The book was published on January 11th 2011. And within three weeks its ideas have spread across the world and colonised the debate about how to be a good parent. I can’t remember any other book generating so much polarised and vigorous debate about parenting, so quickly, as has Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A combination of clever marketing, slow news days and the power of the internet has fuelled the controversy ignited by the release of her entertaining, repetitive and sometimes horrifying memoir.
To give you an idea, here are some extracts from the book: “… an A-minus is a bad grade … you must never compliment your child in public …… the only activities your child should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal … and that medal must be gold.”
Further rhetorical flourishes include Chua dragging her “screaming demon” of a 3-year old child into the freezing cold, calling her children “pathetic” and “garbage” and “fat” and threatening her child that if she doesn’t play the piano perfectly, “I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”
If you do a search on Amy Chua’s name, you will get more than 4 and a half million hits. Her book is a bestseller on Amazon already. Chua has pushed people’s buttons across the world, arousing insecurities and torrents of anger. She has entered the collective Google consciousness. Somewhere in the world right now, you will probably hear a parent somewhere saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll get Amy Chua to adopt you.”
I have just read the book and a great deal of the commentary, admiring, bemused or out- and-out hostile. The book clearly strikes a chord, positive and negative, with readers, but on close reading I was struck by how shallow Chua’s rationalisations for her behaviour are. Her arguments are not based on any coherent, scientific theory of healthy child development. The psychologist in me diagnosed her as a brittle narcissist with unresolved performance anxiety. She clearly has a high IQ, but scores really poorly on any measure of emotional intelligence. The parent in me secretly worried I was really a yappy, growly small terrier mom, or even worse, a spineless jellyfish mommy. And the small child in me wanted to run screaming away from Amy Chua and her relentlessly Machiavellian mothering. For her the end (acceptance into an Ivy League University) justifies her extreme, mean, means.
Chua insists that her book is not a parenting guide but a memoir. Nevertheless there is plenty of advice and commentary on parenting styles. She distinguishes between the ‘Chinese’ parent’ and the ‘Western’ parent: the first believes that her child must be denied play dates, sleepovers, acting in school plays or watching TV, and no grade less that an A must be tolerated; in the second model children are coddled into mediocrity, protected from hurt feelings and praised for trying hard when they get a D for Maths. Where Western parents are pleased if their child practises the piano for an hour, Chua reckons that a Chinese mother thinks the first hour is easy, two and three being the tough ones. Much emphasis is placed on drilling and repetition until ‘perfection’ is achieved.
Many commentators have noted that her book plays into Western fears of the Asian giant and that billions of children raised by Tiger moms are going to overwhelm poorly disciplined, semi-skilled American offspring. Taking excerpts from the book at face value makes fairly alarming reading for anyone who is sensitive to the issue of emotional and psychological abuse of children.
Chua does acknowledge that her ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ parenting models are just generalisations for the purpose of argument. She also admits her own parenting difficulties, framing her conflict with her daughters (raised in America and with a Jewish father) as a “bitter clash of cultures”. She also admits to feeling “humbled by a 13-year old”.
As interesting as her ideas are, so are many readers’ and commentators’ responses. One called her a “stuffed animal arsonist”, while others point out the horrible pressures of perfectionism and the high suicide rates of Chinese American teens compared to other groups. A mother I know, who has a high achieving 18-year old daughter (9 A’s for Matric, captain of the netball team and all round good kid) and a 4-year old autistic son, commented to me that she wondered what the Tiger Mother would do with a disabled cub. Eat it?
Chua’s thesis, as you can probably see, renders the complex task of parenting into a completely false dichotomy. It’s sensible to dispense with unhelpful stereotypes like ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ and refer instead to the continuum of parenting styles from authoritarian to permissive. Both extremes are high risk strategies – they may work for some children, but when they go wrong, the results can be disastrous.
The problem with adopting an extreme parenting style is that you have a limited repertoire of responses. You are not necessarily able to respond to a particular child, in a specific context in an appropriate manner. Psychologists emphasise the importance of being empathically attuned to children from infancy onwards. Understanding what your child needs emotionally, being able to separate out your own issues from those of your child and being able to see things from your child’s perspective, are all components of mature parenting. As are setting boundaries, saying no, making difficult decisions on behalf of your children and being prepared to be hated sometimes.
In her book on maternal ambivalence, Torn in Two, British psychotherapist Rozsika Parker defines ambivalence in relationships as having co-existing contradictory feelings about the same person. Powerful loving and hating feelings that parents feel towards their children are an intense manifestation of this phenomenon. This ambivalence is normal and inevitable. The loving feelings are easy to accept as they are the ones we are “supposed” to have towards our children, but the angry, resentful feelings, while just as common, are much more difficult to face up to.
When parents have a predominance of negative feelings this is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But when we have those negative feelings in the context of love, the ambivalence we feel is manageable and bearable. The ability to acknowledge, think about and deal with our negative feelings and impulses is an important skill that minimizes the chance that we will act out these feelings in a destructive way. Parents also need to tolerate their children’s ambivalent feelings towards them. Very few parents I know have not heard their children say some variant of “you’re so unfair, I hate you, you’re the worst parent in the whole world”. Especially when you’ve made them finish their homework or grounded them or not bought them something they’ve nagged for.
You won’t see much evidence of ambivalence in Amy Chua’s book, nor in some of her respondent’s views. In the cover article about Chua in Time magazine this week, Annie Murphy Paul comments that “more than anything, it’s Chua’s maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words.” It is this absolute lack of ambivalence that I think is a problem, for in fact tolerating mixed feelings is not weakness or indecision; it is the ability to acknowledge difference, to allow for flexibility and change, and to consider alternatives. It is the denial of ambivalence that is the problem.
Authoritarian parents like Amy Chua are afraid of losing control, terrified that their children might descend into mediocrity. To prevent this, they expect their children to adapt to them. On the other hand, permissive parents adapt themselves completely to the child. They are so afraid of evoking negative emotions that they give control over the child’s whims, always meeting their child’s wants rather than their child’s needs.
Finally, this book made me think about what these debates mean for parents in South Africa. In our context I believe that Chua’s ideas are deeply problematic. Our history of militarism, apartheid, forced removals and the deliberate erosion of family and community bonds, is the worst foundation for a harsh, unempathic and emotionally abusive style of parenting. Similarly, to raise children in a permissive, laissez faire way, in a country that flirts with lawlessness and violence, exacerbated by communities with poor attachment and absent adult figures, is like throwing a giant firecracker into a dynamite factory.
South Africa needs another model of parenting. The great psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, spoke of this balanced approach when he coined the term the ‘good-enough’ parent. Good-enough parents accept the many benefits of ‘Chinese’ parenting, such as persistence and repetition, whether it be practising mathematical equations or grooving a backhand stroke in tennis. But they also see the many cognitive and emotional benefits of releasing their child into the world of sleepovers, play dates and occasional academic failure. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that complex childhood tasks such as balancing your needs with those of a group of friends, or learning to read the feelings of others, are crucial to success as an adult.
Above all, good-enough parents are able to tolerate mistakes, learn from them and understand that there are many ways to be a parent. Good-enough South African parents and ordinary South African children can breathe a sigh of relief that tigers are not really at home here.