"Tiger Mother" book reignites Mommy Wars

Backlash against author Amy Chua reveals our own fears

January 19, 2011|Susan Reimer

Unless you've been stuck in the house with sick kids or trapped there by snow, ice and school closings, you've probably heard about author Amy Chua and her memoir of raising two daughters in the Chinese way, with threats, taunts and unrelenting discipline.

The book by the Yale Law School professor, titled "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," has had the not-so-surprising effect of bringing down more anger and abuse on Chua than she ever visited on daughters Sophia and Louisa. And it awoke the dragon of the Mommy Wars from the cave where it had been sleeping since supermodel mother Gisele Bündchen was quoted saying breast-feeding should be mandatory.

In her book, which Chua describes as a memoir and not a manual, she describes an hours-long piano practice without food, water or bathroom breaks, handmade birthday cards rejected by her as too carelessly done, and any grade lower than an A as unacceptable.

She also describes clearing out a dinner party by telling the story of calling her daughter "garbage."

There is plenty more in the book to offend us soft-in-the-head mothers, who are often accused of putting more stock in our children's self-esteem than in their self-discipline.

But more disturbing than any of draconian methods Chua used to micromanage her daughters is the reaction of all sorts of mothers out there, a level of outrage that illustrates, yet again, just how tough we can be on each other.

Chua says she wrote the book as her family was "falling apart" because of her youngest daughter Louisa's strong will, and she says she views it as her own "coming of age story." In other words, she, not her daughter, learned her lesson.

But all that was lost in the hue and cry that followed the publication of an excerpt of the book in The Wall Street Journal under the unfortunate headline of "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," and it generated thousands of e-mails and endless commentary by incensed Western mothers — whatever that means — and Asian-Americans who acknowledged suffering from post-traumatic-tiger-mother syndrome.

Chua herself was knocked back on her heels by the angry response, and she seems to backpedal a little more in each interview she gives. But still, the hate mail, even death threats, continue, and at least one among her sisters in the law wonders if she should not been charged with something like a war crime.

She has been called egomaniacal, ethnocentric, shallow, smug, racist, a bully of a mother, a lousy writer and a provocateur who is just looking to sell books.

Chua has been tattooed with the high rate of suicides among young Asian-American women and New York Times columnist David Brooks said she was a wimp of a mother because she never allowed her daughters to battle it out for primacy among their peers at a sleepover.

Other commentators have suggested the heated reaction is due to the Western fear of China's geopolitical ascendency; and young Asian-American women wrote to say that memories of mothers just like Chua are the reason they will never have children: They don't want to perpetuate the cycle of high expectations coupled with abuse.

This, my fellow mothers, is how bad it can get out there.

We are harder on each other than any Tiger mother might be on her children. We brook no criticism of our parenting decisions, yet we are ready to have another mother shipped to Guantanamo for hers.

Because we are so uncertain of our own methods, we snatch up books like Chua's (it is tops at Amazon.com) not because we think somebody else has it right, but because we have a morbid curiosity about how it is going in the houses down the street.

Instead of learning from each other about what works and what doesn't in the crapshoot that is child-rearing, we hope another mother's failure will affirm our choices and therefore ensure our children's success.

Amy Chua's book has produced a mommy backlash of predictable and distressing proportions, while the kernel of wisdom — that Chinese parents assume strength where Western parents assume fragility — is lost. Mama Grizzlies? To be sure.

One final note: Chua was asked about her own mother's reaction to the book, and she said that her parents were supportive, but she hoped they had not learned to use the Internet too effectively.

Not, I think, because she feared they would read what she had to say about her own upbringing, but because she didn't want her parents to see what people were saying about their daughter.


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