Not too long ago, a friend forwarded “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” an excerpt from a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. Apparently, the book aroused the ire of people everywhere, especially those of Asian heritage. I’ve caught features about it on at least two TV channels, and while Amy Chua may be pleased with the royalties she’s raking in, she also seems more than a little bewildered by the response.
I don’t intend to read the book, although I would guess from the excerpt that it’s a fun read. Nor do I intend to get into the debate, since I don’t feel remotely qualified and I gather that the excerpt has been edited in a way that may have made Chua’s text more incendiary than it is. But I was deeply impressed by a point made by a lengthy anecdote in the article.
Amy Chua’s daughter Lulu was about 7 at the time and was learning a piece by composer Jacques Ibert for an upcoming recital. As charming as it was, however, the music was also difficult because the two hands have to keep “schizophrenically different rhythms.” And Lulu couldn’t do it.
For a week, her mother had her rehearse the piece over and over again, one hand at a time. But the minute they were put together, it fell apart. Exasperated beyond all endurance, Lulu finally announced that she was giving up. “Oh no, you’re not!” retorted her mother.
The description of the battle between mother and child that followed is horrific. Lulu kicked and punched and tore the music into small pieces. Her mother threatened to donate her doll house to the Salvation Army piece by piece, and then, for good measure, threw in no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for years. When Lulu still couldn’t play it, her mother called her pathetic, cowardly and worse. Lulu’s father tried to intervene but to no avail.
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
And then, suddenly, the girl got it. She played it and she played it perfectly. “Mommy, look—it’s easy!” she cried. After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano. The two of them celebrated her success with giggles and hugs.
All through the account of their struggle, I had quietly urged Lulu on: maybe Chua’s husband was right and at her tender age she wasn’t coordinated enough and even if that wasn’t the explanation, why was it so important? The child had tried and failed. Shouldn’t she be reassured that she was good, and in fact more than good enough at all sorts of things. (Chua’s children weren’t allowed to get any grade in school but A!) I found the violence of the quarrel between the mother and daughter frightening; I couldn’t see how anything beneficial to Lulu’s growing up could come from it.
Until Chua summed it up:
Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
What a wonderful thing to believe about yourself, I thought: that you can do anything, and then to set out to do it. Hard work has its reward.
I like to think that there are less strenuous ways than Chua’s of teaching your child that lesson, but I wish I’d been taught it years ago. I wouldn’t have to learn and relearn it again at age 71.
The friend who forwarded the Wall Street Journal excerpt to me wrote that her mother was like that—a tiger mother. Now that will make for good conversation over coffee. I hope soon!