You've been awfully busy if you haven't heard about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I have no less than 20 emails in my inbox asking me if I've read it. The book has caused so much of a stir that several men have sent me emails about Amy Chua's description of Chinese parenting. One such father told me that he was going to "step up" his parenting after reading the excerpt from Chua's book. Many mothers I know have quickly scanned the pages of this book, worried to the point of frazzled that they aren't parenting the correct way.
Well. Here at Civil Thoughts, we established long ago that I'm certainly not a perfect parent. I didn't need to read this book to convince me of that. Before I give my opinion on the book, I need to mention a few things. First of all, as the author herself and many journalists have mentioned, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not meant to be a parenting how-to. It is a memoir of her parenting journey with her children. Second, there is sarcasm scattered everywhere throughout it. There is some debate about this, but I saw her tongue-in-cheek statements frequently. Third, before you enter into a heavy dialogue about this book, read it. Don't just read the excerpts. The excerpts floating around will give a bit of a false understanding of what Chua is portraying. Finally, I happen to spend an hour a week with a Chinese mother, who has been parenting her children in the United States for ten years. Prior to coming here, they were living in China. I've witnessed a real, live Chinese mommy. In fact, every Wednesday she tries to get me to parent the Chinese way, especially toward my daughter from China.
In Chua's easy-to-read memior on raising her two daughters the Chinese way while living in America, she consistently compares the Chinese way of parenting with the "Western" way of parenting. She specifically shows how she parented the Chinese way with regard to her children's piano and violin playing. Chua is married to a Jewish American and together they have two daughters named Sophia and Lulu. For the most part, Sophia complies with her mother's plan for her life. Lulu is a different story. The memoir is scattered with funny - or what I perceived to be funny - excerpts of her conversation with Lulu, the child that bucks Chua's way of parenting. On page 66, Lulu tells her mother that she is like Lord Voldemort. And then, there was this conversation during a violin practice session that made me laugh out loud:
"Your brain is annoying me," Lulu said. "I know what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything," I said indignantly. Actually, I'd been thinking that Lulu's right elbow was too high and her dynamics were all wrong, and that she needed to shape her phrases better.
"Just turn off your brain!" Lulu ordered. "I'm not going to play anymore unless you turn off your brain."
Humor aside, Chua takes parenting very seriously. She compares Chinese and Western parenting throughout the book. Here is one of her summaries that best describes what she sees as the difference:
"Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturning environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."
The self-proclaimed Tiger Mother is singularly focused in her methods of parenting. She sacrifices money and time (though not a career as a professor at Yale) to help her children become musical prodigies. Why? Because it is the Chinsese way. She says:
"All these Western parents with the same party line about what's good for children and what's not - I'm not sure they're making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They're not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing. They just keep repeating things like, "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facbook for ten hours which is a total waste of time and eating all that disgusting junk food - I'm telling you this country is going to go straight down hill! No wonder Western parents get thrown into nursing homes when they're old!"
Chua concludes that Western parents are just as singularly focused on praising and giving children freedom to pursue their passion. I tend to agree with her conclusion, in general. Most Western parents are not apt to force their children to practice instruments or a foreign language for countless hours a day after they've spent much of the day in school. Many Western parents tend to remain uninvolved in the education of their children, believing that is the job of the school system. But Western parents tend to believe their way is correct just as much as Chua believes her way is correct. While I'm not saying that Western parents needs to adopt Chinese methods of parenting, we can learn something from her. It is evident that she is regularly evaluating how she can parent in a better way to achieve the goals she has for her children. She admits that each way she chooses is not the right way. Shs is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. This, in my opinion, is a profitable thing to do as a parent.
What we also learn from Chua is that one method of parenting does not work for all children. Lulu does not respond to her ways as Sophia did. There simply is no formula for parenting. We Westerners keep looking for it. Heck, a Chinese woman tried a formula. She learns that there is no formula after much turmoil in her house, but she still learned it.
So. Does that leave my opinion between a rock and a hard place?
We have the Chinese parents who parent the way they do because it is the Chinese way. We have Western parents who parent they way they do because it is the Western way. Are those our only choices? Rigidity versus freedom? Criticism versus praise? Discipline versus play? Do we have to choose? Well, if you've read the Western criticism of Chua, you'll read that we don't have to choose. You'll read that we may have balance with our children. We Western parents may give time limits on electronic devices, but we may still allow them. We may suggest a different way of doing someting but we may couch it with praise. We may let them play instruments, but they only need to practice for 20 minutes a day. I don't know about you, but it is hard for me to find balance. The admonition to "find the balance" is much more difficult than choosing one way or the other. So what is this Western mommy to do?
While Chua's guiding parenting principle is "the Chinese way" and Westerners' guiding parenting principle of parenting is "the Western way", I have another driving force. As a Christian, it's pretty important that I exit the Chinese versus Western conversation and enter the Bible's conversation about how to parent. Does the Bible give direction on how rigid or how free I should be with my children? Does God tell me how much to praise and how much to criticize? Can I find Scripture about how much to push and how much to back off with my kids?
In fact, it does. This direction can be summarized in one word: grace. Above all, we need to give our children grace. Sometimes that grace comes to our children in the form of more structure for a child struggling with too much freedom. Sometimes that grace will come to our children in the form of a word of needed praise, and sometimes grace will mean withholding praise toward the child so that praise of his Creator is given. And how do I know what grace to give a particular child at a particular moment? I seek the grace as I parent, daily, hourly, minute by minute, with each and every individual child. And some moments I'm going to forget to seek grace in God's parenting wisdom. When I forget, I'll seek the Chinese way or the Western way. And grace will then be given to me. But when I do, by His grace, seek His parenting wisdom, He will gladly give it and I, in turn, will give grace to my children. And it will be the grace that they need at that moment in time. Each child is different, each day is different. There are no perfect parenting formulas. There is only grace, in parenting and in all things.