Since the buzz started about Amy Chua’s alarming new book, the talk among parents is all of Tiger Mothers, a new and ferocious species that will push cubs to the brink of madness to ensure success.
Tiger mothers have until now passed almost unnoticed except by those whose children also study Suzuki violin and go to maths whizz special courses.
As Chua – herself a tiger – explains, such women (mostly Chinese, but it is a state of mind) hide their ambitions and methods from the soppy Western parents whose children they plan to beat hollow in every exam.
They pretend to play the orthodox liberal game while in private doing the opposite.
When Chua’s own daughters Sophia and Lulu were invited out for tea, for example, she would pretend they had eye appointments because the truth would have caused too much shock. In fact her children could never socialise because they had no time.
Chua, a Yale law professor, knows how to shock and amuse delicate Western sensitivities.
On the first page of her book she sets the tone when she lists some of the things that her children were never allowed to do.
These include: “attend a sleepover; have a playmate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extra-curricular 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 violin.”
This tiger mother wants her children to be winners, which makes her no different from the mothers of her children’s New England classmates.
But, while other parents praised their children’s B-grades, never daring to criticise for fear of damaging a child’s self-esteem, Chua would call her children “garbage” – much to the horror of Western liberals – if they came second.
Such shaming didn’t harm them, she claims, because they knew she believed in their ability to excel.
It worked – at least in terms of hitting her competitive targets. By their teens, her daughters were not only top of the class, they were musical prodigies.
“She’s insane,” they would say to each other, but she didn’t care. “My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future – not to make you like me,” she told them.
Any averagely slack Western parent, on reading Chua’s book, will soon start to rehearse the counter-arguments.
Children raised in this fashion will be conformist, unable to deal with failure, lacking creativity. And what about Vanessa Mae, the violinist?
No sooner had Mae hit adulthood than she sacked her controlling mother (who sounds just like Chua) as manager, severed all contact and retrained as a downhill skier.
But Chua is not blind to the dangers of authoritarian parenting. In fact she started writing this book the day after Lulu, her violinist younger daughter yelled: “I hate you” and smashed a glass in a Moscow restaurant.
This “battle hymn” – part confessional, part polemic – is her way of sorting out her thoughts.
Reading of her crazed tantrums and manic perfectionism, few would wish to be one of her children. Nor are many readers likely to envy Jed, her husband, who comes from a more liberal Jewish intellectual background and attempts to counterbalance her pushiness.
Curiously, however – without giving too much away – her children seem to be loyal. Perhaps that’s because Chua, for all her faults, has a sense of humour and an ability to analyse.
She’s no cardboard monster and it would be a shame if she, or her book, were dismissed too quickly.
The story of her family is not only entertaining, it also raises questions about issues that trouble all parents: is there a best route to establishing good long-term relationships, how to balance guidance with freedom and, even: What is love?
The Eastern and Western approaches are diametrically different. What emerges clearly from this book is that mixing the two traditions results in friction – and possibly a fusion that’s superior to both.