The more I read of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” [i] by Amy Chua, the more I liked it. It was written with honesty and self-parody, by a woman with a keen mind for the absurdity in both eastern and western cultures, as well as bravery in the face of how her Chinese parenting would sound to western minds. It leaves me both smiling at her stories that reveal the depth of our cultural differences, and a bit ashamed of my lack of conviction or discipline in my own parenting commitments—a take-away that she’d likely be delighted in.
This is not a how-to book on parenting. In fact, it comes across as a how-not-to memoir, and a satirical one at that. Chua wrestles with what it was like be a second-generation immigrant, and taking a “first generation” parenting ideology in raising her own third-generation daughters. In her chapter called “On Generation Decline,” [ii] she describes first, second and third generations. She explains that the first generation will be the hardest working, until they establish themselves as successful professionals, academics, or business people. “As parents, they will be extremely strict and rabidly thrifty. . . Everything they do and earn will go toward their children’s education and future.” [iii] The second generation will attend an Ivy League or top ten university. They will be professionals, surpass their parents in income, and be less frugal. “They will not be as strict with their children as their parents were with them. The third generation will be born into the comforts of upper middle class; they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice.” [iv] Chua continues with describing the hard work that she herself did to honor her own father. One example: she dug a swimming pool with a pick and a shovel at age 14! Her parents demanded respect but that didn’t diminish the fact that she willingly gave it; she wanted to please them and was terrified of their disapproval. But “demanding respect” from her own daughters was where Chua says she was least successful. This highlights differences between Chinese and American cultures; Chinese would never question, disobey, and talk back to parents whereas in America the culture seems to value “snappy backtalk and independent streaks.”
My favorite chapter was called “Teeth Marks and Bubbles”. [v] It reflects Chua’s incredible love for her daughters but how different that looks from what American parenting would consider acceptable. In it we hear the story of Chua’s overwhelming pride in Sophia’s big musical moment at ten years old when, after winning a competition, she won the right to play a piano solo at Yale University’s Battell Chapel. She played Mozart’s Rondo for Piano and Orchestra in D Major—a very difficult piece. The performance came after months of a brutal practice schedule enforced by mom on her daughter. Remarkably, her daughter ultimately showed a true joy and happiness in the performance. Does that excuse the brutality of the practice schedule? Earlier in the chapter Chua gives her understanding of three big differences between Western and Chinese parents. First, Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem, [vi] worried how children will feel if they fail at something. Chinese parents, on the other hand, assume their children are strong and will push them hard because of it. Second, Chinese parents believe their kids owe them everything. Instilling that mentality into their children, the child feels indebted and will try to make their parents proud as a way to honor them. And my personal favorite: “third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.” [vii] In this we again see how different the cultures are; it’s not that the Chinese don’t care for or love their children, but rather that they love by applying specific expectations and pressure. What can be seen here is the Asian mindset of shame and honor.
From an American/western perspective we would never call our child “garbage”, as Amy Chua’s Father had called her once after she’d been disrespectful to her mother. In America, parents who intentionally shame their children are monsters, potentially child abusers. But in Asia the culture is based on giving honor to those over you, feeling shame for your failings, feeling shame when you don’t give the honor that’s expected. Amy Chua testifies that her father’s remarks didn’t crush her esteem; far from it—he had already conveyed how highly he thought of her. It drove her towards honoring her father and mother with her behavior.
Is it possible to be at times almost oppressively strict and tender at the same time? To care so much about you’re children’s happiness that you force upon them a structure that you believe will be for their best? I think that’s what God did for us. The Law ultimately results in rebellion, but that doesn’t make the Lawgiver less loving—especially if he would die for his children. I’m sure Amy Chua would do that in a heartbeat for her girls.
One more theological thought: Chua’s memoir contrasts popular American parenting that finds its strength in valuing the relationship, the good feelings between child and parent, the felt communion; whereas Chinese parenting finds greater value in giving glory to your parent by achieving the expected behavioral demands. One values intimacy, the other values honor. It sounds like we’re grasping at different parts of the elephant; while we’re describing it differently, it’s the same divine parent we wish to mimic.
[i] Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Reprint ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 1.
[ii] Ibid, 20-24.
[iii] Ibid, 21.
[iv] Ibid, 22.
[v] Ibid, 50-59.
[vi] Ibid, 51.
[vii] Ibid, 51-53.