When I wrote my earlier post about Amy Chua’s WSJ post, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, I hadn’t yet read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Now that I have read her book, I can say that the WSJ article misrepresents her. The article is really a compilation of excerpts from her book, and you can imagine, there’s a lot of context that is missing as a result.
First of all, she says from the get-go that when she refers to “Chinese Mothers” she’s not referring to ethnicity. She’s describing a mindset that is prominent in Chinese culture, but that anybody can have. It’s the mindset that when kids are in school, academics and life skills (like music) are of the utmost importance. Social skills are not considered a life skill, so activities that build those skills (hanging out with friends, participating in sports, etc.) are unnecessary (and sometimes considered detrimental). It’s also the mindset that children obey their parents and other authority figures, no matter what. Because adults know better than kids…always.
Plenty of non-Chinese people have this mindset as well. She uses the term Chinese because it’s prevalent in Chinese culture. The same could not be said for example, of American culture. No one would try to classify American culture this way. But there are Americans that feel this way, as there are Chinese who don’t.
Next, this mindset that she argues is superior is only the tip of the iceberg. This is where I was most mistaken with her WSJ article. As I had posted earlier, I compared her to my mother. My mother tried to get me to practice piano an hour a day. My lessons were expensive and definitely not easy for my parents to afford, but to them, this was an important skill for me to have. My mother criticized me instead of praising me. She compared me negatively to other children. She was unhappy with grades like B’s. But she was no Amy Chua.
Amy Chua did not just raise two girls who can play the violin and piano. She raised two music prodigies. Her daughter played at Carnegie Hall. They received national exposure. They were taught by highly sought after teachers and were highly regarded. This wasn’t the result of her closing up her daughters at home and just making them practice until their fingers bled. The amount of dedication and work she put into driving them forward is not to be taken lightly.
Chua when into the deep, dark trenches with them. She learned about piano theory, listened to all the greats play and worked through the pieces with her daughter methodically. When she decided her second daughter would learn violin, she dug in deep and become proficient in violin as well. She drove them hours each way to every lesson, sat in on the lessons, took notes, conferred with her teachers, listened to the music as it was meant to be played, and then coached her daughters through it.
Not only did she do this with music, she did this with their schoolwork.
Not only did she do all this, she had a job as a professor and took care of their family dog.
The reaction from her daughters from this form of parenting were as different as night and day. Her daughters have two very different personalities, and while one loved the discipline and focus her mother drove into her, the other pushed and fought and screamed every bit of the way. But even the second daughter admits that she is happy her mother made her play the violin, because she does love it, and made her study fractions two years ahead of her classmates. But she won’t allow her mother to be that involved in anything else she pursues again (she’s currently playing tennis, and she’s good, because she has the drive to improve and excel).
One can argue that many a music prodigy and academically achieved student did not have such an extreme parent to drive them to success. But can anyone say for certain whether these two girls would have achieved the same heights had it not been for Chua? In addition, how many athletic greats were a result of extreme parental coaching?
And the bigger question: how many more greats would there have been, if there were more parents like Amy Chua?