There's an old joke about a man being urged to make a public confession in church. After each increasingly lurid admission, the preacher encourages him with, "Tell it all, brother, tell it all!" until the man makes the final, most graphic confession of all and the preacher gasps, "Man, I don't believe I would have told that!"
That was my reaction to author Amy Chua and the Wall Street Journal's excerpt of her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Tellingly, the article is titled: "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."
The much maligned author is half of a Yale power couple. High achievers by any measure, they are both tenured law professors with a bedside table full of published books between them. They are also the parents of two daughters.
Chua, the child of Philippine immigrants of Chinese descent, was determined to raise her children using the "Chinese" model: demanding academic excellence and unquestioning obedience in all matters, strict adherence to study and practice schedules, no sleepovers, no school plays, no television or video games. Indeed, "no" appears to be the operative phrase in that household.
The only activities her children were allowed to participate in were those that eventually led to awards, preferably gold medals. So forget about team sports or group efforts like theater or scouting. In researching this column, I did a Google search of the older daughter's name. It pulled up a New Haven article reporting that she had been awarded second place in a piano competition. I bet there was hell to pay at home that night.
That essay has garnered more than 7,000 comments, most of them critical. The author received death threats. She appeared on national news shows to disclaim the editing of the WSJ excerpt and insist that the book is a memoir not a how-to-parent guide. I find it doubtful that a woman who assembles spread sheets outlining endless hours of practice schedules and rote memorization for her children, who calls ahead on vacation to make sure the resort has a piano available so there is no lost practice time would have allowed any selection of her writings be published without her total control.
This is marketing, pure and simple, and it works, too. The book is currently No. 1 on Amazon's nonfiction list.
Chua did make one comment that struck a chord with me: "... I've noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem ... Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently."
I learned my lesson about self-esteem building when our Molly was 4 years old. She had assembled quite a collection of Barbie dolls and, after reading one too many parenting magazines, I became concerned that she would begin to see Barbie as the feminine ideal.
I sat her down for a little talk. I explained how unrealistic Barbie's proportions were. I explained how over-the-top her wardrobe and accessories were. As I paused for breath before continuing my diatribe, Molly smiled sweetly, patted my hand and said softly, "Mom, it's just a doll." That's the day I stopped worrying about self-esteem.
I did not, however, feel that since I had a confident child, I was justified in reviling her, as Chua admits to doing with her children. She writes of labeling them, on various occasions, garbage, lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. She calls it encouragement. I call it emotional abuse.
Certainly the Chua-Rubenfeld girls (it's easy to forget there's a father in the equation since Chua scarcely mentions him) have grabbed any number of brass rings. The elder won a piano competition that led to a Carnegie Hall appearance at 14. The younger daughter, reported by her mother to have been a violin prodigy, rebelled, put down the violin and picked up a tennis racket. And of course she's now a rising star on the courts. But at what price?
I have to remind myself that it's hard for a parent to give what they themselves never experienced. I suspect Amy Chua has never known the joy of playing ultimate Frisbee in the rain or reading a book just for fun, one that's not on a required list and there's no report to write when she's finished. She may be a phenomenally accomplished woman but her writing presents her as a narrow-minded bigot without one iota of introspection and that makes her dangerous.
I fear that parents struggling to give their children the "best" possible upbringing will embrace this draconian approach wholeheartedly. There has to be a middle ground, one where academic achievement is fostered, encouraged and rewarded but with the understanding that it is not the only measure of success. Parents are guides, not wardens, and a child who can think for him or herself is the ultimate goal, not the enemy.
A poignant response to the Tiger Mother paradigm came from Lu Sac. He is the author of "I Love Yous are for White People," his memoir of an unrelentingly strict "Chinese" upbringing. He writes: "If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it's that I would trade every bit of my success in life — in a heartbeat I'd switch places with the guy who shovels elephant dung at the zoo — to remove the scars left by a Tiger Mother."
And to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother who cleverly created a maelstrom of publicity and criticism and then tossed her children into the vortex, all I can say is, "Lady, I don't believe I would have told that!"
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.