Yale professor Amy Chua, mother of two daughters, has written a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to explain:
- why American parents should adopt the practices Amy’s mother used
- why American parents don’t really have to be that strict
- why she’s glad she was unrelentingly strict with her own two high-performing daughters
- why she has mixed feelings about what she did – and, BTW, she wasn’t always strict
Take your pick.
The book is garnering tons of publicity (and presumably tons of cash), and I’m not going to be the one to say it should have been revised before publication.
Except that I am going to say that. Amy Chua’s editor missed the boat on this one.
You can watch a video in which Amy Chua refutes criticisms that she was too harsh with her daughters. Chua tells talk-show host Joy Behar that the book is a memoir, not a parenting treatise; Chua is recounting her mother’s childrearing practices, not her own; she didn’t really do all that stuff to her own daughters, and she doesn’t really believe in strict childrearing. The last third of the book, Chua says, is a reflection on what she did right and where she now thinks she went overboard.
“You should write another book” is Behar’s response.
Amen to that.
Let’s take a closer look at what Chua wrote and where I think she missed the boat.
Here’s an excerpt from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (you can read more by going to the Wall Street Journal and searching for “Amy Chua excerpt”).
Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
- attend a sleepover
- have a playdate
- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- watch TV or play computer games
- choose their own extracurricular activities
- get any grade less than an A
- not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin
And here’s how she explains her philosophy:
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
Chua told Behar that all of this was actually written “tongue-in-cheek,” that those prohibitions were her mother’s, not hers, and that she didn’t actually restrict her daughters this much.
Hmm. Does that long paragraph with the statistics sound “tongue-in-cheek” to you? Does that list or prohibitions (notice the “never”) have any qualifiers (“my mother’s rules, not mine”)?
Here’s what I think really happened when Chua was writing her book (and why I’m blogging about all of this today: It happens to all of us when we write or speak):
The words and ideas got away from her. Amy Chua started writing a book about what’s wrong with American parenting and what’s right with traditional Chinese practices. But as the words and ideas began to flow, her thinking started to change. And so the message at the end of the book turned out to be a total reverse of what she started out to say in the beginning.
Time to revise, Amy.
Take it as a maxim (and I’m talking to all of us, not just Amy Chua): Anything you write is going to fight you. You want to go in this direction, but the words take you there instead – to somewhere totally unexpected. It’s sort of like getting on a horse with a mind of its own. (Postmodernists have a lot to say about this process.)
And that’s why writing is both so difficult and so exciting: Once you start the process, you never know where you’ll end up.
Bottom line: Always leave enough time to revise what you’ve written. Don’t trust that first draft!