|Here’s Irene, her prize, and Grandmaster Aaron Summerscale|
So I flick through Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger-Mother, and feel I have failed as a mum. (This, of course, is the reaction the sassy book was intended to evoke–and the reaction which has propelled it to best-sellerdom.)
“Zoe and Irene,” I say dramatically. “I have failed as a tiger-mother.”
Zoe snorts. “You never were a tiger-mother, Mum. Especially now. You spend too much time with imaginary friends on your blog.”
“Zoe, cyber-friends. NOT imaginary friends.”
Irene nods absently. She is playing a game on her iPod. Thus highlighting my failure as a tiger mother!! I have a strict rule : Only educational games, but, apparently, the word educational has multiple meanings. Who would have thought?
* * *
Amy Chua, however, is not a failure as a tiger mother. Her article at The Wall Street Journal subtly and modestly titled, ” Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” commences as it continues,
“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.”
* * *
Readers are either impressed or disgusted. I am not impressed, though I have, off and on, attempted to be a tiger-mother, insofar as my spirited children will let me. However, my list would be closer to a Western parents’ than to Chua’s.
All I have in common with Chua is that my kids have never watched TV in our house, since I passionately believe in the virtues of silence and reading and creative downtime. And they do treasure long hours of silence to read or do their homework or “chill” and have never asked for TV, –surprisingly. We do, of course, watch lots of carefully chosen DVDs, and watch movies on family dates.
Computer games were banned for Zoe, and reluctantly permitted for Irene, the rebel, in limited quantities. However, her joy in these games equals our joy in our work, and when we retreat into our zones of private joy, she retreats into hers. A battle is being waged, for her mind and heart and conscience and intellect, and I think we might be winning. Fingers crossed.
Chua says it is selfish careless parenting to allow your children to waste time on computer games and Facebook. I agree with her on that, and try not to. Facebook is banned for my younger daughter, who is under-age according to FB’s policies. Zoe didn’t want one, and, in fact, after I had accepted friend requests from her friends, I thought it was time she had one, and set it up for her. She now uses it somewhat sparingly, as I do mine.
* * *
Chua’s parenting is incredibly unbalanced, as she knows, no doubt. The goal is success. To work very hard as a child to get a pleasant job as an adult later.
This is a common attitude in Asia, among middle class Africans, and among immigrants to the West.
There is something to it. The Polgar sisters were pulled out from school and made to practice chess for 8 hours a day, 50 hours a week. All of them became grandmasters, I believe. They say, and I write from memory, “We worked hard as children and now have more leisure and opportunities and fun as adults. Our friends did not work as children, and now work hard as adults.”
If one does not factor in inherited money, there is some truth to this. Hard work as a child can give you a pleasant, gratifying job with less work and more opportunities as an adult. My husband worked really hard as a child, as he had a few goals: he wanted to win a three year all expenses paid scholarship to Cambridge University (the Girdlers’ scholarship), to win a Rotary scholarship for a year in Japan learning Go and other Japanese things; and to be a mathematician. He achieved all these goals, and the latter did provide him with more free time and travel, and fewer hours at his desk than most of our friends had.
* * *
What annoys readers, and the flaw in Chau’s parenting, is its obvious egocentrism. When she won a second prize at a school assembly, her father was furious. “Never ever disgrace me like that again,” he said.
Sorry, disgrace whom? Chua’s parents came to America as poor immigrants; apparently, they attempted to achieve their dreams of success through their children. She says, “Knowing the sacrifices they made for us makes me want to uphold the family name, to make my parents proud.” Was it impossible for Chua’s parents to do something themselves of which they could be proud? Why burden her with having to bring them honour or disgrace?
Chua has been condemned to a treadmill in which she is a disgrace unless she does something spectacular so her parents can be proud. She condemns her children to the same treadmill–20 practice tests every night if they ever get the second highest grade, three hours of violin practice every evening. She condemned them to a life of having to be the best, compensating for any deficiences in intelligence by hard work, and more hard work.
And what if they encounter another tiger cub, who is naturally smarter, and works equally hard? Sounds like a recipe for a nervous breakdown to me.
The flaw in the plan is that her children, who are not allowed playdates, sleepovers, gym, drama, TV or computer games, will naturally do better than children with equal intelligence who lead a more balanced life. They will therefore get into a better university than they would have–with smarter children, who have led a balanced life. And then the relentless treadmill of overwork to keep pace.
And if they succeed, and get an academic job at a leading university, as Chua has–again the treadmill to keep pace with those smarter than themselves who have got there while leading a balanced life.
It seems a pretty pointless life, dominated by fear and pride.
* * *
All this comes close to the bone with me, as with most mothers who read it.
Roy, my husband, was unusually gifted at math and chess. He was the national high school chess champion in New Zealand where he grew up. Both our daughters are good at both these, as well as being very verbal.
We taught Zoe chess somewhat late, at 8, after she was housebound after breaking her leg in a freak accident. (A massive branch fell on her, and just her, as we went on a family walk. I believed board games are a waste of time compared to reading, but she was housebound and sad, so we taught her chess.) Irene at 3 watched us play, played against herself, first, then with us, and emerged as a fairly formidable player by 5. At six, coaches noticed her talent. She has played at a city, county and national level, and has won prizes in all these, about two shelves of prizes, 50-60 of them. For several years, she was among the top two girl players of her age in the UK, and among the top handful of all players her age.
She loved chess when it was fun, just loved it and lived it. When, however, she reached the stage at which it was estimated to take 1-3 hours a day of practice to be competitive at a national level, and when, 6 or 7 days a week, she was spending her evenings at chess clubs or tournaments, and was away most weekends at tournaments around the country, she began to lose interest. She did not want to practice as much as she needed to.
Chess is brutal. The games were three hours long at the level she was playing at. A momentary flicker of concentration in the end game, and you could lose a game you had so carefully played for three hours.
Your opponent can take up to 15 minutes to think–or more–and this is torture for a quick-thinking, mercurial child.
And she loves reading. She has a stable of books she knows almost by heart–the entire Little Women series, the entire Anne of Green Gable series, Harry Potter, Alice, some George Macdonald, Narnia. She has read and re-read them, and listened to them again and again on her iPod. Reading was being compromised for chess. I was sad about that.
We fought epic battles over chess. I thought she was instinctively preternaturally good at it, judging by her success with very little practice. I thought chess was part of the story God was writing in her life. I did not think an extraordinary talent should be so lightly given up.
We rowed, shouted, screamed, cried, both of us. And eventually she won. By default. Because after having taken 4 years off creative work to establish a publishing company, I now wanted to write again, and when I write, I go under, and forget deadlines for tournaments, entry forms and all that. And now that I was working intensely again, I needed Roy to hold the fort, and keep our family’s life running–laundry, meals, homework, organization–and could no longer surrender him to chess weekends. We kept “forgetting” tournaments.
And so with much sadness on my part, and no doubt, some sadness on Irene’s part, we surrendered something which had been part of her identity, life, friendships, self-image for 6 years. And only because that was her desire, I hasten to add, assuaging the last of my tiger-mother guilt.
* * *
It is very hard to both be a tiger mother and do your own life-work. Most tiger mothers I know are living their lives through their children, forcing achievement for bragging rights, seeking brilliance from their children so as to impress their own peers, and be the envy of mouse-mothers.
I am still in my forties, so haven’t seen the end of the story–seen what happens to tiger cubs and their mums when the latter grow up.
My mother-in-law, who was a highly successful tiger mother, didn’t know what to do with herself once the children grew up, and attempted to continue tiger-mothering after her three sons married tiger wives. Well, one doesn’t need a degree in psychology to predict how that worked out!
* * *
* * *
What about the tiger cubs I knew in my own generation? I read English at Oxford, and knew lots of tiger cubs.
I can’t say with Allen Ginsberg in Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked,” but of the high-achieving people I went to Oxford
with and was friends with, one had a breakdown while at
Oxford, due to overwork and later committed suicide; another has had depressive illnesses, I myself have had a long burn-out (and have completely recovered); chronic fatigue and
adrenal fatigue are not uncommon; some have earned a
adrenal fatigue are not uncommon; some have earned a
Ph.D and are now home, tiger-mothering. Some still tread the paths of glory.
* * *
So, what’s my conclusion? Chua is partly wrong in my opinion. The best gift we can give our children is not to
be the best at whatever they do. They may meet a more
naturally gifted Siberian tiger, who also puts in the necessary hours, and so let competitiveness and jealousy poison their
I honestly believe the best thing we can do for our children as Christian parents is to give them a solid, durable faith, and to introduce them to a personal friendship with God.
Apart from that, the best thing we can do is probably to help them discover life-work which they love, enjoy and are good at. And for this, if our children are academically inclined, we need to ensure that they are competent at academic tasks of ever-increasing difficulty, so that they have broad choices later on, and get to do the work they really want to do.
I more or less agree with Solomon, “There is nothing better for a person than to enjoy the work at which he toils at under the son.” (Ecc 3:22). And good mothering will help children find work they really enjoy. And I really hope my two do so.