Tiger Mothers, Memoir and Introspection

by luciditewriting

After reading Amy Chua’s recent book, my understanding is that a lot of the controversy surrounding it stems from some American mothers’ (and fathers’) insecurities combined with the simple fact that they may not have actually read the book, which is actually quite self-deprecating/self-critical at times– and, even more importantly, is a memoir, not a “how-to” guide (hello, genre confusion). The wonderful thing about well-written memoirs (which Chua’s book is) is that they are raw, gritty and honest. I don’t want to read an airbrushed portrait of someone’s life; I want to read the real deal — cracks, scars and all.

It’s amusing to me that many moms I’ve talked to can’t simply take this book for what it is: a memoir. Rather, many parents I’ve encountered insist on judging and criticizing Chua for her methods (their rationale for this seems to be that that Chua has affronted them and their personal parenting methods simply by writing the book).

Sure, many of Chua’s tactics are too extreme for my parenting tastes, but that’s not really the point. The interest of this book lies in the journey she goes on as a mother and the one she takes us on as readers. It provides us with the chance to witness the introspection of another human, a mother, trying to figure it all out in a complicated world. It’s an opportunity to step inside another family culture, to witness the struggles and victories of other parents (and their children).

In the case of Chua’s book, the cloud of vehement disagreement that has coalesced around it seems to overshadow the actual point of reading a memoir (as I understand it): to gain a better understanding of a person or a paradigm (and, in the process, understand more about oneself). Amongst those I’ve encountered who have anything to say about the book (mostly mothers), anger and outrage at Chua’s methods have seemed to block any potential for introspection, which is unfortunate.

What I’ve come to understand about myself after reading Chua’s memoir is that I’m incredibly inexperienced (read: non-experienced) as a parent. I’ve also come to realize that some of the notions Chua touches on resonate with what I’ve experienced in my short 32 years interacting with others on this planet. For example, I’m incredibly supportive of the basic notions that 1) competence shapes self-confidence, 2) success and happiness are not inversely related, 3) moderation in all things, especially moderation.

1)   Competence shapes self-confidence. I’ve taught in high school and college settings for ten years now. One trend among parents (and even some educators) that has not shown signs of letting up is that of “self-esteem and happiness first, competence/success second.” To be blunt, this makes no sense and has produced a generation (or two) of entitled individuals. When a parent, teacher, or other adult insists that a student is under-performing or acting out because of low self-esteem, this is an indication that that student is already caught in a complex (and often dysfunctional) cycle (often imposed on him or her by well-meaning adults).

The proclamation that a student has low self-esteem gives him/her an easy out (his or her whims and failures are thus indulged or even rewarded by parents or other authority figures simply because he/she has low self-esteem)…the cycle continues. I know several people my age who are still caught in this cycle and don’t show any signs of breaking it. However, if parents insist on high performance and provide children with all of the scaffolding they need to achieve it (tutors, space and time to study, discipline, counseling, etc.), chances are the child’s own success and competence will engender a sense of self-esteem that’s rooted in reality and will serve them well in the future.

I’ve gone through periods in my life that have felt like legitimate failures— they made me feel like crap, mostly because I knew what success felt like. I wasn’t cut any slack. I wasn’t given the low self-esteem “out.” I was expected to get back on track using the skills I’d acquired along the way to regain my footing. And guess what? I eventually did. Nothing has done more for my self-esteem than these experiences. Moreover, the competencies I acquired early on serve me everyday.

2) Success and happiness are not inversely related. [Commence opening of can of worms.] One of the major criticisms of Chua’s methods is that when students are pushed to be successful, they give up the chance for happiness. The simplistic nature of this assertion astounds me. Are we talking about short-term happiness or long-term happiness? Where is the proof that unsuccessful individuals are happier than successful ones? Etc., etc.

But here’s where it gets even trickier. There are as many definitions of success as there are people in the world. In my opinion, many American conceptions of success are hinged completely on financial gain and power. This is not my idea of success. Nor is putting my life on hold to work for years on an academic degree that qualifies me to compete for one of very few job openings each year. However, there are plenty who would disagree with me on these points, because their definitions of success are different.

The important thing is to help children identify components of what defines success for them early on so that they are able to accomplish their goals in the future. No matter what one’s definition of success is— from running a homeless shelter to becoming a Wall Street banker— hard work and discipline will always be required to accomplish one’s goals. That’s why I believe that instilling these goals in my kids from day one is essential, whether it’s not allowing them to give up on the surf board they’re shaping or requiring them to do all of their homework before going out with friends. I haven’t always known what my specific definition of success was or is, but all of the important pieces have always been in place. Combine this with the work ethic that was instilled in me while growing up and… voilà. It’s no surprise that I’m happy and (by my definition) successful today. I was parented to be this way.

3) Moderation in all things, especially moderation. This is one of my dad’s favorite lines. There will be times in my life when “extreme” action (whether in my parenting or elsewhere) will be necessary. Not allowing a child to back out of a commitment they’ve made, sitting with him or her at the table until all of the homework is done, making him or her to face up to his or her mistakes and deal with them. I know parents who would classify all of these behaviors as “extreme.” Whether they are or aren’t, these are the things that my parents did for me, and I couldn’t be happier with how my life has turned out.