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Imagine the following two situations:

  • A) A child in its early teens returns home from school. There is no one at home, but food has been prepared and, in the worst case, there is always the microwave. The parents are nice but they are too busy to have either lunch or dinner together with their kids. Each goes his/her own way and the child enjoys freedom in choosing how it spends its free time. On the weekend the same pattern is repeated, occasionally parents will individually do something with the child, the shared times together are rare. But overall, they are very supportive of their child’s interests—it can do what it likes, assuming, that is, s/he knows what that is.
  • B) A child in its early teens returns home from school. The parents are very busy but they make time for the family to have either lunch or dinner together. They are nice and caring but too intense and they have very strong opinions as to how the child should be spending its time: besides private classes for music, sport or languages, s/he must do homework—thus ensuring s/he gets straight A’s—and also help out in the household. On the weekend the same pattern is repeated, occasionally parents will together undertake something with the child, but always under time pressure. There is after all so much to do, and no precious time should be lost.

What type of parent are you? What do you think your child prefers? A parent who is nice but has no time to show they care? Or one who cares but is also more hysteric? You lose something, you win something. Must that be?

The inherent contradictions within each of the above parenting styles, and, of course, their opposition is at the heart of the success of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother—more so, I think, than its selling under the competitive ‘China vs. America’ flag in the sense of who will produce the most productive generation of the future. Its official reception—by reviewers and experts—has been mostly negative and readers’ comments on newspaper websites are also mostly disapproving—or, to use another favourite word of our times, indignant. ‘How dare she?’ is the standard tone. Still the book sells and is being read.

Amy Chua’s extreme, and often, authoritarian, form of parenting includes drilling sessions for learning the piano or the violin, screaming fits and fights, and calling the kids ‘garbage’. It is referred to as the ‘Chinese’ or ‘immigrant’ model. This is contrasted with the ‘American’ softer approach. Needless to say, these descriptions are half-truths. After all, as the eldest daughter Sophia points to her mother at the end of the book, hard work and striving for excellence are also American values—remember? “Is one Nobel Prize so much to ask from a child after all I’ve done?” is an old Jewish joke, and there are certainly equivalents in every culture.

The book is really about finding a middle-way between autonomy (with passive caring) and reliance (with active caring). As the children grow up and put up a fight, Amy is ‘humbled’ and begins to learn to accept her daughters for who they are—the emphasis being on ‘begins to’ rather than on ‘learning’. She finally lets her youngest Lulu off the hook regarding violin and buys herself two dogs.

Amy’s problem is shared by many modern parents and has to do with how to form ‘character’ under external conditions of relative affluence and a liberal environment. That many of us assume this to be difficult par excellence is indicative of the lingering effect of being raised by parents with more conservative or religious values for whom achievement is impossible without suffering to go with it. This probably also explains why Amy, in the end, needs pets in order to begin to ‘reengineer’ herself psychologically.