by Leslie Morgan Steiner
There’s a controversial book out about motherhood – with the author mom stirring up debate on The Today Show , National Public Radio , and my own personal favorite, Michel Martin’s Tell Me More 
I’m starting to think that “a controversial book about motherhood” has become a redundant phrase, since any candid book about motherhood seems destined to be labeled “controversial.” Remember the headlines surrounding Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness? Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother? My own anthology Mommy Wars?
The underlying truth being: honesty about motherhood stirs folks up, all by its little self.
This latest salvo is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The author is Amy Chua, a Yale University law professor, ‘84 Harvard graduate, and the Chinese-American mother of two teenage daughters. A recent Wall Street Journal excerpt, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior , gives you the jist of the book. Amy Chua starts motherhood blithely enough, determined like all of us to be the best mother on earth. She believes that her superstrict upbringing (No playdates! No sleepovers! No A- grades!) led to her lifetime of achievement and bliss. If it was good enough for her, this “virtuous circle” of accomplishment will work on her two daughters.
Oh, I love our theories about motherhood before we actually become moms.
Because, naturally enough, Chua’s two daughters have a few ideas of their own about how they should grow up.
Chua follows a draconian parenting style – impressive in its own bizarre way, particularly given that she manages to be a fulltime law professor, lecturer, writer and wife while raising her children with superhuman strictness. During early motherhood, she follows the no playdate-no sleepover-no TV-no computer games rules, as she intended. And just to make early childhood a little more character-building for her kids, she assigns each daughter a challenging instrument, one the piano, one the violin, before each girl turns five. Chua rushes maniacally from work to home and school to supervise her daughters, pull them out of non-essential classes like PE and drama for additional music lessons, and leaves them “thousands” of detailed notes when she’s away. Just as they must bring home As, the girls are held to elite individual performance standards: each must practice every day for hours (even on vacations in foreign countries), perform in solo recitals, and win coveted awards at either Carnegie Hall or Juilliard.
As I was devouring the book, all I could feel was sympathy for Chua’s children. I myself – although not Chinese – grow up with a mother I adored who pressured me to achieve. And excel I did – getting grades good enough for Harvard, going onto Wharton business school, developing a solid career that has brought me economic independence and psychic satisfaction. I’m grateful for Mom’s guidance and the high goals she set for me. But there is a dark side to pressuring children too much; it’s all too easy for well-intentioned parents to go overboard. Before I escaped my mother’s dominance I rebelled with drugs, alcohol, and anorexia – dangerous problems that vanished as soon as I left home. Like my mother 40 years ago, what Chua doesn’t seem to realize is that her daughters perform not to collect prizes or because they enjoy music, but to win their mother’s love.
Here’s another Tiger Mother tale: when her daughter was seven, Lulu failed to master a piano piece called The Little White Donkey. Chua in supposed-Chinese-mother fashion attacked:
“I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years… I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.”
Natalie Portman’s psycho-mom in Black Swan has nothing on Amy Chua.
On another occasion, Chua tells five-year-old Sophia the following as she supervises her piano practice:
“1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!”
We’re supposed to revere this woman’s parenting prowess? If I heard a mom say that to a five year old, I’d be dialing Child Protective Services. If this is not emotional abuse, I don’t know what is. Battles between parents and children are inherently unfair fights. Children want to please the adults in their lives so intensely that we wield immense authority over them. This power can be used for great good – but it must be used with great delicacy.
And THEN Chua gets to the tough love: putting Lulu out in the snow without a coat when she doesn’t practice enough, threatening to cancel her Bat Mitzvah if she doesn’t play the violin piece Mommy wants, calling her kids a disgrace, returning their handmade birthday cards when they don’t meet her standards, threatening that she’ll go to China and get another daughter if they don’t start practicing more, writing a tell-all book that bares intimate details about her daughters’ daily lives…
All in the name of love and good parenting. Chua INSISTS she’s doing all this out of altruism. Not narcissism. No way.
“Everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t.”
Now I must pause to offer two pieces of praise to Chua.
First, it’s very brave of her to share the reality of how difficult parenting can be, and the struggles most parents face in figuring how to guide our children to what we hope is a lifetime of independence, well-being and fulfillment.
Second, some of Chua’s parenting philosophy is wonderful – in moderation. She sets high standards for her children. She believes in them when they don’t believe in themselves. She expects greatness of her kids. Who can argue with that?
And, admittedly, she is as hard on herself as she is on them.
Which leads us to the real plot line here. Tiger Mother is more about Amy Chua than her daughters. It’s a cautionary tale, more than anything, of the vicious cycle of narcissistic-achievement-oriented perfectionistic parenting. You can call it Chinese parenting, Suzuki parenting, Watch-Out-Or-I’ll-Get-The-Belt parenting, or whatever you want. I’d still never want to be a kid in her family.
The CURSE of the Tiger Mother would be a more apt book title. In holding herself and her daughters to such unattainable standards of achievement and by permanently intertwining perfection and love in her daughters’ psyches, Chua denies herself the greatest gift of motherhood: the joy of giving your children a happy childhood, and building for them a solid foundation for becoming loving parents themselves one day.
Also on MommyTracked: Lions and Tiger Mothers and Bears, Oh My!