Parenting to Win
Here's what black parents can learn from "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," and what the Tiger Mother can learn from us.
When a couple of the regular panelists on the parenting roundtable we feature on my news-talk show, Tell Me More, walked into the studio minutes after author Amy Chua had left, one of the moms recalled the remark made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when he followed President George W. Bush at a United Nations gathering in 2006. "Remember when [Chavez] said he could smell sulfur?" she said, "Well, I do now."
I could see her point. While I personally wouldn't go so far as to call Chua the devil, you can easily see why her new parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is leaving a trail of furious blog posts in her wake. In the book, Chua, a Chinese-American mother of two (who is also a Yale law professor), describes her über-tough parenting style, a style that leaves little room for choice and none for mediocrity -- or, for that matter, playdates, sleepovers, school plays, sports or anything that most of us would consider fun.
No, Mama Amy is all about staying on task: acing every test, playing piano or violin for hours, even missing tourist sites while on vacation so that her girls can practice, practice, practice. And don't even get me started on the verbal abuse. She cops to calling her kids "lazy," "pathetic," "cowardly," "barbarians" -- even "garbage" -- when they fail to measure up to her expectations.
Chua is pushing a lot of people's buttons; an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," generated more than 5,000 comments -- many from fellow Asian Americans -- but it might push black people's buttons most of all.
Chua has the kind of theory of life that many black people just cannot stand. There is no mention in the book of a larger purpose, God, community or interest in anything other than herself, her kids, and their grades and accolades -- preferably from famous people like the jurists she invited to her home to listen to her children perform.
While she does pause to care for two very ill family members and has potlucks for her students, you really get the sense that she is oblivious to the lives of everybody else in the world who does not touch her life directly; that, say, a drunk driver could mow down somebody else's kid on her street and she would be too busy drilling her kids with flash cards to take the bereaved parents a casserole. Perhaps most aggravating is that Chua has no patience with those who challenge the status quo, implying that people who challenge the power structure -- no matter how stacked or rigged it may be -- are just too lazy and selfish to master it.
You can also see where her arbitrary pronouncements, while not in and of themselves racist, could travel a very short road to that point, along with her zero tolerance for anything but white European culture in its narrowest form. Example: She goes so far as to say that her kids must play piano or violin, because if they played drums, they might wind up on drugs. She was kidding, but was she really? There is no jazz in Chua's world.
And that's all too bad, but black people should still buy this book and study it for its underlying message, which is this: There are no shortcuts to achievement -- and no racial secrets -- only strategies.