Friday, February 4, 2011

Still Life with Robin: The Tiger and the Pussycat

by Peggy Robin

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past month, you’ve heard people talking about Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It’s the hottest topic on parenting forums and blogs, ever since the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt on its front page on January 8th. That generated more than 5,700 reader comments, the greatest number of responses to any story in the Journal’s history.

I understand why. If you’ve brought up children and were lucky enough to have them turn out to be reasonably well-adjusted adults, you think you’re an expert, too. I know I do. Even if you’re still in the middle of the process (which, by the way, never really ends), you still want to weigh in. Especially when a parent writes, as Amy Chua does, that her “tiger mother” methods are superior to wimpy “Western” parenting. As you undoubtedly have heard by now, she made it clear to her children that they were never to bring home any grade less than an A, were never allowed on sleepovers or playdates, had to practice their instruments for hours at a time, each and every day including vacation days, and of course, were never, ever allowed to waste their time on TV or video games.

So naturally, all the parents of successful, accomplished, happy, video-game-playing and TV-watching children wrote in to denounce Amy Chua as harsh, rigid, manipulative, and borderline-abusive. I’m just not one of them. I liked the book and am here to make the contrarian case for it, which is that those who are taking Amy Chua’s account as a how-to book on childrearing are entirely and obtusely misreading it.

The take-away message of the book is actually the opposite advice. Amy Chua’s account is, in the end, against the crazy overreaching of the tiger mother approach. Her subtitle, even before you crack open the book, gives away the punchline to the story, that the whole approach went down in defeat. Here it is, in three complete sentences, taken directly from the book’s cover:
“This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story about 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 13-year-old.” 
It’s the last of the three sentences that telegraphs the ending. Amy Chua, would-be singer of a battle hymn, was made to change her tune. She was wrong and the kid was right. And the whole story is told with humor and no small leavening of humility. It took Amy a long time to learn the lesson (13 years and 256 pages, to be exact), mainly because of her own flaws: her stubbornness, her ego, her over-identification with her children’s status as a reflection of her own glory, and most of all, her volcanically hot temper.

It’s also clear (or should be clear) to any perceptive reader that many of the scenes are written in such a way as to magnify both the drama and the black comedy of the moment. I’m not saying that anything in the book didn’t happen, but that the writing style is so hyperbolic and overheated, it makes any little mother-daughter scrap into World War III. That’s what makes the book so laugh-out-loud funny. Or for those who are reading it waaay too literally, that’s what make it so rant-and-rave-provokingly wrongheaded.

I have two irrefutable proofs that the author intended for you to view her parenting antics as self-mockery, not to be taken at face value. The first is the chapter in which the family acquires a dog, whereupon our narrator immediately embarks upon a campaign to make the dog shape up and become an over-achiever by the same techniques she’s been applying to her children. Spoiler alert: The dog does not get with the program, no matter what tiger tactics are unleashed upon its poor shaggy head. This is one dumb but happy pooch. And if a mere pup can defeat the tiger mom with one paw tied behind its back, what is in store for her as her rebellious younger daughter gets old enough and tough enough to take her on? The dog chapter is comic all the way through, because cute but unteachable dogs are inherently funnier than brilliant but stubborn teenagers.

The second scene that proves the comic intent of the memoir is the one in which Amy Chua invites her law students to a party at her house, where one of them finds some piano practice notes that the mom has left for her daughter. Reading these micro-managing, obsessively detailed instructions left out for the daughter, the law student cross-examines his professor, and the resulting Q-and-A lays out the evidence for the jury (the reader) that these notes are so far over-the-top, they’re in outer space. Suddenly Amy Chua realizes that she is driving her daughter in a way she would never do with her law students, whom she treats with courtesy, respect, and understanding. The notes are reprinted in the book for the readers to see for themselves. And they definitely are looney-tunes. At that point it’s clear that the author is starting to get it. For a Yale law professor, however, she’s not an especially quick study, and definitely not in matters concerning her own family. She’s a bit like that famous Looney Tunes character, Wile E. Coyote, who has to keep on trying out scheme after scheme, until one of them finally blows up in his face. That’s coming, and we can see it long before the author does.

What keeps the book funny through to the end is that, like a Roadrunner cartoon, no one is really hurt when the dust clears. Not only does Amy Chua finally see the futility of her attempts to control her daughter, but she learns the lesson while her kids are still young enough to reap the benefit of her inner change. Her younger daughter is only 13 when the tiger mother gracefully accepts defeat and vows to stop roaring and charging blindly ahead. She may not have totally dropped her tiger ways , but she can see the wisdom of standing aside and letting her maturing daughter assert her own inner tiger. Although (another spoiler coming), like an addict, the mother still has her little relapses. When her daughter is finally allowed to drop the violin for tennis lessons (a sport, not even an intellectual pursuit!), the mother starts leaving notes about improving her swing, her grip, her strategy. She just can’t stop herself.

The best thing about the book is that the kids themselves think their mom is great and have been surprised to find their mother villified as some kind of monster “Mommie Dearest.” Both daughters have been interviewed and have defended her vigorously -- and articulately -- saying they had plenty of fun in their childhoods. They have no problem seeing their mother’s self-portrayal as a self-parody, understanding that the scenes of epic mother-daughter battles are played for a comic effect. I guess it’s because they’ve earned A’s in their English classes and can recognize literary technique when they see it.

After I was done with the book, I lent it to my college-age daughter, who’s enjoying it too, but who, I would venture to guess, is very glad she had a total pussycat for a mother.


Please feel free to review the book yourself below, as well as comment on my review of it.

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