‘The Battle Hymn’ of the Model Minorities

By Jordana Horn

Published January 26, 2011, issue of February 04, 2011.
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If you’re an English-speaking parent on this planet, chances are you’ve heard of the intense hue and cry over “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press), a new “mom-oir” by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua about her quest to raise, for lack of a better word,” perfect” children. If you happen to be a Jewish mom, perhaps said quest resonated with you.

Days before the book’s publication, an excerpt from it was published in The Wall Street Journal. The passage, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” was taken from the beginning of Chua’s book, and detailed her iron-fist-in-iron-glove approach to parenting based on such tenets as no play dates, no sleepovers, no grade below an A. The excerpt quickly wreaked media havoc, with more than 5,000 readers commenting on the merits and demerits of so-called Tiger Mothering. People were quick to condemn Chua’s methods (which included threatening to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if the child didn’t practice piano) as borderline abusive behavior.

Not only is Chua a Tiger Mother, but she’s also a Tiger Mother to Jewish kids: Her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, is Jewish, and the couple’s kids are being raised as Jews. There are many common denominators between Chinese culture, as described by Chua, and Jewish culture. By culture, I mean, of course, the shorthand that commonly goes by the title of “stereotype.” Both groups are thought to be “model minorities” — that is, the kind that are academic powerhouses and prizewinners. But the differences between the two are highlighted by Chua in a way that makes the Jews come out pretty well in comparison. Her children, she says, got their “probing and questioning” side from their father, but their work ethic and focus from their mother — in this case, quite literally.

There is a prisoner taken by Chua’s methods, and that prisoner is fun. There is no room for fun in Chua’s achievement-oriented world, and her husband and mother-in-law bemoan that fact and attempt to combat her by letting the children pick flowers and (gasp) make their own individual choices. But Chua usually prevails. On international vacations, Chua’s kids are forced to practice violin and piano for the customary number of hours a day, as other family members patiently wait, with International Herald Tribunes, in hotel rooms. And this is her approach to parenting at the commencement of the book: Parenting, she contends, is a tough job for a tough person, but she’s got to be the one to do it.

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on,” Chua admits at one point. “Chinese parenting does not address happiness.” (This comparative self-examination follows the discovery that one of her daughters, for whatever reason, has been literally gnawing on the piano.) Chua sees her husband, at various points, as an obstacle in her pursuit of excellence: He, after all, believes that the children should succeed, but that they also should be allowed to go on waterslides and eat pancakes. The children’s Jewish grandmother, Chua writes, “saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed.” In contrast, Chua says, “I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”

So what makes a Chinese mom different from a Jewish mom? Both stereotypes are squarely achievement-oriented. But Chua’s Chinese model seems extreme, and as a result, totally different from the Jewish model. Chua often references the differences between herself and her Jewish mother-in-law, a loving, cultured woman who places a higher value on happiness than on “success.” Chua takes note, at her mother-in-law’s funeral, of how both of her children’s eulogies underscore their grandmother’s love of life, vivacity, honesty and happiness. In contrast, Chua’s parenting seems to elicit success with the unfortunate side-effect of debilitating emotional turmoil.

“Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them,” Chua writes. “If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.” Throughout the book, Chua reiterates that Chinese parents push children because they believe that the child is capable of giving them the results they seek. Through Western eyes, this can read as the parent’s attempt to actualize herself by means of the hard-fought achievements of the child.

A review of this book would be remiss not to address that the much-ballyhooed excerpt is not even half the story of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Having read the book, I can now say that the passage, in fact, was tantamount to showing only the “before” part of an advertisement for a diet and then yelling about how the diet doesn’t work.

We as readers can’t say we weren’t warned. Even on the cover of her book, Chua writes: “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” Of the people who read the excerpt and got their blood boiling, none it would seem, was satisfied to judge a book by its cover. Instead, they settled for judging a book by its excerpt.

The self-acknowledged punch line is that Chua, at the end of the day, is hoist with her own petard: Her intense discipline and drive yield obliging success from one child, and vitriolic anger and hatred from another. I won’t give away the ending, but the real moral of Chua’s story is that, whether you’re Chinese or Jewish, the simple truth is, there is no one-way, fast-track ticket to bringing up well-rounded children. In fact, even an attempt at a one-size-fits-all approach will set you on a road to domestic turbulence. But I’d argue that the book, by showing in many ways what not to do, presents a silent case for the Jewish way — pressure combined with appreciation, learning and loving. As Rabbi Eleazar, a Mishnaic teacher from the fourth century, said, “Don’t call them your children — call them your builders.” In parenting, you build children who in turn will build the future. But for the love of God, make sure they get their coffee breaks.

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.

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