I’m still reeling from reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Her extraordinary account of Chinese style parenting in the context of contemporary American society hit the best seller lists for months in 2011. This book takes no prisoners. You’re either cheering wildly and wishing you had her guts, or you’re leading the call to have Chua tarred, feathered, lynched . There is no middle ground.
Now I’m an old fashioned type of parent. My (almost) Victorian era Father believed that “children should be seen and not heard.” I survived his ideas, plus years of rigid discipline in boarding schools, so my own childhood left me with a parenting style akin to a Regimental Sergeant Major. Perhaps this was no bad thing, considering I was a single parent. But this said, I was aghast at Ms Chua’s regime. And I use the word advisedly. Despite the fact that she spent most of her life in the US, has a dazzling career as a Professor of Law at Yale University, she reverted to old-style traditional Chinese parenting methods when she married and had her two daughters. She is married to an equally brilliant American Jewish Professor, and they produced two brilliant daughters.
With manic focus Amy Chua set about bring up two daughters who would have successful careers and bring credit (and fortune) to themselves and the family. She succeeded with the eldest girl Sophia, who obediently buckled under her mother’s ferocious will and turned into a piano-playing prodigy, and actually emerged as a seemingly well-adjusted confident 18 year old, ready to go to college. The second child, Lulu, rebelled and refused to become the violin playing prodigy that Mum wanted. It was here that the traditional Chinese, Confucian parenting collided violently with the American laissez faire style of modern American parenting, against a backdrop of child peer pressure. To describe Ms Chua vs Lulu’s battles as a dress rehearsal for World War III would be no exaggeration. Talk about when worlds collide!
Ms Chua does not view childhood as a carefree, happy time of explorations, dreams and fun. She sees it as preparation for adult life and future success. She kept her kids’ noses to the grindstone 24/7; it was either music practice or school for about 18 hours a day, 6 days a week; no leisure, friends or hobby time permitted. When the family went on holiday, usually to an overseas destination, she would hire a piano – no matter what the location, circumstances or the expense - so that Sophia could practice for two hours daily, regardless of jet-lag, or proposed outings.
For most of the book my jaw was dropped onto my clavicle, my eyes popping with incredulity. Not least of all that Ms Chua had the guts? bravado? to tell all in her book, quite calmly and occasionally with wry humour. This book is a must-read. It will certainly shake up your ideas about parenting.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Glass Castle by Janette Walls. Janette Walls wrote this shocking true account of her childhood. It’s a riveting, read-in-one-sitting kind of book. Also not to be missed. It’s the polar opposite of the Tiger Mother.
Here we have two completely selfish parents: Dad – an alcoholic dreamer, a fantasist – gave rise to the title, he was always going to build a castle for his family and never did. Mum – from a Texas oil family, has artistic aspirations “all for art – art is life” etc fantasy. They were feckless wanderers, Dad always ‘agin the system, Mum only interested in her painting, and the children dragging themselves up as best they could – always cold, always hungry, always poorly clothed. Mind you, this in America in the 70s, not some Third World basket-case country.
At one point, during the family’s travels across the south western US, one of the kids falls out of the car and the adults don’t even notice … My shock factor reached zenith when – almost at the end of the book – Janette confronts Mum about the land she owns in Texas and Mum reluctantly admits it’s worth more than a million dollars, but no way will she sell it, as this would be against her deeply-held family principles! Prior to this the family had been living in West Virginia is a remote, rural ,desperately poor area, living in a leaky shack up a hillside, with no plumbing, no power, and the kids foraging in dustbins for food …. This revelation just took my breath away.
The Kirkus Review said:”Wall’s journalistic bare-bones style makes for a chilling, wrenching, incredible testimony of childhood neglect”. Too right. The book opens with Janette, who – incredibly - has managed to make a success of her life, seeing her Mum on Park Avenue one evening, going through dumpsters on the pavement. At intervals she offers Mum a more settled life-style, but Mum is quite happy to live in a squat in one of NYCs depressed neighbourhoods, it seems she likes the street life.
Both these books bear out one of my favourite maxims : Truth is always stranger than fiction.