Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Adding to the Chua Chatter

 Like almost every one who hasn't been living under a rock (or without Internet access), I read the WSJ article on Amy Chua's book titled 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother'. The article pretty much went viral and every one from journalists to bloggers to the twitter republic was weighing in, mostly against the 'Chinese parenting' way that Chua followed with her kids.

Being a mommyblogger and all, I really wanted to add my two cents to the debate but I decided to read the book first. Mostly because Chua herself reacted to the WSJ article saying that they had just picked the most provocative bits from her book and therefore misrepresented it. And also because I didn't want to play Aditya Thackeray to her Rohinton Mistry. So her book had the honour of being the first paid book to grace my Kindle.

It was a quick read - I was done with it in two days, which has to be the fastest I have read any book since Tarana was born - and I have to say I found it quite interesting and even agreed with parts of it.

The excerpts featured in WSJ are all there but what is perhaps different is the tone of the whole book. In the author's defence, the book is not a how-to manual on parenting and at no point does she set herself up as an expert on the subject. It was more of a memoir of her years as a mother to her two daughters and her style of raising them. Sure, she has strong opinions and takes potshots at what she calls Western parenting methods and thinks her way is better, but aren't most of us, mommybloggers in particular, equally certain and opinionated about our parenting choices?

In fact, she openly states upfront in the preface of her book: This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter class of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

In parts, I actually admired her foresight and determination. Her kids clearly had musical talent. If she has done as most of us do, they would have learnt to play the instruments as a hobby at best. To get to their level of excellence in fields like music and sports is not easy. You need to start young and put in hours and years of practice. And no, no kid will willingly put in that kind of effort in their childhood. Of course, parents have to be sensible about identifying talents and working within the boundaries imposed by the child's temperament - something Chua herself went totally wrong with in her second daughter's case - and be willing to accept it gracefully if the kid they think is the smartest fellow on the block is not quite the prodigy in the making. But if you do see potential, wouldn't it be a criminal waste to not do your best to help it flower in the pursuit of that chimera - a happy childhood.

Why do we assume that kids who are pushed to maximise their potential are unhappy? We Indians are no strangers to this kind of parenting. Many of us grew up in homes where our parents weren't that far away from the Chua school of raising kids. And most of us would testify to having had a happy childhood.

Forget about child prodigies, regular kids need to be pushed too. Kids are no judge of their potential. Especially in the early, formative years, they need their parents to nudge them in the right direction and to put the requisite amount of effort. Like I heard Chua say in an interview, 'if you give a 5-year old free choice, he will spend 5 hours a day playing video games'.

I have had a few trying experiences with Ayaan lately. He went off his swimming and skating classes, in both cases at the exact same time that the difficulty level was upped. (They took away the floats and moved him to faster skates respectively). He didn't want to go anymore, he would cry before each swimming class and whine and drag his feet for the skating class. But I stood firm and now he's back to going for the classes willingly. I didn't give in because I had seen him enjoying both classes till the going got tough. If I had let him quit, I would have been sending him the message that it is okay to walk away from challenges and obstacles instead of persisting. Like Chua says, "As a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up". I totally agree.

I think children grow and learn when you push them out of their comfort zones. Otherwise don't be surprised if they grow into adults with a huge sense of entitlement, and the expectation that life will hand them everything on a silver platter, which we know it rarely does.

Back to Ms. Chua then. While there are definitely some points to ponder, overall I have to agree with popular opinion that she is totally over the top. I think in China (or India) she might have been the model parent, but trying to raise an American kid that way in today's world is totally crazy. I think she deprived her kids of some happy childhood experiences - sleepovers, playdates, fun - that are as important in a child's development as training him or her for future success. I think her obsession with getting her kids to practice even when they were sick or on holiday was nothing short of cruel. And her methods - shaming and punishing - questionable at best.

There were also bits where she said things that were clearly attention-seeking in their provocativeness. They left me with the feeling that maybe the whole book was an attempt to be controversial and sell more copies (it worked!). Some of the stuff she says makes her appear positively bigoted. Some examples:
"I wanted her to be well-rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like "crafts", which can lead nowhere - or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs"
"In the West, obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system"
"Tennis was very respectable. It wasn't like bowling"
And on sleepovers: "Sophia didn't need to be exposed to the worst of Western society"

Honestly, it was statements like these that put me off her. I am all for having a strong point of view about the way you do things - but that's really no cause to put down other people's choices. And it's not as if she is railing against huge problems like permissiveness or alcoholism - her judgement seems to be reserved for parents who allow their kids to indulge in harmless pursuits like sleepovers, drums and bowling!!!

The other bit where she came across more as a caricature than a living breathing woman was the chapter about the family getting their first dog.  She says her 'first instinct was to apply Chinese parenting' to the dog. And then goes to say some contrived stuff like "There's one difference between a dog and a daughter. A dog can do something every dog can do - dog paddle, for example - and we applaud with pride and joy. Imagine how much easier it would be if we could do the same with our daughters! But we can't; that would be negligence." Oh, come on!

Anyway, I am glad I read the book. I don't think it will change my parenting approach in any way. I know there are times when I will have to get down into the trenches with my children and make their lives somewhat miserable for their own good. But I also hope to balance that out with loads of fun, leisure and good memories.

For those of you haven't already read it, check out The Mad Momma's take on the Tiger Mom debate. Like she says, most of us holding forth on this have the luxury of choice. For those on the economic fringes, the success of their kids has the potential to change their lives and circumstances. I doubt they have sleepless nights about pushing their kids too hard or damaging their self-esteem.

ETA: Also check out CeeKay's take on debate over at Women's Web.

22 comments:

  1. 'Why do we assume that kids who are pushed to maximise their potential are unhappy?'

    Do tell me when you find the answer.

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  2. Good review Ro! After reading about the book in various articles and blogs - I too felt that she was not all out wrong.

    I agree with her when she says that kids are not fragile and we shouldn't worry about breaking them. I think her theory is not wrong and all Asians have followed this. Her application of it and the extent to which she dragged this theory may have been questionable.

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  3. I guess the WSJ would choose a more provocative part to publish, though I find it hard to believe that Amy Chua was not aware of what they would publish. I do agree with not letting permissiveness go too far, but again, the other extreme doesn't make sense to me either. I also liked Cee Kay's slightly "distanced" take on it here: http://www.womensweb.in/blog/2011/02/10/94-i-am-not-that-mother.html

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  4. Good review! I found myself nodding along to many of the points put forth by you. I am dying to read the book now.

    One question to you - how would you identify if your child has talent in something (unless it is very obvious)? Like I personally think Karan is a good singer and would like to send him for professional training, but he has no interest whatsoever, and I am wondering if I should just push him to do it. How do you get a child to sing, if he isn't interested?

    Apart from swimming and skating does Ayaan go for any lessons / classes (outside of regular school work)?

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  5. Not a parent yet, therefore will weigh my words carefully lest I have to eat them very soon. Had read MM's view and agree that for people with no choice letting go and allowing the child to make mistakes is not an option. But sometimes it is the fact that the child was never allowed to make a mistake and face its consequences proves to be the failing of this over pushy parenting method. A lot of people came up and said that I am glad my dad pushed me for that extra mark, but I have seen some children very ery closely who were pushed onto the other side because of this pushing and refused to study/do anything worthwhile because the parents kept pushing and goading and nagging. Sometimes parents don't know when to stop and forget their job is sometimes to be reassuring.
    On success in life, I have been a poster girl for academic success, but in my professional life I have seen others (less academically successful)surge ahead because they had skills which I did not have.
    Finally I admire you for being able to get Ayaan back to his swimming and skating classes because he is learning valuable life skills everyday. I agree no 5 year old will willingly push himself to do something that is no longer fun.
    Do not know if I have I made sense, I guess it is all about the delicate balancing act. Going over the edge with either extremes will not work.

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  6. :) How beautifully written. Each of my thoughts jotted down and couldnt agree any less with your opinions as well. I was so wrongly opinionated about Amy Chua when I went through the WSJ article, which cleared off when I read her book.

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  7. They say balance is the key, whats that? Sigh!
    I think, once again family specific :)

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  8. Very nicely said Rohini! I believe our generation did get exposed to a kind of Chinese parenting, and now more and more Indian parents are moving to the American style (don't know if it's being fair to them to assume they all do it like that). Which also I feel is making our children more fragile.

    My take written a few weeks ago at http://apster.blogspot.com/2011/01/chinese-vs-western-parenting.html

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  9. Very nicely written Ro. I think I should also write a post about my thoughts. May be some other time. But I agree with what you have said. My post would only highlight my own personal experiences with that Indian style of parenting which I can't say "I enjoyed my childhood" entirely. More on that later.
    But I have not yet read the book - waiting for it to come from the library holds - but those provocative statements about dogs etc are so bad - sounds like lines from a badly written book. Still I think I will enjoy the book because it is about parenting!

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  10. Balance balance balance is the key..as you've said yourself! Nice post

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  11. Couldn't agree more with ya.. I feel that though her views are extreme, the philosophy itself is not wrong. I often feel that my parents weren't the least pushy, and I could have done far better with some smacking :(

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  12. Anonymous2:04 am

    Disappointed that you actually paid for the book - don't you see that was exactly what she was trying to do and intelligent people like you fell for it. Please, please don't pay good money for drivel.

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  13. haven't read the books but read enouhg reviews about it .Yours is just balanced one bringing out the good and bad of it .
    "if you give a 5-year old free choice, he will spend 5 hours a day playing video games" ..though there may be few rare exception to this rule but mostly will just do that :-)

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  14. Reviewed very well. Nice post.

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  15. How can i borrow a Kindle book from you :)
    Planning to read this book soon, but one thing i agreed in the article which you've also mentioned here is that kids will prefer to be lazy and sometimes as parents we need to push them. I remember getting butterflies in my stomach every summer afternoon when my mom would drag us to the Jayanagar pool for lessons, but also such a feeling of accomplishment wheni could swim my myself to the deep end of the Gymkhana pool after the lessons. Left to me I would've refused the swimming lessons on the second day!

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  16. Anonymous1:04 pm

    Rohini, it is how you push your children to maximize their potential that is at question her and not
    her intentions for her children to be successful and well rounded(whatever that may mean nowadays). The way she does it is downright humiliating and degrading and if you don't want your children someday to think it is okay to treat others that way, treat them with humanity and courtesy in the first place. Children raised this way are many times the bullies in the schoolyard and the monsters at their workplaces in the future. Remember, Chua thought nothing of calling her daughter "Garbage" just like she had been called by her father! That to me is the crux of the whole "Chua way of parenting"- scare and scream tactics.

    Deepa

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  17. [Choxbox] Likewise :)

    [AA Mom] She basically stretched it to an extreme but the basic philosophy is solid.

    [Apu] Oh yeah. Forgot about Cee's post. Will add the link to this post

    [Lawyeramma] No other classes. I mostly want him to channel his abundance of physical energy so haven't signed him up for anything in the arts space. IMHO, you should send him for singing classes. Make a deal with him that he will try it out for at least 3-6 months. Reward, praise and encourage him along the way. At the end, if he absolutely hates it or you find he's not that great at it, you can ditch.

    [Nandita] Like you said, it is a balancing act. While I was very firm with Ayaan about not letting him quit his classes, I also gave him loads of cuddles and praise after each class.

    [Meenakshy] Yep, each mom to her own. I guess there is no right way, even though we'd all like to believe that ours is the one.

    [Aparna] Will come by and check out your post. And to be fair to Chua, she admits upfront in her book that she is generalising to make a point when referring to 'Chinese' and 'Western' parents.

    [Noon] Hope you get your hands on the book and write about it. Look forward to reading your post. I am a product of the Indian parenting method and bar a few blips, I had a reasonably happy childhood and owe at least some of my success (career-wise) to it.

    [I-me-myself/ Searching Soul/ Swati] Thanks :)

    [Violet] LOL! You would have to be the first kid to say you wished your parents had smacked you

    [Anon] Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I like to mix up my reading, even if I don’t agree with everything I read.

    [Vandana] There are exceptions? Wow! I have yet to meet one :)

    [Mum’s Delight] Well, you can borrow the Kindle if you like. Not reading anything on it since I have a couple of ‘real’ books to finish

    [Deepa] Totally agree with you. Have said that in my post too. Some of her methods were definitely over-the-top.

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  18. I read the author's interview somewhere and was intrigued by her work, will see if I can grab a copy of her work somewhere

    Rohini I adore your idea of parenting, esp this "I think children grow and learn when you push them out of their comfort zones. Otherwise don't be surprised if they grow into adults with a huge sense of entitlement, and the expectation that life will hand them everything on a silver platter, which we know it rarely does." I am far from parenting or understanding what its about but I really appreciate the practical parenting you blog about

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  19. I think every parenting book (guide) or a book on parenting has a few points that a mother can pick up and use. But the instinct, the inner voice is pretty much what helps each mom to build her own style. Factors like, the way she was raised and her mom's style of parenting plays a big role. Sometimes she ends up learning what NOT to do.

    Parenting or Breastfeeding - to each his own! You are comfortable and happy doing it with YOUR child, the world can take a walk.

    A happy mom will raise a happy child! No two ways!

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  20. [Pesto] Thanks for the compliment :)

    [Sai] Amen!

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  21. Interesting. I guess I was under a rock--hadn't heard of this before. However, I do agree with what you said in your post. Our job as parents isn't to let our kids do whatever they feel like--or don't feel like--but to help them reach their potential.

    I know our views on parenting are not so dissimilar, which is probably why we became blog-friends in the first place!

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