Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Revisited
It’s been a few months since the furor over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The most interesting thing about it isn’t the book itself: It was hastily written (Chua says that she wrote most of it in eight weeks), and it shows. Chua, although occasionally a keen cultural observer, lacks the power of self-reflection (not to be confused with egocentricity) that a great – or even a good – memoir requires. She tries to fit her tale of extreme parenting into the conventional narrative arc, which requires her to receive a comeuppance. Yet this form is a difficult fit with Chua’s self-certainty and lack of introspection. As a result, even when the narrative ends with one of her daughters rebelling against her parenting style, Chua isn’t sure of the point to be drawn from the book. (In the conclusion, Chua tells us that she pondered for months after writing her tale what message to convey to readers. She finally decided that the message is that children should be reared Chinese style until age 18, and Western style after that. In response, her kids pointed out that this means Chinese parenting throughout childhood. Chua concedes this, and concludes with no explicit resolution of the message to be drawn.)
For anyone who’s been cryogenically frozen these past months, the book is a memoir by Yale law professor Chua, which contrasts her “Chinese mother” parenting style with “Western parenting.” As Chua frames it, Chinese mothers push their children to succeed. This requires endless, punishing hours of study and practice on the part of the child. To make the time, Chinese mothers don’t let their children go on sleepovers, have playdates, be in school plays, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade other than “A” (except in drama or gym), not be the top student in all academic subjects, or play any instrument other than the piano or violin. In contrast, Western parents push their children less and are more inclined to accept mediocrity. They “consider themselves strict mak[ing] their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.” Chua herself didn’t grow up in China, but in Indiana and California. Accordingly, she uses the term “Chinese mother” loosely to apply to any parent who uses a tough, success-driven parenting style like her own, whether of Chinese descent or not.
More interesting than the book itself is the furor it has created. In the weeks after the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua received hundreds of emails about it. The excerpt reportedly generated more than 4,000 comments on the newspaper’s Web site (a record), and more than 100,000 responses on Facebook, as well as countless blog entries. Some agreed with Chua that American parents need to push their children harder. Many saw Chua’s parenting methods as self-centered, narrow, and abusive. So why did such a mediocre memoir kick off such a national furor?
One possibility is that Chua hit the nerve sensitized by the increasing economic insecurity that most American families face. During the last three decades, the gap between the
“winners” that Chua is training her kids to be, and everyone else, grew astronomically. Increasingly more of the gains of productivity and income growth have gone to the richest of Americans, leaving middle and working class families behind. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson crunch the numbers in their excellent Winner-Take-All Politics, between 1979 and 2008, the richest 1% of Americans received 36% of all gains in household income. If that isn’t jaw dropping enough, when the gains from economic growth are isolated solely for the years 2001-06, the richest 1% of Americans received 53% of the gains. This is a meteoric shift from what happened in the generation after World War II, when the gains were distributed far more broadly, increasing prosperity up and down the income ladder.
The net result is a huge shift in the distribution of income among American families to the very top of the pyramid. The median American family has seen its income rise very little in real terms during the past three decades, and to the extent that there have been gains, they are mainly due to the fact that women are now working many more hours than before. In contrast, the income of those at the top – mainly financial professionals – has hit the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the United States at least resembled other wealthy democracies in that its gains from growth were widely shared, even if its distribution was on the more unequal side of these democracies. The last three decades’ skewed distribution of gains, though, bear no resemblance to our peer democracies; instead, we look far more like capitalist oligarchies such as Brazil, Mexico, and Russia.
In this light, Chua’s focus on raising children to win taps into the predicament of raising children today. The stakes are higher than we’ve seen before: No longer is being “pretty good” good enough. With the demise of unions, getting a high school degree won’t assure your children a life of economic security. Even a college education won’t do it: assuming you can get a job at all, you certainly are no longer assured to have health insurance and an adequate pension on retirement. Instead, you’ve got to be the best to win. And there’s no middle ground any more: Anyone who doesn’t win is a loser.
Chua may have written a middling memoir, but she masterfully channels the economic anxieties of our time. The trope of “decline” runs through the book. Chua says that “[o]ne of my greatest fears is family decline.” But although she presents the fear as one of the decline of immigrant families, the softness she fears has to do with American culture, where kids do not learn what it takes to win. Lurking in this narrative is the threat that our kids will wind up on the bottom. Also lurking, as other commentators have observed, is the fear that other countries (read Asian countries) will overtake the U.S., as their children have learned to be tougher than ours.
Chua’s whole-hearted embrace of competition also aptly reflects the economic zeitgeist of our age. For Chua, winning is everything: a complete validation. “The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and  that medal must be gold.” The value of the game, the rules of the game, and the balance of the rewards between the winners and losers go unquestioned. She disdains Western culture’s acceptance of the Disney narrative, in which the good daughter eventually “realize[s] that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take[s] off her clothes and run[s] into the ocean. . . . [T]hat’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.”
In presenting winning as everything, Chua applies the same logic that we see in much current discussion of economic policy. In it, the fact that there will be a stark divide between economic winners and losers is taken for granted. So is the view that the distinction between winners and losers separates out those who are truly meritorious from those who are not. The rules by which the winners and losers are determined, and the division of rewards between the winners and losers are, as in Chua’s memoir, never questioned.
The inordinate attention that Chua’s book has received tells us something important about where we are as a society, and where we need to go. The fact is, not every kid can win. Even if every parent in the country takes Chua’s message to heart, driving their children to ever-higher levels of achievement (at the cost of learning to make friends, to be self-directing, to find their own pleasures in life), most children in our society will still not win given how the stakes of the competition are skewed to favor the very few over the many. What we need is a society that, while rewarding hard work and playing by the rules, still distributes gains and opportunities broadly. In contrast to Chua, who tries to teach her children blind obedience to the rules so that they can master how achieve in the current system, the long-term health of our society also requires teaching children critical thinking skills, so that they can see when to put their energies into changing those rules.
We need a society that serves all of our kids, rather than just a few. This requires examining the institutions that turn kids who don’t win (and few families will have Chua’s money for private tutors to help them win) into economic and social losers. It requires transforming market structures that distribute productivity growth to so few families, political structures that reward well-placed donors rather than the public good, workplace policies that prevent workers from being adequate parents to their children. We need a system in which children’s success does not depend on having “Tiger mothers” to push them, cajole them, and torment them for them to lead decent lives.
(By the way, I try to sketch out how government should help all families develop their children’s capabilities, not just the capabilities of families who have won the economic competition, in my new book, The Supportive State).
Picture: (CC) Larry D. Moore