A 'Tiger Mother' rebuttal from across the ocean

A 'Tiger Mother' rebuttal from across the ocean

Verdict from China: Amy Chua's controversial new book isn't the bible of good Chinese parenting it claims to be

samantha leese tell me about itI shouldn’t have bought two copies of Amy Chua’s controversial new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," because I don’t want to encourage her, but I lost the first copy two hours after I left the bookstore. I can be scatterbrained like that. Fittingly, this is the kind of personal flaw that Chua scorns in her book, which has ignited fierce public debate about parenting styles in the East and West.

Chua is Chinese-American, and a professor at Yale Law School. With "Tiger Mother" she has ignited a firestorm of argument, self-reflection and anger among U.S. parents by claiming that she has the answer to a question Western moms and dads have been asking for ages.

An excerpt from her book that recenly ran in the "Wall Street Journal" prompted more than 6,600 online reader comments.

“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too,” she writes. “Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.”

Not far into the first chapter, I concluded that the book is more sinister than a smug mother‘s bragging.

It is a chauvinistic, arbitrary and degrading piece of work, not to mention aggressive (that title!) and staggeringly pretentious -- Chua claims her eldest daughter was “reading Sartre” at the age of three, when it turns out she just recognized the words "No Exit."

It is also hilarious, mainly because if you don’t laugh you’ll weep with rage at a woman who -- without a whisper of irony -- compares her youngest child to “a feral horse,” describes their relationship as a battle for which she had to “re-arm,” bloodier than “all-out nuclear warfare,” and whose argument relies on stereotypes and syllogisms (e.g. “playing the drums leads to drugs”) that are far beneath a scholar of Chua’s standing.

Her daughters, she preaches, were never allowed to attend a sleepover, be in a school play, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A.

They had to be the “number one student in every subject except gym and drama."

Chua advises that if your children must engage in sports, “the only activities [they] should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal, and that medal must be gold.”

And that, dear white people, is how you raise a genius.

The biggest problem I have with Chua’s position is not her draconian parenting per se. It isn’t even her racist approach to this book.

Rather, it is the author’s assumption that a) all parents want the same, narrow model of success for their children, b) all children thrive on the same, narrow path to that success, and c) only Chinese mothers take that path, so any woman who doesn’t is not a Chinese mother.

samantha leese tell me about itHide this from your mom.My mother is Chinese. To say otherwise would be literally wrong. She was, by Chua’s standards, heathen in my upbringing, as she allowed me to interact with other children for fun and also let me play the clarinet.

According to another of Chua’s rules, which are presented as bullet points at the start of her book, there are only two acceptable musical instruments for your offspring to learn: the piano and the violin.

As early as the preface, she tells us her piano-prodigy kid played at Carnegie Hall, which is impressive but probably not grounds to spurn all other forms of musical talent.

For the record, my little sister played the drums and she is, so far, narcotic-free.

I think my mum is liberal by most standards, and I’ve turned out okay. It’s certainly not because she indulged my whims, or "protected" me from doing difficult tasks out of fear that it would hurt my self-esteem -- tendencies Chua attributes to non-Chinese parents.

I think it’s because she was more courageous than the Tiger Mother. She faced up to myriad shades of gray where Chua sees only black and white.

When I was 12, my parents sent me to one of Britain’s most prestigious all-girls boarding schools, admired for its sterling exam results and top admission figures to Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League. By 13, I had developed a crushing eating disorder fuelled by anxiety.

Instead of blaming me for buckling under the pressure -- something Chua surely would have done -- my mother understood that I was responding badly to a system of learning and to an environment where independent thought was stifled in the blinkered pursuit of excellence.

It had gone too far.

She sent me to a different school, where more freethinking educators focused on flushing out and nurturing their pupils’ natural interests, whether academic, artistic or athletic.

Where Chua sees that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it,” my parents and my teachers saw the other side of that logic: most children are already good at something, which means it is fun from the start. If you allow them the little space they need to discover it, they will want to do the work without you hysterically waging “war” on them.

It’s easy to stand over your kids, forget their individuality, and make sure they succeed according to what you think that means. It seems much harder to let them go and figure life out for themselves, with the confidence that you have done and will do all you can to guide, rather than bully, your children.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Samantha Leese.

You may also want to read an opinion from a Chinese mom in Shanghai: American 'Tiger Mother' clueless about real Chinese parenting.

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

Read more about Samantha Leese