I bought this book on a lark. Under normal circumstances, I would have probably not read this type of a book. Parenting and I do not come close – sometimes I feel like being a parent and then there are times I think that I may not make a good parent. There is always this doubt that creeps in and stays there. It is not easy being a parent. The balance between authority and leniency is needed and only a parent would know how to work around it or so it seems.
The book is more of a memoir than a handbook on Chinese vs. American Parenting styles, though that was the intent of the author. It is about the author’s way of parenting – The Chinese Style and how it impacts her two daughters – Sophia and Lulu. Amy Chua is a Chinese American, born in the USA to middle-class Chinese parents who had immigrated to the US from China via the Philippines. A very attractive, intellectually bright, hard working young woman she studied at Harvard Law School. She broke with her family’s expectations when she married a Jewish American who was also a lawyer (Jed Rubenfield, author of the run-away best seller ‘The Interpretation of Murder). Both she and her husband are Professors of Law at Yale. They have two daughters, Sophia and Lulu (Louisa), and this book is about her views on parenting and how she has brought them up.
She opens by declaring herself a ‘Chinese’ mother, and by that she means someone who is extremely strict with her children, who demands academic success from them and will make them work for hours on end to achieve it. Second place is never an option, getting an A- is not good enough, straight As are the only thing that counts. Western parents, she says, even when they think they are strict, never come close and as a result their children never achieve their full potential and become super-successful.
From the moment her daughters were born, she had mapped out a parenting style from which she did not waiver until the girls had reached the targets she had set for them. She had determined that both girls would play musical instruments, Sophia the piano and Lulu the violin, and what is more, they would be the best at it, and would win awards and accolades. Simultaneously they had to be top in all academic subjects, no excuses would be tolerated. This meant a punishingly hard schedule, not just for Sophia and Lulu, but for Amy herself, as she juggled her career as a full time lawyer holding seminars, flying all over the USA, writing legal books, then as an academic, whilst driving the girls for hours from teacher to teacher and then standing over them as they practiced late into the night. Any of the normal aspects of modern childhood in an affluent western society were ruthlessly jettisoned. No sleepovers, no play dates, no TV, no video-games, no joining after-school clubs, Girl Scouts, ballet or drama classes. No participation in the school play or in sports of any kind – all these were considered rubbish by Amy.
Chua doesn’t mince words as a mother. Reading her honest confession, it sometimes comes across as harsh in the ways she addresses her kids. She justifies some of the more painful interactions with proof of the success of her children. Both musiclally gifted, they achieve high honors early in their careers. Chua wouldn’t accept anything less.
It was also clear to Chua to distinguish between “Western” style parenting and Chinese parenting. Here is probably the harshest part of the book, and ultimately why I reduced my rating down a star. Clearly, Chua’s disdain over Western style parenting techniques shows up on many of the pages. She needed to do so to justify her choices as a Chinese parent. However, it runs the risk of alienating some of the audience that would have reacted more kindly to the book. However, Chua is merely being honest. Still, it doesn’t always make for a comfortable read.
One other thing that many “reviewers” miss is the parts of the book outside the realm of parenting. Chua writes lovingly of her decision to allows dogs in the family, which is funny and surprising. Also, the painful recounting of her sister’s fight with leukemia is harrowing and real. I appreciated her putting some of these elements in her story to round it out.
Chua’s voice is hilarious, intelligent, human, aggressive, and insanely blunt. This combination makes her offensive to many people but the way she mocks herself endears her to me. She’s self aware enough to know that she can be wrong and that she can be overly obsessive. I liked the book mainly because it was an entertaining, touching, well written memoir. It also contains insights into Asian culture and values, and into human nature in general. I don’t think it’s intended to be instructional or preachy- she’s not trying to use her memoir as an “Autobiography of Malcolm X”-like call to action. Although I do think Chua thinks she’s right about almost everything and her daughters are amazing, I don’t think she thinks everyone else should strive to be like her, nor do I think her “we must be the best / we are the best” attitude is the message of the book- it’s just her personality. The sheer amount of time and energy she put into the upbringing of her kids and into every project she approaches is staggering (even for an Asian person!), and I think she acknowledges that she’s atypically obsessive and anal, for example when she relates funny anecdotes about how she tried applying her Chinese parenting methods to her fluffy, clueless dog.
As a memoir, Chua’s book is great. Because of her writing, she makes me interested in her life even though she’s not an important historical figure or anything. Her use of language really pushes the humor into the laugh out loud zone for me (for instance she describes the discovery that her dog ranks low in intelligence as “nauseating”). In addition, I relate to a lot of what she’s saying as a Chinese person. For example she proudly asserts for the record that she is the only Asian her husband has ever dated, and she has funny anecdotes about how first generation asians are so frugal they worry about using too much dish detergent. I think her bluntness will offend a lot of people because they take it to mean she is cruel or rude- she’ll use words like “fatty,” “lazy,” and “loser,” words that white people do not use casually in the presence of their children. In contrast many Asians are very ready to use those words and it isn’t meant to just insult for the sake of hurting someone’s feelings. It’s a cultural difference that Chinese people are less tactful and more blunt in their language, particularly when they are talking to family.
One of the best passages in the book is when the author describes her view of where TRUE confidence comes from. She believes that TRUE confidence cannot just be externally given(through repeated praise etc) instead it comes from working hard and persevering at something until you not only pass it, but MASTER it. This is exemplefied in the most controversial part of the book where she forces her daughter to practise the piano for hours without a break until she masters a musical piece. She did go too far here; however the point was that her daughter truly believed she was INCAPABLE of playing the piece. So her confidence grew mountains when she not only made a breakthrough and played it correctly, she mastered it and played it with ease and came to love it. She learned through experience as opposed to the ‘mantra method’ of you can do/be anything you want to be with perseverance and hard effort.
I finished the book in a day and loved the insights. I for once wished that my mother had raised me that way – to be an over-achiever. I somehow and totally agree to Ms. Chua’s style of parenting. It is much needed in the times we live in. Parenting is not easy. The choices we think we make sometimes may or may not always be right, however one has to make them, even if they change or tilt the balance. But then again it is each one to his own. All in all this is a book you should not be missing out on.