I doubt many parents have failed to find Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother blipping over their radar, Tigger-triggering little waves of unease. But as the dust settles, I want to employ this latest meaningless tempest in a teacup to further the aim of facilitating calm amongst parents.
Therefore, let’s not bother debating the merits of tiger parenting vs. Chua’s gloss on Western parenting; I imagine you already have your opinions on that and will not benefit from mine.
Instead, let’s consider why this issue has gotten so much ink, so many comments at the Wall Street Journal, where Chua’s essay on her parenting philosophy ruffled feathers, and sparked wide ranging debate in the New York Times and across the blogosphere.
I suspect that this all distills down to fear. Fear that we are not good enough parents. Fear that we, and/or our children, will be left behind (and the feeling of being left behind distills down to abandonment, which distills down to annihilation—to feelings swirling below the radar of many an unsuspecting grown-up that are akin to excruciating dread, angst and lonely shame).
Fear is largely what sells books, newspapers and the tiger’s share of media striving to be monetized.
Thus it strikes me as no mere coincidence that since the Wall Street Journal was bought by Rupert Murdoch, we have had faux controversies such as Erica Jong attacking attachment parenting and now Amy Chua attacking Western Parenting. Murdoch is a bit of a P.T. Barnum for our day, and in a world where newspapers are dying like dinosaurs after the comet hit, he knows how to put on a freak show and fill seats in the carny tent.
So, if you enjoy the circus (and I do not), then enjoy the Wall Street Journal, enjoy the constantly escalating train wreck that passes for authentic discussion in our terrified culture, but do not take it seriously. You are better off to breathe and realize that this is all akin to show-biz—drenched in brazen inauthenticity and pandering to you no less than reality TV.
While I believe that Chua, in her article in the WSJ is actually writing with a large dollop of irony, she does conclude provocatively with: “many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.” (And one can easily see how this is a direct attack on the insecure parent and at the same time a stirring of fear—fear that parents are messing up their kids, fear that if they don’t buy the magical book they will in fact be content to raise a loser). Then, more sensibly she adds: “I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. 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,”
I had a conversation with an editor at a large publishing house with regard to my own book, which is neither fear-driven, nor soon to be published by a large publishing house. The editor suggested that, in order to sell, parenting books need to stir up fear, and then offer a solution. She offered for me to propose such a book and I had to explain how that was the exact opposite of what I choose to stand for because it is the opposite of what I believe can help parents be their best Selves.
We might as well sell Thneeds (if you know Seuss’ The Lorax).
Now if a person, such as Amy Chua, goes on the attack against other parents in a public forum, and holds themselves up as a paragon of how to parent, it seems fair game to speculate on her own psychology.
Chua strikes me as deeply confused and conflicted (and therefore I counsel compassion for her and her likely to one day crumble certitude about “success”). Firstly, I doubt a traditional Chinese mother would be so grandiose and publicly proud of herself—and while I see little gain in making the division cultural (why not just contrast driven parenting and attuned parenting?) she seems entirely Western in her attitude of severe, virtually anti-social, competitiveness.
Isn’t the cliché of the West the loner, the Marlborough Man, the individualistic maverick? Isn’t the cliché of the East the uniformity, and conformity, of mass culture? Thus while I’m keen to bust these facile and prejudicial myths, Chua is either subversive or unconscious in wrapping herself in the American flag and calling it the Chinese flag.
I have a deep respect for Chinese thought, but I do not see anything resembling Amy Chua’s attitude in my readings of the I Ching, or the Tao Te Ching.
In fact, Lao Tze suggests, in the Tao Te Ching, that it is the person who treats the world as if it were her child who is most fit to rule, or at least lead, that world. Amy treats the world as if it is a ladder for she, and her children, to climb. Chinese wisdom does not bode well for the long-term success of this attitude.
Whatever her parenting, what Amy Chua has done is to succeed in positioning her book for so-called success in a nervous, competitive and phony world. But she’s just shooting nervous fish in a pee-tinged barrel.
Chua’s husband, like her, also a Yale professor (and who can say they are not smart?), is Jewish. And just as the Jewish psyche is deeply informed by Babylonian exile, the Inquisition and the Holocaust—and this helps explain how a people without a land might become a people of a Book (with education as the penultimate path)—when it comes to the Chinese psyche we must ask, “Which Chinese psyche?”
Lao Tze also lived in Tigger times as well and, by legend, only wrote his wisdom down when asked, as a favor, on his way out—leaving a messed up civilization that he was fed up with living in. The self-centered egoists he disfavored are long gone while the ideas Lao Tze left us endure as a Wisdom text. Does anybody think that people will be reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom more than a thousand years from now?
Perhaps Amy Chua’s mind is haunted by the Cultural Revolution, by terror and persecution, by attitudes toward female babies and women in general? Again, I implore compassion: Amy herself asserts that the Tiger approach is a shame-based approach, and even if it comes from love, it is ruled by fear—fear not just instilled in the child, but effused by the rigidly certain parent. The tiger is an endangered species; thus tigers may have nothing to fear but humans who want to kill tigers or take their land.
Be it a tiger or a human mother, when triggered into fear, we are talking Lizard Brain—and as we have discussed in previous posts, lizards do not attach. Some scared humans become fight-flight outlaws; some go for Yale-lock-down. While in America, Yale is old-school, when it comes to China, Chua is Secondary Modern. Either way, it’s a lonely and frightened path—one that leads to asocial conquest, and ultimately, to war.
Yes war. Tiger thinking is akin to military training (it is a battle hymn after all)—and it’s a brilliant way to turn humans into soldiers of one stripe or another. In the parenting scenario, however, there is not even an army to be faithful to; perhaps it’s more like the Chinese Tony Soprano? In any event, Georges Battaille, a French philosopher, suggested that materialism (which is very much like relentless competition at the expense of social fabric) inevitably leads to the overproduction of goods (Thneeds) which, in turn, leads to war.
Chua herself previously published a book entitled: “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.” Here, it sounds, she knows well of what she speaks (but how many books does that sell compared to Tiger with Her Head Cut Off?)
Be it a brain, a family or a world—an optimal expression of each is marked by differentiation of parts, which are then integrated into a cohesive and functioning whole. We do not need to be, or think, or parent in lock-step conformity with each other—but we do need to connect. Fear is the antithesis of connecting and it trumps it. I fear that tiger parenting is really lizard parenting in tiger clothing—it is a Wizard of a twitchy Oz, and my hope is that Toto (which is Latin for “everything”), might pull back the curtain and out the Lizard (for he too is a trickster, and, ultimately, a rather nice, reasonable and helpful fellow). We already have the right shoes, we just need to realize it and we are safely home.
While a reasoned and compassionate exploration about how we might take the best of different parenting perspectives and work cooperatively toward an optimal environment for supporting all kids toward excellence would be a more useful book, it would certainly not be such a “successful” book. For this we truly cannot blame Amy Chua or Rupert Murdoch—we must blame ourselves, or else change ourselves. And to change ourselves is to tame our fear—at which point we have little use for snake oil.
As every con artist knows, from P.T. Barnum to Rupert Murdoch, the key to the con rests on the greed of the “mark.” Our collective greed truly may be for the “perfect child,” and thus we may publicly excoriate, and feign outrage at, the Tiger Mother’s tome… and then secretly drink it up, searching for that little edge that will get our nascent champ the gold. Maybe… but I hope not.
So, in this little quiet corner of the non-fear-driven and non-sensationalistic virtual Our Town, let’s get a grip, a loving virtual hug of a grip on each other. Let’s breathe in love and breathe out fear and desire. And if you want to crack the whip on your kids, maybe we can love you and your kids all he way to Carnegie Hall; and if you want to opt-out of the ceaseless terror, maybe we can love each other all the way to story time… maybe we can join Ferdinand and just sit quietly and smell the flowers—in the service of all our collective children, be they driven tiger cubs or daisy-chain-making hippy kids… or just our diverse and universally wonderful kids, all of whom defy easy categorization much less cook-book parenting.