Grade Expectations

Since its publication in January, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has unleashed a typhoon of comment and criticism about the author’s authoritarian parenting style with her two daughters. Many Asian-American children have confirmed that their parents bully, berate and threaten them, suggesting that little has changed since they left the motherland. How ironic that in emigrating to the US, the land of opportunity and freedom, Eastern parents are even more determined to restrict their children’s liberties. 

As someone who was myself unfortunately enrolled in Ms Chua’s school of life, I found her book offensive and outrageous. She herself acknowledges that she does things which would seem “unimaginable, even legally actionable” in the West. Where is the love, the tenderness, the affection for her children in this memoir? Every page presents her as commander-in-chief, drill sergeant extraordinaire and conductor of “nuclear warfare”, particularly when faced with the growing rebellion of her young daughter, Lulu. Something is clearly wrong if Ms Chua feels compelled to resort to tactics of total annihilation.

More disturbing is the way her children have been trotted out to defend their mother (“she really isn’t as hard-core as she seems; why, she even let us go to baseball games”). Girls, even the Yankees can’t save you from all that emotional damage. Parents, child psychology experts, and academics have spent the past two months pondering what Ms Chua’s book reflects about the problems of Western society, and in particular, the unstoppable rise of China. 

Lulu’s rebellion exposes Ms Chua’s deep-rooted belief that “despite their parents’ brutal demands, verbal abuse, and disregard for their children’s desires, Chinese kids end up adoring and respecting their parents and wanting to care for them in their old age”. Indeed, in the case of Ms Chua’s father, it is a total fabrication. We learn that Mr Chua was considered the black sheep of his family and that by the end of his own mother’s life, “she was almost dead to him”. 

You would think that this acknowledgement, and learning of her sister Katrin’s contraction of leukaemia, would finally demolish Ms Chua’s house of flying daggers. But no, she seems more insistent than ever that she has been right all along, and that her daughters knew that she was right. 

My objection to Ms Chua’s media blitz is that she is making vast sums of money by promoting a repugnant form of child-rearing. She insists that “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.” 

Nobody improves from being repeatedly shamed by their parents. Ms Chua’s psychotic methods may have had superficial success, but dictatorial parenting taught me little other than fear and submission. You only have one childhood and it seems a great shame to be deprived of the joy and laughter, the wonder and discovery that the world has to offer. It was the great classics of English Literature rather than endless maths drills which introduced me to courage, integrity, kindness and compassion. From F. Scott Fitzgerald, I learnt perhaps the most important lesson of all: that material success is of little consequence when you fail to grasp even “the ABCs of human decency”.

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