Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book Review: Tiger Mother and Home Alone America

What I do these days at the library is breeze past my favorite shelves in the adult non-fiction section, grab what looks appealing, and then let myself be dragged to "where the toys are," as Marko puts it.  I steal a glace at the YA section to see if the next book of the Hunger Games is in (it isn't) and then I plop in the play area and leaf through my books to decide what to check out.  My "sections" of the non-fiction are gardening, farming, babies, homeschooling, families, and miscellaneous parenting stuff.

This week's picks were Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Daycare, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes.  So, one about overparenting and one about underparenting.

Tiger Mother surprised me.  I was prepared to hate it, because I can clearly see that tiger mothering is about as un-me as it's possible to be.  100 math worksheets after school?  Three hours of violin practice?  I refuse to even teach my son his letters, because I want him to work on normal toddler skills first and I believe there's plenty of time for him to learn to read.  (I could read at four, as most of my siblings have ... and honestly, it's no great shakes.  Just two more years of reading books instead of having them read to me.)

But instead, the book was astonishingly humble.  The tone I got from Amy Chua was, "Well, I thought this was the way to go ... but it didn't really work all that well ... and look how crazy I got about it ... well, what do I know?"

For me, it was mainly a lesson in "what not to do."  Chua pushed her daughters into music, where they both excelled.  The one just plugged along and did well, without a whole lot of pushing needed (though she got it anyway).  The other, though ... she fought the whole project, kicking and screaming, her whole childhood.  She was brilliant, and ended up being a prodigy on the violin.  It seemed she really loved it.  But she eventually put her foot down and refused to keep up with it.  One of her final words in the book is, "You ruined the violin for me."  And from what Chua writes in her book, it seems she really did kill her daughter's joy in the violin -- after all those years of getting her good enough at it to love it.  Chua is honest enough that you can clearly see where she went wrong ... the fights that she insisted on winning, where the only winning strategy would have been to let her daughter win.

I don't believe, as you know, in going head-to-head with a stubborn child.  I say this, but isn't it usually the case that a stubborn child comes from stubborn parents?  Right now I am trying, and trying, and trying to potty-train Marko.  I could give up, but he refuses to give up.  So I stick with it, but it's such a careful balancing act.  If I don't remind him, he forgets.  If I push too hard, he digs in his heels.  I have never worked so hard to gently influence this child in my life  And yet my own stubbornness pops up again and again, and I shriek, "NO!  Not on the floor!  In the potty!  You have to go in the POTTY!"  The second I do it, I know I've made a big mistake.  And I'm right ... he refuses to sit on that potty for the rest of the day, and every time I turn around he's ripping off whatever protective clothing I've put him in.

If you are blessed with a child like that, all you can do is love them and work with them.  Have you ever tried to swim across a river?  If you battle the current, you're just going to end up with a faceful of water.  If you don't battle the current, you'll be swept out to sea.  The only option is to move across it, angling toward shore, so that you're always working with the current and not against it.  That's the way it is with a child like Lulu Chua (or like Marko).

That is my conclusion from the book.  Amy Chua's is a little different.  She says, in short, "Well, I might not have been the best mom ever, but at least my children are successful."  And yet, I think the main problem is that she never seems to give any reflection to her definition of success.  Her children are successful because they get straight A's, are musical prodigies, and get into good colleges.  She considers herself successful because she went to Harvard and eventually became a law professor at Yale.  And yet she admits that her first interview at Yale, she was so overwhelmed with anxiety that she became too tongue-tied to make a good impression.  She also admits that she went into law for no particular reason, because it seemed like a good subject to choose, but found herself with no enthusiasm for it and no particular ideas for papers.  Meanwhile her husband, also a Yale professor but raised by a much more laissez-faire system, loves law and writes 100-page legal papers for fun.  One doesn't get the impression that Chua does anything for fun, ever.  That just doesn't fit my definition of success.  I want my children to find out what they love, and do that.  You don't need a pushy tiger mother to tell you to practice violin for three hours if you love it so much there's nothing you'd rather do.  I think part of why I'm so happy with my life is that I've determined that there is nothing I'd rather do.  I don't have to be the best at it, or win the most accolades.  I love it; it's its own reward.

The other book I read, Home Alone America, was more scholarly.  What it lacked in eloquence, it made up for with statistics.  The basic thesis: we've justified spending less and less time with our kids, whether because of divorce or because of double incomes, on the grounds that our kids were all right -- only they're not all right.

Overall I agreed.  The chapters about aggressiveness in daycare, behavioral drugs in school, sex, divorce, and boarding schools were all pretty impressive, building a strong connection between how much time kids get to spend with their parents and how well they do.  The focus was mainly not on how kids turn out when they grow up, but whether they are happy and successful as children.  There were two sections I had reservations about, though: the section on mental illness and the one on obesity.  For obesity, yes, I can clearly see that children who are home alone all afternoon will be eating more junk and playing outside less than children whose parents are home.  But blaming the entire obesity epidemic on that fact is a bit much, considering we are also given very suspect dietary advice, and considering the many unhealthy foods that we are led to believe are good for kids (take breakfast cereal, for instance).  And in the mental illness section, I can see how kids with a tendency to ADHD would do better with a parent around during the day than otherwise ... but the author gives absolutely no evidence for her suggestion that absent parents are to blame for the autism epidemic.

The section on punitive boarding schools for "troubled" teens was fascinating to me.  It also made me think that maybe I've complained too much about my own experiences ... as bad as they were, there apparently are lots of kids who have it way worse.  Apparently these schools are becoming more and more popular -- increasing tenfold in the last ten years.  Many are in foreign countries to avoid government scrutiny.  And their methods are so abusive they have (as our school has) forums full of angry adult graduates, even while parents give glowing testimonials on the school's website.  Eerie.

Another thing I found a little iffy about it is that the author goes on and on and on about how bad daycare is for kids under five, and how bad after-school care is for kids over six, and how bad boarding school is for teenagers ... but she never mentions school itself as a problem.  Her own children, she mentions, are in school or she wouldn't have time to write this book.  But what magical thing happens at six to make kids magically ready for a six-hour separation from their parents?  As she mentions, being in foreign territory with groups of other kids is a stressor ... are we sure that much stress is good for kids?  I suppose there is no method to study this, though -- homeschooled kids are such a minority.  If all schooled children had the same illness, we would assume it was just a feature of being a child.

One thing she says, though, is definitely true: it's a bit taboo to talk about this stuff.  Since many mothers don't have a choice about leaving home to work, and since many couples really can't seem to stay together (even if one partner may be trying their hardest), no one wants to hear that daycare or divorce are bad for kids.  This is especially true when so many adults have been raised this way themselves, and take it for the norm.  However, she writes, if there's really no choice, there's no need to feel guilty because it isn't our fault.  Her book is to urge those who do have a choice to stay with their kids, not just for the sake of their own kids, but because society as a whole benefits from having more adults around where the kids are, keeping an eye on things.  It's definitely an idea I can get behind.

In the end, both of these books left me feeling like I'm doing the right thing.  Not battling Marko tooth and nail may mean he'll never be a concert violinist, but perhaps it won't stop us from getting along well.  And staying home to be with my children really is a valuable job, even if not everyone in society appreciates it.

Now if only my hold on Catching Fire would come in ...


Enbrethiliel said...


I've wanted to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for a while, but can never seem to get around to it. (Maybe if the magazine I write for asks me to review it . . .)

My own mother is the very opposite of a Tiger Mother; and I confess that there were times I wished she were more militant about my and my siblings' development. I feel slightly hypocritical saying so, because when I was younger, I really did enjoy getting to watch three to four hours of TV each day and doing homework only when I felt like it. (I also spent many of those years longing to be in boarding school--because in boarding school, there are rules. =P) Meanwhile, I had cousins whose mother could give Amy Chua a totally unrepentant, unreflective run for her money: they were getting up as early as 4:30 AM each day to practice the piano. None of them have turned out to be musical prodigies, even if all of them have turned out all right.

Incidentally, the first review I ever read of Chua's book was on the blog of a friend who is a musical prodigy and is surrounded by fellow musical prodigies every day. She and pretty much everyone she knows professionally had a parent like Chua and wonders why everyone else thinks that's such a bad thing. LOL! When I told her about Malcolm Gladwell's theory that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to be an expert at it, she said (without irony) that 10,000 hours is far too low a figure. She also said that racking up such a high number of practice hours is so grueling and tedious that it will ruin music for anyone who does not have what it takes to be at the top (or near the top) of the pack. When you're older, you can push yourself through that; when you're younger, you may need someone to push you.

The Sojourner said...

My husband and I were just talking about "success" yesterday and how modern American parents seem to define "success" in one very narrow way.

Take my husband's 18-year-old brother as an example: He's VERY good at music, reasonably good at sports, gets good grades, and is super involved in volunteer work. (Granted, a lot of American parents might object to *pro-life* volunteer work.) College admissions are going to be drooling over him.

If you tried to force my husband into that mold, it would be a disaster. He is good at music but doesn't like practicing (as a result, he sings well and can pick out a tune on the piano but is useless on violin despite having had lessons), HATES any kind of physical exertion, and doesn't volunteer much. He does get good grades, though not as good as you'd think someone of his IQ would get. He prefers to sit at home and program for fun. Since he was given the freedom to do that as a teen, he happens to also be good at what he loves. Is he less successful than his brother because he's not good at those other things? Or are they both successful in their own way? Or is he more successful because he's more likely to make money with his hobby? (BIL is good enough that if he wanted to he probably could be a professional musician, but he wants to be a priest.)

Is there a point to this comment? I don't know. I just love this topic. (Maybe because I'm highly intelligent but not very motivated. Who needs a career when you have a novel to write?)

Also, since when is breakfast cereal good for you? 0.0

Sheila said...

It's part of a balanced breakfast, don't you know? Contains fiber! Enriched with 8 vitamins and minerals! Ignore the part where it's not actual food.

See, Sojourner, that's what I'm driving at. There are tons of people I would consider "successful" who don't have a million talents. I think the ultimate in success is to find a way to get paid to do something you love so much you'd do it for free. There is no way to pressure someone into that kind of success.

I honestly believe that Mrs. Chua's daughters, being as bright as they were (given that they're the kids of two Yale law professors, that's probably genetics) and having the tons and tons of opportunities they have, would have been successful in some way no matter what she had done. Now it's possible that they wouldn't have gotten good at the violin and piano, but even there, who knows? A gentle introduction might have done as well as her method. I know Marko "plays" the guitar about an hour a day if you add it all up! That's a lot of focus for a two-and-a-half year old, but he happens to love it. I have no desire to shove him into music if he's not into it, but he clearly is, so I'm hoping to get him a real instrument when he's older and let him try out lessons if we can afford them. And if it takes, it takes.

Like Enbrethiliel says about the top of the pack ... is it possible that those kids who are going to be the top of the pack will also have the drive to get there on their own? Or if they don't ... why are we bothering to shove kids up to the top if they don't even like it? It seems that Chua's method replaces natural motivation -- the sheer joy of making music -- with external motivation from praise, trophies, and acclaim. Those are much harder to get, and if you aren't the tip of the top, turns out you were wasting your 10,000 hours.

Me, I do little I don't enjoy. I wasn't pushed to do very much as a kid; yes, we did a lot of school, but I've mostly forgotten that. The stuff I remember is the stuff I chose myself: Latin, ancient British history, literature. I seriously do decline Latin words for fun. I like the patterns. When my students would ask me why they had to learn Latin, I finally got honest and said, "Really, I haven't a clue. It's a game for me. If it isn't for you, maybe you should try a language you can use more." Of course there are some real uses of Latin, but I never could have set my eyes on those enough to study it for ten years. Every one of those ten years, I chose Latin.

I'm not positive, but it seems to me that most kids will discover something they love enough to motivate them on their own, if they're given the freedom to discover it. I guess we'll find out with my kids!

Anonymous said...

I loved the Frech horn so much I practiced 7 hours/day for years - my parents had nothing to do with it, other than acquiring a hour lesson/week for me. Then I ate a steering wheel in my late teens and ended my musical career.

I try to steer my kids towards passion plus a beloved back-up plan, because things we cannot plan for do happen. Success to me simply means they end up happy, kind, and self-sufficient. Strangely, not easy goals, but not ones achieved with pushing.

School is a funny thing - pre-school (4 hrs/day 2-4 days/week) was AWESOME for my kids. Elementary school was obviously stressful for #1 until just this year (2nd grade). On the first day of K, I felt like I was throwing him into the deep end of the pool...and walking away. : (

Enbrethiliel said...


Latin is actually a prime example. I, too, have studied it for fun.

But when I tried injecting it into my brother's homeschool curriculum, all heck broke lose! =P

I've since given up trying to force him to learn it, reminding myself that he's not my son. But you can be sure that when I have children of my own, Latin is going to be huge! LOL!

Off on a tangent now . . . I thought of this post repeatedly while writing one of my own--particularly your comment that there is no magical change that takes place at six years old (or thereabouts) that makes every child ready for the modern school system. The book I'm reading now, Pet Sematary by Stephen King, includes a scene in which a five-year-old girl has to make the transition from "stay-at-home kid" to "part time kindergartener." (My terms, not King's!) It is portrayed as a rite of passage--an inevitable part of growing up that the girl undergoes beautifully. And I do believe that rites of passage meet a real spiritual need.

But as you said, there's no magical way to make everyone ready at some convenient, arbitrary age. A few pages later, the girl visits the pet cemetery for the first time and is deeply traumatised by it. The sad part is that this is the real rite of passage, but it is what she flunks. Yet it is not her fault at all: she really was not ready.

Okay, Sheila. I'm done being weird in your combox. =)

The Sojourner said...

Re breakfast cereal: It seems intuitive to me that if you have to fortify a cereal with 8 or 9 different things in order to make it "healthy", you'd be better off abandoning that whole track and eating some fruit or something. I'm not the healthiest eater myself, though (I will probably go eat some cookies for second breakfast as soon as I finish this comment...), so maybe I shouldn't judge.

I'm glad you liked the rest of my comment too. :)

Sheila said...

Momsomniac, that is EXACTLY what I was talking about! Though it is very sad that your accident put an end to your playing. Smart to have a backup.

Have you ever seen Ice Princess? It's about all these figure skaters whose mothers have been pushing them into it since they were toddlers ... and a high school girl who discovers she loves skating and quickly catches up with the others, because of her passion for it. It's a good example of how the best in the field might not need pushing.

Enbrethiliel, I would LOVE for my kids to learn Latin. But will I push it on them? Time will tell. But of course there are ways to encourage interest in something besides pushing. You can expose them to it, play games with it (my first graders LOVED Latin Simon Says) and set an example yourself. Children of readers turn out to be readers; sooner or later they get curious about this thing that fascinates all the grownups, and they want to do it too.

Rites of passage are good, but of course just being brave enough to go to first grade doesn't mean you have the physical and mental readiness to write, for instance. There are a lot of different challenges to school, which kids are ready for at different ages: the stress of being away from home every day (which I'm STILL not ready for, LOL), the social complexity, reading readiness, writing readiness, ability to sit still for long periods, even immune system maturity (which happens about that time)! Some kids who show up for first grade really aren't ready. But what do you do? No one is willing to keep them out another year and have their child be older than the rest of the class.

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