Pause for thought amid Tiger Mother hyperbole

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am

Yale University academic Amy Chua has caused a stir with her now famous - or is it infamous - article in The Wall Street Journal. She advocates a strictly disciplinary, all-work-and-no-play style of child-rearing that she characterises as Chinese and likely to produce more accomplished children. She outraged readers by recounting that she called one of her two young daughters 'garbage' because she was being disrespectful, and forced one of them to practise the piano late into the night without food or bathroom breaks.

But it is worth mentioning that the Journal article was an excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. And on the good authority of people who have read the book, Chua actually delivers a very different message there. As one reader named B. Hunt wrote on Amazon.com, 'Unlike the excerpts, Chua displays a high level of self-awareness in the book. When she's gone overboard, she knows it. She questions herself and never claims that she made all the right choices.' What was missing from the Journal article, Hunt wrote, was the obvious love and devotion in her house. She came over as very demanding but also exceedingly adoring of her children. 'In the end she doesn't argue in favour of shaming or verbally abusing children, but she does make a strong case that children end up appreciating being made to stick with certain activities or being made to learn certain things, and that this takes great effort on the part of the parent. Mastery, self-confidence, accomplishments, and hard work ethic open many doors for one's child.'

That should not be surprising for those familiar with Chua's work as a high-powered lawyer and author. Long before she became a professor, she was part of a Wall Street team that helped the Mexican government privatise the country's then dominant telecommunications company. Her first book, World on Fire, brought her recognition outside academia. It challenged those who advocated the rapid imposition of Western-style free-market democracy on developing countries that lack the mature institutions to make it work. (Think of the Philippines, which is where her parents hail from.) It has been compared to Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man - except that it offers a far more accurate description of the dangerous world we live in today. Her more recent book, Day of Empire, was compared by noted US historian Paul Kennedy to Arnold Toynbee's classic A Study of History.

Chua is one of the most important political writers working today. Unlike many of her Ivy League colleagues, she has worked at the intersection of real power and money. Such a sophisticated mind would have considered and weighed the pros and cons, the different angles and outcomes, of a proper education and its effects on children. So her education critics - those Westerners, as she puts it, who advocate a more liberal and fun-oriented style of learning for children - should relax and step back. A good deal of what she wrote in the Journal was done for effect, drama and hilarity - and of course, she has a book to sell. For those who have read the article, it is probably worth reading the book before drawing conclusions.

In the meantime, parents are defining their own parenting philosophy as pro- or anti-Chua. If nothing else, Chua has helped people, in some cases, crystallise their beliefs about children and their education, and in other cases, rethink their deepest assumptions. For that alone, Chua has performed a valuable service.