The motherhood book you should be talking about now

I am definitely experiencing “Tiger Mother” fatigue now and I know I am not the only one. I have to say I am astonished by the level of attention Amy Chua’s book has gained–a Time magazine cover story, really? (Yes, I am jealous of that one, I will admit.) I guess controversy is truly irresistible because everyone has an opinion. I read and reviewed the book and I was very disappointed by its effort to glorify what I consider totally unacceptable parenting decisions. As Chua tries to backpedal from her words and soften her message, she should remember that all we have to go on is the book she wrote, so who are we not to take her words at face value? We can’t see in to her heart, we can only go on what she wrote in her personal memoir. Several sources have commented that Chua reminds them of Charles Barkley when claimed he’d been misquoted by his own autobiography.

I have to agree with Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker who wrote in her review:

“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” exhibits much the same lack of interest in critical thinking [as Chua's self-described approach to law school]. It’s breezily written, at times entertaining, and devoid of anything approaching introspection. Imagine your most self-congratulatory friend holding forth for two hours about her kids’ triumphs, and you’ve more or less got the narrative. The only thing that keeps it together is Chua’s cheerful faith that whatever happened to her or her daughters is interesting just because it happened to happen to them.

So what do I think we should be talking about? There is another new, provocative new book about raising daughters that is getting a lot of deserved attention. Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is challenging, thoughtful, and well-researched. She may upend the way you think about Disney Princesses and more. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would learn anything new about this topic because I thought I was already well-versed in girlhood and growing up. But after hearing Orenstein interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show last week, I was riveted by what she had to say and I read her book over the weekend. Whether you agree with her arguments about the pressures that girls face or not, I think you need to read the book and see what you get out of it.

It rang very true for me. Not just from raising my own daughter, but from my time teaching high school. I always thought the girls in particular were “walking a narrow path of safety,” (my own term for the challenges girls faced) where there was such a small and strict safe zone between not being sexy enough (a “bitch” or a “dyke”) and being too sexy (a “slut” or a “whore” to be blunt about it). You were supposed to be pretty, accomplished, attracted to boys and attractive to them, attentive to others, not stuck up, smart but not intimidating–etc! Who could be all that? It leads up to what was identified at Duke University as the striving for “effortless perfection,” which makes me tired just thinking about it. And yes, apparently only women are expected to maintain this particular facade being “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular — and that all this would happen without visible effort.”

But let’s be honest, do we as Moms feel that way, too? I think I’ve realized how much I have wanted to give that impression of effortless perfection myself, even when maybe I wasn’t fooling anyone! I recently told my husband “I can do all this, I just can’t make it look easy,” and if I really think about it, I probably need more help “doing it all” in the first place. It’s a work in progress. Even as “Mojo Mom” herself.

As for Orenstein’s book, I thought I knew all about princesses and sparkles, but she wove it all together in a way that was a lot more persuasive and compelling than I thought possible. She goes from Belle and Cinderella to Miley Cyrus to the stultifying path of “pink” to girls exploring new identities online to teens coming to feel that their sexuality is based on appearance and performance, not truly experiencing how they feel. When she reported that researchers had to tell girls that “looking good is not a feeling” I really felt Orenstein was onto something important. I have to say it was overwhelming to read it all at once, and I will slowly pull myself off the ceiling the next few days to put it into a wider perspective. I know my daughter hasn’t been ruined by Cinderella or even sparkly t-shirts (I hope, or else we’re in trouble) but the wider, total context is important to consider. How many “choices” do girls have in their path of socialization, versus being funneled into a narrow definition of femininity and acceptable behavior? I am well aware that boys are constrained as well, in different ways focused on masculinity, but that is an issue to explore separately another day.

So, take a listen to Orenstein on The Diane Rehm Show, read her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and let me know what you think.

Schedule an interview: Dr. Amy Tiemann is a frequent guest expert on parenting websites, national radio tours, magazines from Redbook to Glamour, and TV including ABC News, the CBS Early Show, and NBC’s Today Show. To schedule an interview, please contact her publicist Jill Dykes, jill@jilldykespr.com or 919-749-8488

Tiger Mother – If this isn’t abusive perfectionism, what is?

Amy Chua’s new memoir about raising her two daughters The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother burst onto the scene this week in a big way, with the excerpt posted in the Wall Street Journal, under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Even if she didn’t write that provocative headline, Amy Chua’s strong words evoked a strong response, creating an instant media firestorm (and selling a lot of books):

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa [Lulu], were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

The manifesto struck many as completely serious and uncompromising, yet when Chua herself appeared on The Diane Rehm Show yesterday she tried to backpedal significantly, insisting that her writing is intended partly tongue-in-cheek. When a radio listener called in, clearly shaken by her own perfectionist upbringing, Chua assured her that she really did love her daughters for who they are and did not demand perfection. Chua did a mixed dance of standing by her words and back-tracking, with backing down seeming to win the day during that interview.

As “Mojo Mom” I try hard not to inflame “Mommy Wars” of any kind and I think I have a good track record on that principle over the years. I also I realize that there are many ways to be a good parent. But I assigned myself the task of actually reading Chua’s book and forcing myself to come down on one side or another: Do I think that it’s is acceptable to treat your children the way Chua raised her daughters?

My answer is, no, it’s not okay. If the behavior described in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not abusive perfectionism, what is?

Chua exerts utter control over her daughters’ lives for years. Her older daughter Sophia is signed up for piano and then Lulu is assigned the violin. During their intensive music training, Chua stands over them, gives measure-by-measure coaching and pages of notes. She makes them play for hours every day–“it’s only six hours when you waste five of them,”–practicing even on vacations where it’s a major headache to find a piano for Sophia, and taking the family away from actually seeing the places they are visiting.

When daughter Sophia plays a piano solo at Carnegie Hall at age 14, Chua is disappointed that her daughter is not playing in the main hall. (!) Chua wonders if the family dogs can be overachievers as well and has a hard time accepting that they might not live up to their full canine potential.

Along the way Chua demands utter perfection, coerces, battles with and regularly demeans her daughters, telling them they are awful and would shame her if they faltered the slightest bit. “If they next time’s not perfect I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM,” she yells during one piano practice. And, near the end of the story, when Amy has supposedly mellowed and become more enlightened, she tells Sophia before playing at their home for a group of visiting judges, “Don’t blow this. Everything turns on your performance. These justices aren’t coming to New Haven to hear a high school talent show. If you’re not over-the-top perfect we’ll have insulted them.”

Chua compels Lulu to play at her Bat Mitzvah [Chua's husband is Jewish so the girls share both heritages] when she doesn’t want to—a rite of passage that I believe should have truly been Lulu’s choice to play at. Even Chua’s own strict mother says she’s being too hard on Lulu, saying “Every child is different. You have to adjust, Amy. Look what happened to your father,” who ended up estranged from his own parents. That is perhaps Chua’s biggest failure, that she did not take into account how her approach was affecting each individual child.

Two days after the Bat Mitzvah, the family flies to Moscow and Lulu has her climactic showdown with her mother, a dramatic, public screaming match. Chua finally allows her daughter to quit the intensive violin schedule she has mandated from the age of six.

The family’s story is still unfolding, as this book was written during 2009, and Lulu stopped playing violin so intensively only recently to take up tennis. While that is portrayed as a positive step forward in her freedom, Chua can’t contain herself from trying to take that over too. She resorts to “espionage and guerilla warfare. I secretly plant ideas in her tennis coach’s head, texting her with questions and practice strategies, then deleting the text messages so Lulu won’t see them.” That’s where they are at the end of the book so it remains to be seen where they go next as the girls continue progressing through their teenage years.

One of the most interesting insights in the book was almost a throwaway comment by Chua, saying that she had tried playing tennis herself and “as an adult, I tried a few tournaments but quickly found that I couldn’t stand the pressure of competition.” I find it interesting that she would not push herself in that competitive arena the way she pushed her daughters and that she would allow herself to try something for a little while and allow herself the luxury of the judgment that it was not a rewarding activity for her. At what point to we allow our children that judgment call, too?

Do I believe that most American parents, including myself, can be too lenient? Yes. I realize there is a vast middle ground between too lenient and the extreme strictness and control that Chua imposed on her daughters. I also acknowledge that I don’t understand the immigrant experience and how that would shape and imprint someone’s world view. But Chua’s strictness is not in service of utter survival the way her parents experienced as new immigrants—they were so poor that they could not afford heat in the winter after moving to Harvard. Chua is trying to guard against “generational decline,” by being determined “not to raise a soft, entitled child—not to let my family fall.” In the process she goes way too far, molding her daughters like clay, and taking over their lives, truly overstepping the girls’ boundaries in a way that is unacceptable in American society.

I do take away one nugget of core wisdom that I can support, that kids are stronger than we often give them credit for. In the end I hope that writing this book is part of a helpful, healing journey for Amy Chua’s family and that she and her husband remain open to learning along the way.

Update:

I posted a brief review Amazon review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I was not sure how to even think about one-to-five “stars” so I am glad to be able to do my full analysis here on the Mojo Mom Blog.

Here is a moving blog post: Dear Asian America: Forget Chua’s Book, This is Our “It Gets Better” Moment

Schedule an interview: Dr. Amy Tiemann is a frequent guest expert on parenting websites, national radio tours, magazines from Redbook to Glamour, and TV including ABC News, the CBS Early Show, and NBC’s Today Show. To schedule an interview, please contact her publicist Jill Dykes, jill (at) jilldykespr.com or (919) 749-8488