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amy chua speaking at vroman's in pasadena

The fact that my friend Jane and I were only the second and third people to arrive at Vroman’s this evening for Amy Chua’s discussion of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” is a tip-off that we understand the intensity that Chua brings to life. True to form, we sat in the front row (look for us on The Today Show tomorrow morning) and eagerly listened to Chua explain why she was inspired to write her book.

Chua made it clear from the beginning that the excerpt that the Wall Street Journal published in Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior doesn’t give a full picture of what the book is about. It shows how strict and demanding Chua has been with her two daughters, and that she restricted them from activities such as sleepovers, video games, and participating in school plays when they were younger. In fact, Chua says she decided to write the book when it became clear that this parenting style was backfiring on her youngest daughter, Lulu. When Lulu turned 13, she rebelled, and told her mother that the ultra-demanding parenting was making her hate her mother. Chua said this inspired her so much that it only took about two months to write the book. She was adamant that the book is a memoir, not a parenting manual.

Even so, this memoir includes many descriptions of Chua’s parenting beliefs and techniques, most of which are heavily influenced by her own upbringing by two Chinese immigrant parents. She has expected her children to get perfect grades and to play their instruments flawlessly, and has said that she considers frequent sleepovers and play dates to be overrated. She has also verbally berated her daughters at times. These beliefs are considered controversial because many people don’t want their children to feel like failures when they’re not perfect, and they value the social skills gained at sleepovers and play dates. They also don’t want to hurt their child’s self-esteem by calling them names.

Chua understands that, but explains that we actually affirm children when we expect more from them. By doing so, we’re telling them that we believe that if they work hard, they’ll achieve more, and will learn the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. She has put her time where her demands are, and has helped her daughters by creating practice tests and by teaching them proper piano techniques. She does not consider herself a helicopter mom, since she doesn’t do the work for her girls. Now that her daughters are older, she doesn’t need to be involved as much, since they’ve internalized the value of hard work. As for social skills, she still considers playing video games for five hours straight at a friend’s house to be wasted time, but she does allow her girls to get together with friends. Most of all, Chua insists that everything she does is more than balanced by the love she expresses for her daughters.

Are these Chinese, Asian or immigrant values, or are these actually American values? Or better yet, are they the values of all parents who want the best for their kids? At the core, they’re my values. I’ve tried hard to teach my children that working harder is more likely to lead to success, and that some activities simply aren’t productive. I’ve also tried to make it clear how deeply I love my children.

Even so, despite my aforementioned intensity, I am not a Tiger Mom. I let my daughter quit ballet when she got scared when she heard tap dancing, and I let both kids quit piano when they repeatedly came to the car crying after lessons. (I later found out it was because their Chinese piano teacher was slapping their hands when they messed up. Maybe if they were acculturated to accept that, or if I’d sat in on the lessons, things would have turned out differently.) I never considered threatening to give away my kids’ toys if they didn’t play a piece perfectly, and I certainly didn’t expect perfect grades.

If I could turn back time, I would be tempted to adopt some of Chua’s techniques. I want to do what I can to encourage my kids to work to their full potential. I wonder whether my kids’ grades would be higher if I made it clear that I expected A’s, and I wonder how the piano playing would have turned out if I’d taken the time to sit in on lessons. But that’s bluster: I probably still wouldn’t demand all A’s, and I’d want to get my own work done instead of sitting in on a kid’s piano lesson. It’s probably better that I did what I did, because not only have my kids turned out fine, but my son has made it clear that if I was a Tiger Mom, he wouldn’t speak to me. Is it because he wasn’t brought up that way, or is it because he is who he is? I think Chua would understand, because she confided that her own father never looked back once he left the parents that constantly berated him.

Lost in all of this discussion is an even more important point: what is the purpose of parenting? Is it to guide children to academic and subsequent financial success, or is it to teach them to be faithful and to love one another? I value the second more than the first, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Hopefully I’ve made that clear to my children, but hopefully they also know that when I encourage them to follow their passion, they understand that they’ll only have that opportunity if they work hard.

Instead of criticizing Chua, I think we should thank her for her honesty and willingness to share her story. We can all learn from her successes and failures, and decide whether and how we can adopt any of her techniques in our families and in our lives.