This book left me pondering over my parenting skills, and it still does, weeks after I finished the book. Part of me thinks I have been a deficient mother, not pushing my children enough to achieve their potential; the other part of me thinks that Amy Chuan bordered on child abuse with her children and I’m glad I’ve left mine to make their own decisions.
Amy Chua exposes herself in this book by revealing how she applied ‘Chinese mothering’ to her two children, Sophia and Lulu. She speaks of how she brought up girls who were musical prodigies and academic wizards. On the first page, she lists how she did it – her children were not allowed to watch TV, have a playdate, go on sleepovers, get any grades less than an A, decide which extracurricular activities to do, and most of all, they HAD to play either the piano or the violin.
She rigidly ensured that this is what they did, sometimes in the most extreme ways. She pushed her three-year-old daughter out of the back door in freezing weather because she wouldn’t play the piano how her mother wanted. She insisted that her children practise when away on holiday – even overseas – sometimes for five hours a day. I was riveted by her actions, amazed and repulsed.
She also exposes her beliefs about the deficits of Western parenting: she says, “… watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks – drawing a squiggle or waving a stick …” This made her realise that Chinese parents have two things over Western parents – higher dreams for their children, and higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.
Part of me agrees with that. I know my boys could be better at music than they are, but I have never pushed them, believing that it is their choice. Amy believed that they could achieve their potential with the help of ‘Chinese mothering’. When Lulu couldn’t get one part of her piece right on the violin, Amy made her keep going till 2am, until she got it right. Amy points out that Lulu was then proud of herself for having achieved that. But at 2am? I’m not sure.
What makes this read even more fascinating, though, is that Lulu – the younger daughter – clashes with her mother and rebels. It is like watching a cat fight, both sides lashing out at each other. It culminates in two crises; the first being Lulu chopping her hair off with blunt scissors, the second being the time she loses it in a restaurant and screams at her mother, “I’m not what you want … I’m not Chinese … I hate you and I hate my family.”
Amy wrote this book with her family’s full consent, having shown it to them as she wrote it. Sophia apparently pointed out that Lulu is made to look like the rebel, whereas Sophia also defied her mother. Her parents were horrified and told her she mustn’t expose herself and the methods of Eastern parenting to the world. Her husband, Jed – a successful author himself – warned her that it would cause extreme reactions. Looking back on it, she says, she regrets that she didn’t emphasise the good times that they had as a family. The girls don’t seem to resent their mother and have good relationships with her.
One query that came up for me when reading it, was where was Jed in all of this? He came from a liberal, Jewish background seemed to watch from the sidelines and only interfere when Amy got too extreme. Amy has said that he agreed with strict parenting and that she did most the parenting in the house, and Sophia has commented that she has the utmost respect for how her father stuck by her mother in all her decisions.
It is a much more readable book than I expected. It’s written in a chatty style and Amy, thank heavens, is able to laugh at herself. It’s worth reading for the autobiographical aspect of it, but also for its way of opening the debate of whether Western or Eastern parenting is a better way of bringing up children. It left me believing that the Western way is better, although there is a part of me that wishes I had pushed my children a little bit more to enable them to have more belief in themselves and their abilities.