Tough love must also prepare kids for the world

By Jacob Dlamini

By now you may have heard of Amy Chua, the ‘Tiger Mom’ who has middle-class America up in arms with her claims that ‘western-style’ parenting has saddled the USA with wusses for kids.

Chua, a US-born legal scholar of Chinese origin and mother of two daughters, says western-style parenting mollycoddles children, venerates mediocrity and puts too much
stock in the idea of children’s self-esteem.

Excerpt a turn-off

I first came across Chua’s views in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The piece was an excerpt from her new book, The Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother. I was turned off by what I saw as her playing to the stereotype of the one-dimensional immigrant, who believes academic over-achievement (as opposed to excellence) is all it takes for immigrants to succeed in the USA.

I found that prescription ahistorical. To recap what Chua said in her excerpt: her daughters could not bring home a grade lower than an A; they could play any musical instrument they wanted so long as it was the piano or the violin; they could not be in school plays; they could not have sleepovers with friends; they could not have boyfriends, and they had to accept that perfection came before enjoyment. Chua wrote about how she once forced her youngest daughter, Lulu, 13 at the time, to sit through hours of practice at the piano just so she could master a piece titled The Little White Donkey.

No toilet breaks for Lulu

Lulu protested, banged on the piano – to no avail. She was not allowed to take toilet breaks until she mastered the piece. When Chua’s husband protested, Chua’s retort was that Sophia could play the same piece impeccably when she was Lulu’s age. When the father said Sophia and Lulu were different, Chua fired off a sarcastic shpiel about how everyone was different, special – even losers were special in their own losers’ way. Lulu mastered the piece. Oh, and Chua was not averse to calling her daughters garbage if she felt they were acting like, well, garbage. Chua said her father called her that when she misbehaved as a child and look how well she turned out: a highly regarded professor at Yale Law School.

Is Chua onto something after all?

Like I said, the first time I read Chua’s excerpt, I was unimpressed. But the more I think about her argument, the more convinced I am that she might be on to something. There is something to be said for giving children structure, expecting nothing but the best from them and making it clear that parenting is not a democracy. There is something to be said for teaching children that education matters; and that while children should be raised to speak their minds, they should not think for a second that their opinion has equal weight with that of their parent.

Chua’s arguments resonate with me because I can remember a time when coming home with anything less than an A or position one, as we called it back then, was simply not good enough. I can remember a time when our parents called my cousins and me vuilpops, garbage. Did we think for a second that our parents did not love us and did not want the best for us? No. If I have any criticism of Chua now, it is that she is not preparing her daughters to live in the world. She is teaching them to be great at taking exams, excellent at playing the piano and the violin, and stellar at everything academic. But there is little sense in being great at that if you can’t live in the world.

As musician Ray Charles would say, genius loves company.

This piece first appeared in Business Day on 27 January 2011, and appears here with the author’s kind permission. Dlamini is the author of Native Nostalgia ( Jacana, 2009). Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother is published by The Penguin Press HC.

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Category: Winter 2011

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