best all-around student. After the awards ceremony, she writes, "my father said to me: 'Never, never, disgrace me like that again.'"

Later, Chua describes the sanctions she imposed on her daughters during music practice: denying them food, forbidding them to go to the bathroom and issuing horrifying threats, such as, "If the next time's not perfect, I'm going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them." If the outraged response abroad is any guide, the reflexive reaction of Israeli parents will be to label Chua an abusive mother.

Chua, a law professor at Yale and the wife of Jed Rubenfeld, an American Jew who is also a law professor at Yale (and a novelist ), is a self-conscious writer. She is also a manipulative writer. Her tactic is as follows: She doesn't deny accusations directed at her, nor does she try to defend herself; she warmly embraces them. She is the first to describe herself with unflattering adjectives: domineering, insane, fanatic - and she appends tongue-in-cheek captions to the family photographs that appear in the book, like "Mean me with Lulu in hotel room ... with score taped to TV!" or "Sophia and her taskmaster."

Self-awareness and humor are captivating traits, which we tend to identify with emotional equilibrium, so that the style, the retrospective narration and perhaps even the fact that the book is an American best seller are enough to signal to the readers that Chua will eventually come to her senses. This is also stated very clearly in the short text that appears on the book's cover: "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old."

While she allows her readers to enjoy clucking their tongues, Chua also challenges them to reexamine their educational outlook and find a place on the axis between extremely demanding parenting and overprotective parenting, between sanctifying childhood as a paradise of privileges and using that time to strengthen one's children and prepare them for the future. "Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment," she writes. "By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

Chua writes that Chinese parents can do things that would seem bizarre - and even criminal - in Western eyes. Chinese mothers can tell their daughters: "Hey fatty - lose some weight." Chua feels that permissive American parenting is responsible for the increase in such phenomena as eating disorders, unemployment, teen pregnancy and simple mediocrity. On the other hand, she is aware of the problematic image of a strict Chinese upbringing. She writes that she doesn't want her daughters "to end up like one of those weird Asian automatons who feel so much pressure from their parents that they kill themselves after coming in second on the national civil service exam."

More exalted goal

But the only difference between her and the parents of the Asian automaton is that one of the goals she chose for her daughters is something she considers more exalted than a civil service exam: art. Although Chua is setting herself up as a strict Chinese tiger mother, in stark contrast to the Western parents she portrays as overly lax, the disdain implied in her words, like the disdain she repeatedly expresses for Western parents who get so excited when all their child has done is draw a circle, actually exposes her very American value system, which identifies excellence with material success - and preferably in fields offering fame, money, prizes or other external status symbols. There is also disdain in her wicked theories about the lesser lights among the many music teachers who passed through her home, and to whom her attitude was no better than instrumental - and not in the musical sense.

Obsession is the word for Chua's attitude toward the goal she chose for her daughters, who are sent to conquer one peak after another, and it seems that none of the conquered peaks - including a concert in Carnegie Hall - is enough for her. "Here's a question I often get," she writes: "'But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for - your daughters, or' - and here always, the cocked head, the knowing tone - 'or yourself?' I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self ). But that doesn't mean it's not an important one.

"My answer, I'm pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me." That obsession is even stronger than the human need for love. "Unlike my Western friends," writes Chua, "I can never say, 'As much it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It's the hardest thing in the world, but I'm doing my best to hold back.' Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me." Indeed, one of her daughters - Lulu, the rebellious one - says: "How can I have any friends? You won't let me do anything. I can't go anywhere. It's all your fault. You're a freak."

As promised on the cover, the story ends with rebellion, collapse, concession. The final chapters, as in any popular novel, are about reconciliation, acceptance and compromise. But is that the end? And if so, of which story? "Are you trying to tell the truth in this book or just a good story?" 18-year-old Sophia asks her mother. "The truth," Chua hastens to reply.

But I don't believe her. I don't believe her because I saw her on television, continuing to defend her philosophy, declaiming her tiger mother battle hymn, talking about children and their education. And even if she spoke the truth, it's far from being the whole truth. On the last pages of the book she admits that she left out large parts of it concerning her husband (who remains mostly silent in Chua's story ) and that she repeatedly rewrote it in order to placate her daughters (or to arrive at a winning formula ). We, her readers, have been exposed only to the tip of the iceberg. And the truth is that the tip of Chua's iceberg, the coldness of her style and the fact that the piano has small teeth marks on it, are sufficient to inform us about what she didn't tell.

Shoham Smith is a writer and critic. Her most recent children's book is "Porridge For Daddy" (Kinneret Publishing House, in Hebrew ).