So I finally read this much-discussed book. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's the little excerpt from the Wall Street Journal that started the firestorm back in January).
I opened this book with a fair amount of trepidation, having read the WSJ excerpt with my blood boiling. (It was actually kind of humorous, me standing there with the article, my jaw hanging open, and my poor little brain going through the mental gymnastics of "I am a progressive, open-minded, culturally sensitive, non-racist person, and this is [gulp] just another cultural perspective. No, actually, this is CHILD ABUSE!!!") But I kept hearing Ms. Chua on NPR, and she sounded so... sane on the radio, so I picked up the book. Also, my curiosity won out.
I read it in one day. Amy Chua is an excellent writer. She is funny, smart, self-deprecating and satisfyingly sarcastic. Also caustic and very demanding of her children. The good news about the book is that it doesn't get any WORSE than the WSJ article. Its as though some crafty publisher culled all the really hair-raising parts of the book and printed them in the paper without context. What you don't get from the article is that she regrets [some] of her behavior, and she's being tongue-in-cheek. Over the course of the book she admits that she nearly pushed her younger daughter to the point of permanently damaging their relationship. She never comes right out and says that she's sorry for all of that mess in the beginning, but you kind of get the feeling that she is. At least, I do, since I like giving people the benefit of the doubt.
What I liked about what she had to say is the idea that by settling for mediocrity we are short-changing our children. I see a lot of settling-for-mediocrity parading as love in American parenting, and it drives me nuts. We lavish praise on our kids for things even they don't care about. I'm with Alfie Kohn that this totally undermines a child's sense of pride in something well done and the development of depth of character. I want my child to develop an appreciation for excellence and the pride in accomplishing a job well done. I just don't want to emotionally abuse her to get her there.
Amy Chua asserts that "Chinese" parents assume strength in their children, while "Western" parents assume weakness. This is very interesting to me. Again, I can see her point, and see how assuming our children are strong and resilient is a service to them, and actually builds self-confidence. Parents who "baby" their kids and do everything for them drive me crazy. Kids are strong enough to try and fail, and learn that failure is not the end of the world. Except when they're not...
And this was my biggest beef with Ms. Chua. Her approach did not take into account her daughters' individuality. The problem with "assuming strength" is that sometimes kids really are fragile. What works with one child isn't going to work with another. As she admits in the very end of the book, the problem with the Chinese approach is that it's very one-size-fits-all and there's no Plan B.
Ultimately, this is a book about our highest hopes for our kids. I just happen to want very different things for my child than Amy Chua does. I want my child to be creative and free-thinking and curious about the world. I want her to know the sweetness of excellence, but not fear failure. I want her to have the courage to try anything, but be comfortable knowing that she won't be good at everything, even something she may work very hard at. Most of all, I want her to be so rooted in herself that she will let no one push her around, not even me. Because if she takes it from me, she'll probably take it later from someone I wouldn't want her to be listening to.
We all want to do what's best for our kids, and it's SO hard to know what that is. I have a lot of faith in other families' ability to define that in their own ways. What works for us wouldn't work for others, and vice-versa. I for one am committed to the belief that my child will teach me what she needs, just as I try to teach her what it means to be a part of this family. She is not the decision maker, but her voice is important. Dave and I have always tried to be neither "child-centered" nor "parent-centered" in our approach, but rather family-centered.
So that's my battle hymn, such as it is. And the chorus goes like this:
what will you dream?
who will you be?
what do you know?