Amy Chua may or may not be a superior mother, but she is a superb marketer -- and I say that with admiration. Who among the literate has not heard of her defiant declaration of independence from the American style of cosseted childrearing -- "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"? My 17-year-old son demanded to know whether I had seen the Wall Street Journal excerpt -- "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." I hadn't. Before I could catch my breath, he had uncovered research showing that Asian females ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnic group.
Talk about touching a nerve! My son had lots of company. A follow-up piece in the Journal sampled some of the 4,000 comments (a record) the piece had elicited on the paper's website. (It reportedly received more than 100,000 responses on Facebook.)
Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, purports to let the rest of us in on how Chinese families produce so many straight-A students and musical prodigies. "Here are some of the things my daughters ... were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular 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 piano or violin."
Some Americans might be prepared to call child protective services on the evidence of that list alone, but Chua is just getting rolling. "The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable ... to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty -- lose some weight.' By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of 'health' and never ever mentioning the f-word ..."
The really hair-raising part is Chua's account of a battle with her then 7-year-old daughter who was having trouble mastering a piano piece. Declaring that her older sister had been able to play it at her age, and flinging a fusillade of insults and threats at the child, Chua "rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts." Then the child mastered it.
Happy ending? Chua thinks so, to a point. According to her follow-up comments published the next week, her book actually chronicles her evolution away from such tyrannical tactics. But only a little.