Books April 2011

Sympathy for the Tiger Moms

The national convulsion over Amy Chua’s parenting has lead people to hate or fear mothers like me. They should feel sorry for us instead.

And yet, I think Chua’s descriptions of her family’s massive classical-music expenditures are not meant to distance us. I think Chua guilelessly intends them as an exemplar of the proper use of the copious disposable income enjoyed by the de facto audience for this book—other upper-upper-middle-class-plus parents. When she suggests that “Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones,” it seems that she is talking less about America and China than about the various parenting styles in both the super-nice and the slightly less super-nice avenues of New Haven, Connecticut. As she rails, in an unusually shrill passage:

Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I’m doing my best to hold back.” Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.

But of course, sometimes children—particularly those from cultures in which children are not routinely given names such as “Harvard Wong”—fail in spite of their parents’ diligent efforts. Amid the debate within elite motherdom about Chua’s book, it’s far too easily forgotten that the professional class tends to have a blind spot. Clearly, Yale law professors who write books on economies in developing-world nations do not often ride the bus in America’s cities, for there they might see, as I once did, a Guatemalan maid earnestly working with her son on his math homework and, heartbreakingly, giving him all the wrong answers. (But, my Credit Suisse tablemate would say, he won’t go to Harvard, because she didn’t READ to him! She didn’t READ to him!)

That said,Tiger Mother will long haunt me, for a couple of reasons. For Chua, the violin has always symbolized not just “respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise” (she’s a regular Edmund Burke; not a bad thing), but “excellence, refinement, and depth—the opposite of shopping malls, megasized Cokes, teenage clothes, and crass consumerism.” And indeed, what thinking parent can fail to be grossed out by contemporary American culture? I do admire Chua’s fortitude, being the sort of lax, self-loathing parent who kicks herself for letting her children be exposed to all the standard Western evils. Just last week, my 8-year-old, Suzy, saw Yogi Bear in 3-D (starring Justin Timberlake as Boo Boo), played a computer game in which she clipped a dog’s toenails, and watched back-to-back reruns of the less-than-elevating Damon Wayans family sitcom, My Wife and Kids. While watching the show and cackling with hilarity, Suzy finished completing her extra-credit report “OWLS by Suzy.” Sample passage:

Some things that I know about owls are that they have large eyes, a large head, and that they are carnivores. Owls come in all different colors, shapes, sizes and they all have a different name. For example the Barn owl, the Elf owl, the Great Horned owl, and the Snowy owl, they all come from the same family, THE OWLS! Okay, that is pretty much all I know about OWLS.

Just having finished Chua’s book, I stared at the page, wondering, She’s only 8, but still, isn’t this … terrible? Why are our kids so cheerfully lazy? Then again, how much should I care?

Because as much as I cavil about Chua’s fears of generational decline, I admit that my own murky hopes for my kids are even more open to question. Truth be told, I am not sure what I want for them. Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. As we know, in this tundra-like new economy, even medical degrees, and especially law degrees, may translate into $250,000 of unrecoverable higher-education debt and no job prospects, despite any amount of hard work and discipline (“60 push-ups! 90 push-ups!”).

In the end, of course I think all the mommy-wars-style fuss about Chua is misplaced (said one irate Westside mom to me: “I think she has damaged her children. Damaged them!”). “Bad Mother” Ayelet Waldman wrote an amusing rebuttal in The Wall Street Journal, semi-bemoaning her own exploits as a lazy Jewish mother. But at the end of the day, no one can be seriously worried about the fate of the children of Michael Chabon. Or mine, for that matter. If my kids flunk their SATs (OWLS!), they can live at home with their mother, which I would rather enjoy. We who chatter on about parenting are deeply privileged: our children all have copious safety nets; all this mothering noise is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Disney cruise ship.

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