First, before I jump into this topic, I want to apologize for the long delay since my last blog. I recently had a third child, so it’s difficult to keep up! My aim is to post weekly, so I promise to get back on track.
I listened the audiobook version of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother a few months ago. Ms. Chua narrated the book, and she was able to make these very personal stories come to life. I have waited a couple of months to write this book review because the book stirred so many reactions within me that I hardly knew where to start.
If you missed the media storm that followed the release of this book, it is a memoir of how Ms. Chua, a Chinese-American, raised her two daughters as a “tiger mother.” Basically, she was cracking the whip from day one on both of her daughters to excel in certain facets of life. I deliberately say “certain facets” because, while Ms. Chua emphasizes that her girls be top-notch in academics and at their respective musical instruments (eldest daughter,Sophia, the piano; youngest daughter, Lulu, the violin), she did not seem as concerned that they are advanced in their peer relationships, computer, gaming, athletic, dancing, or composing their own original musical works.
Ms. Chua is quite accomplished in her own right. She received her undergraduate degree at Harvard and went to Harvard law school. She is a Yale law school professor and authored two well-received books on international affairs prior to writing Battle Hymn. Her husband, Jed, also a Yale law school professor and author, receives relatively little attention in this memoir. Inferring from her description within the book, he is the more calm, stable, supportive, and easygoing parent. Yet I was curious as to why he allowed Ms. Chua to push her own agenda with her daughters, which ended up causing great turmoil with Lulu, and didn’t strongly intervene. Or maybe he did, and Ms. Chua just didn’t want to provide the details within this book.
One of Ms. Chua’s primary goals as a parent, as she explains, is to raise both of her daughters in a strict, highly-involved manner to ensure that they both were top-performers academically and musically. According to the Chinese “tiger parenting” approach, children are very resilient, parents always know what is best for their children, and children should obey their parents at all times. Thus, tiger parents believe that children can endure the rigors of a strict, sometimes harsh, upbringing and ultimately thrive because of it. She describes how Western parents often coddle their children and parent from a position based on the presumed weakness or delicacy of children. Ms. Chua does make clear that not all Chinese or Asian parents are “tiger parents” and not all Western parents are…pussycats? Wimps? There are tiger parents in all cultures.
So, first off I have to hand it to Ms. Chua for:
- Being honest and having the courage (or business acumen?) to write this book.
- Writing an extremely thought-provoking and engaging memoir of how she raised her children
- Creating such a controversy around her parenting style that it created a best-seller and got her on the talk-show circuit.
- Showing significant love and devotion to both of her daughters. While I disagree with the manner that she shows it sometimes, I have no doubt that Ms. Chua loves her daughters dearly and would do anything for them.
- Having way more hours in her day than I do! My God, the woman teaches at Yale law school, wrote two other books prior to Battle Hymn, personally supervised much of her daughters musical training, and drove them to countless music lessons, competitions, and performances. The woman must not need sleep!
Although Ms. Chua clearly states that she is not intending to write a “how to” parenting guide, she chronicles many of her “tiger parent” philosophies and values. It is apparent that she believes in the effectiveness of tiger parenting, otherwise she wouldn’t have used this approach as a parent.
As a tiger mother, Ms. Chua would not allow her daughters to:
- Watch TV
- Play video games
- Have play dates
- Have sleep overs
- Earn less than an “A” in their school work
Also, each daughter had to become a virtuoso at a musical instrument. Her eldest daughter was required to play piano, and her youngest daughter started on the piano but was moved to the violin after a couple of years. Each daughter was obligated to practice several hours daily, even when the family went on vacations to various places around the world. Ms. Chua scoffed at how Western parents would only have their children practice a music instrument 15-30 minutes per day and still consider that practice. She required her children to put their noses to the grindstone for hours per day no matter what.
Although Ms. Chua’s eldest daughter, Sophia, responded fairly well to to her tiger parenting, Lulu was very oppositional from the start. Ms. Chua described how the struggles to get Lulu to practice violin escalated from frequent arguments into recurrent, intense verbal fights as Lulu entered adolescence. Lulu even showed some signs of depression (or at least intense feelings of anger and sadness) – probably due to the cumulative effects of these battles.
Ms. Chua is the product of tiger parenting, and she has, at least by some measures, been extremely successful. What’s interesting is that her husband, Jed, has been just as successful (although not the success and fame from writing a memoir like Battle Hymn). In fact, he was hired as a Yale law school professor before Ms. Chua. He was not the product of tiger parenting. Although not a viruoso at a musical instrument, he seemed to really enjoy his childhood – leisurely summer vacations, playing with friends, etc. So, what does this mean that he achieved his success without tiger parenting? Hmm…
It’s difficult to tell whether Ms. Chua was exaggerating at times just for the effect, but some of her statements caused me to cringe because they are just wrong (from a factual and not just a value sense). Here’s an example: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you are good at it. To get good at anything, you have to work, and children on their own never want to work.”
For real? First of all, one doesn’t have to be “good” at something to have fun. That’s completely wrong. Reflect upon this yourself. Did you ever try a new sport, video game, musical instrument, dance, etc. and have fun without ever really being too good at it? Of course you have and so have I! One doesn’t have to be an expert to have fun at an activity. What IS often true is that if the difficulty level of the activity is calibrated to our skill level, it is more likely to induce a state of flow (get in the zone). “Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He found that, when we are in a state of flow (which could be from an endless variety of activities such as playing a musical instrument, a sport, video games, painting, etc.), we experience extreme levels of happiness. In fact, we are so enraptured in such moments that we don’t even realize we are happy until we reflect upon it afterwards! Now, if you are trying to play Mozart on piano and your skill level is only at Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, you WON’T be having fun. However, as long as the difficulty of the activity is matched to your skill level, you can achieve a state of flow and thus have fun. For example, one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve ever done was surfing in Hawaii. Although I’m a total novice, I had a peak life experience.
Now, to be REALLY good at an activity…to be elite, one does have to work. I agree with Ms. Chua’s statement on that. However, her statement that “…children on their own never want to work” is incorrect. There are plenty of top athletes, musicians, artists, scientists, and others who have become top performers without someone coercing them to work hard. The parents of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Vincent Van Gogh, Bruce Lee, Jimmy Hendrix, or Georgia O’Keefe did not force them to work hard. Sometimes parents do have to coerce their kids to work hard, especially when trying to get them to perfect skill fundamentals and nuances (e.g., Tiger Woods, Mozart, Andre Agassi). However, it is not the case that children never work hard on their own. Moreover, I believe that it is better that the drive to work hard comes internally rather than externally. If it is only through coercion that we get children to work hard, what happens when the coercion isn’t there? Coercive tactics can really backfire too, as they did with Lulu. Lulu became an accomplished violinist but there was immeasurable suffering along the way. Plus, you can never get those childhood years back.
It is true that performing at an elite level offers many rewards such states of flow, accolades from others, prestige, scholarships, possibly a career, and so on. However, we need to remember that there are opportunity costs involved. Borrowing from the field of economics, an opportunity cost (thanks, Wikipedia) “is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the best alternative that is not chosen (that is foregone)”. So, in order to achieve excellence within in a particular domain, we must sacrifice other potentially rewarding pursuits.
Looking at the rigors of the musical training that Ms. Chua required in terms of opportunity costs, a mistaken assumption of hers is that play is not beneficial for kids. However, research shows that play offers kids many benefits including improved social and cognitive skills as well as a reduction of stress and anxiety. She also denigrates video games as a waste of time but research indicates that many video games provide benefits such as improved visual, spatial, and problem-solving skills as well as becoming an effective team player (a much valued skill in our increasingly networked society). A wonderful book on how video games can bring out the best in us as individuals and as a society is Dr. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
Ms. Chua made another statement that caused me to believe that she misunderstands something fundamental to what leads to happiness in life. She was arguing with her eldest daughter, Sophia and trying to impress upon Sophia that it is an honor to be the eldest child in the family. Ms. Chua states, “The problem is that Western culture doesn’t see it that way. In Disney movies, the ‘good’ daughter always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.”
Wow. Ms. Chua has a lot left to learn from Disney. True freedom doesn’t come from winning more prizes – it comes from liberating oneself from the need to win prizes. This is not a cop-out or just “appealing to all the people who never win any prizes.” These are deep spiritual teachings that come from Taoism (whose roots are, ironically, Chinese), Buddhism, Christianity, and probably every spiritual tradition. According to the Four Noble Truths within Buddhism, most of our suffering is caused by clinging or craving (e.g., trying to win prizes). Buddhists seek to liberate themselves from this type of suffering by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
Research from the field of positive psychology from psychologists such as Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky also support the idea that winning prizes isn’t the key to happiness. There are countless of miserable people who have won lots of prizes – including Oscars, Pulitzers, Nobles, Grammys…you name it. Just look at the “prize” that wealth buys. Beyond the poverty level, there is basically no correlation between wealth and happiness. Moreover, an analysis of the happiest countries in the world reveals that the richest countries per capita financially are not the happiest ones.
Prizes don’t make us happy in a deep, lasting sense. In fact, they can tether our happiness to performance – we are only happy when we are “winning” (thanks, Charlie Sheen) prizes. This is a vulnerable position in which to be. We could be winning one day, but then we might be losing the next. More importantly, if we are winning, then this necessarily means that others are losing. Because our happiness is inextricably linked with the happiness of others then, in a sense, if they suffer unhappiness because of losing, that unhappiness can spread within a social network, ultimately even diminishing our own happiness as the “winners.”
The best things in life are truly free. They are not contingent upon winning prizes. Research indicates that about 70% our happiness comes from our relationships. Think of your own best times in life. How many of those are about winning prizes? How many are about time with your significant other, children, or close friends going camping, hiking, to a concert, to the beach, or just having conversations over coffee or dinner? And how about appreciating the beauty of nature as another means to experience the sublime? I can honestly say that my happiest, most transcendent times in life have nothing to do with winning prizes.
Ms. Chua might counter that I haven’t worked hard enough to win better or enough prizes! However, whether looking deeply at spiritual teachings, our own lives, or research findings from the field of psychology, it is clear that true freedom or happiness in life doesn’t come from winning prizes.
Just to cover this base, the type of liberation I’m talking about doesn’t mean we won’t work hard to accomplish goals. However, our working and striving will come from a pure place and be free of the fear that comes from constantly focusing on the prize instead of the enjoyment of the activity itself.
At the end of her memoir, Ms. Chua doesn’t offer any epiphanies or important life lessons. She basically remains unapologetic about her behavior regarding Lulu…kind of “the end justifies the means.” Fortunately, her girls don’t hold it against their mother and, I’m certain, are wonderful young ladies. But this doesn’t prove that Ms. Chua’s parenting methods are effective or desirable. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. I would have bet my bottom dollar that even if Ms. Chua hadn’t coerced her daughters into countess hours of musical practice, they would still have grown into accomplished, hard-working, responsible, respectful, and “successful” teenagers and young women. Thus, they might be successes now despite Ms. Chua’s insistence on rigorous musical training and other coercive parenting practices, not because of them. And let’s not forget the parenting contributions of her husband, Jed, who seemed to consistently convey the message that he completely loved and accepted his daughters whether they were musical virtuosos or not. They might not have endured their mother’s tiger parenting without him as an anchor.
In sum, the whole idea of “winning prizes” seems to be what motivates Ms. Chua’s tiger parenting in the first place. To me, parenting, like life, isn’t some type of competition in which our primary goal is trying to be the best…to out-perform others and win the most and best prizes. That is not the path to happiness and, in my opinion, not the message we want to convey to our children. The path to happiness is to realize that life is a gift, and you are the prize. And running into the ocean? Well, that’s embracing and celebrating this prize. You are it! Thanks, Disney, for trying to teach and remind us of this truth. Ms. Chua, the ocean is waiting for you – and for all of us – to celebrate our prize!