I first stumbled across this controversial book in the Wall Street Journal where an extract published caused furious and frenzied responses from a wide spectrum of the community, both local and global. The original publication depicted Chua as somewhat of a demon, extreme, manipulative and, in all honesty, quite vile. She was described as terrorizing her children, forcing them to perform to a strict schedule of tasks, limiting their interaction with their peers and preventing them from engaging in anything that might be deemed ‘fun’. Chua herself confesses that she is “not good at enjoying life”, this is apparently not one of her “strengths”. For Chua, childhood was “a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”
I was intrigued. It was hard not to be. Chua’s position – that Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts – was so outside of our expectations of political correctness and accepted social ettiquette. How could one not read this book?
As one might expect, the Post sensationalized Chua’s book, selecting the most vitriolic segments to create its extract, probably hoping to inspire debate. And her response to the uproar parallels the disclaimer with which she starts her book:
“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their 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.”
What Chua’s book is actually about is her own journey through parenting her two, very different children. It is about an extraordinarily driven woman who seemingly managed to balance marriage, children and a demanding academic role and still be apparently successful.
But Chua’s message is clear: “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Chua goes on to detail what she perceives as some of the greatest differences between Chinese and Western parents and parenting:
“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 nurturing 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.”
And I have to confess that this gave me pause to think about my own parenting style – how often do we pander to our children, concerned that we might offend them, desperate to enable them to lead a soft and easy life and certain that the way to do this is to bring them dinner while they sit in front of the television and warm their milk just so in the evenings.
It is almost impossible not to like Chua – she is bright, devoted and respected. She is also reasonably honest about herself, confessing her inability to have fun and painfully detailing how she failed with her younger daughter, Lulu. However, this does not stop readers from wanting to shake her and make her refocus! Interestingly, the urge to bring the author to her senses is consumed by Katrin’s – Chua’s sister – battle with cancer which neatly distracts readers, allowing them to empathise with Chua on a totally different plane.
But, there is a resounding and subtle sadness to this book. Despite Chua’s convictions, she still has doubts, is still uncertain about her choices and her parenting style:
“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano – and violin – induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.
But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart … I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.”
Perhaps, for Chua, the lesson is to decide what parenting is actually about: is it predominantly concerned with creating “happy” little people or is it more about molding character and determining futures. This book doesn’t provide any answers. It does, however, present a fantastic read filled with thought provoking ideas.