It doesn’t take much to rally the troops in the “mommy wars.”
The latest call to arms has been sounded by Amy Chua, a mother of two girls, Yale University professor and author, most recently, of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” a memoir of parenting.
In a pithy, take-no-prisoners style, Chua lets readers in on the secrets to raising children who will validate their parents’ decision to bring them into the world by getting themselves admitted to Ivy League colleges and invited to piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. (Chua’s older daughter reached that pinnacle at age 14.)
“My Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day,” she writes. “An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part.”
Chua blithely confides that she once told her talented older daughter she was “garbage.” She proudly recounts how she kept her younger daughter on the piano bench for hours, not allowing her up for dinner or water. Finally, the child got the hang of a difficult piano selection.
“Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem,” Chua writes, possibly envisioning a legion of readers wiping sweat from their brows after her lurid account of this forced piano practice. “But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.”
The Wall Street Journal published excerpts from “Tiger Mother” on Jan. 8, and the Western moms roared back.
All through the blogosphere, parents accused Chua of abusive parenting.
Numerous writers fired back with pieces extolling the virtues of slacker moms — those who cave in on piano practice, and actually praise their little ones for coming home with an A-minus or, God forbid, a B.
Chua has protested that her book is a memoir, not a parenting guide. And she says, justifiably, The Journal excerpted the most controversial sections of her book without mentioning that Chua mellowed over time. Her younger daughter was allowed to give up music lessons, though she redeemed herself by becoming a tennis whiz.
We do love a raucous argument about how other people should be raising their kids.
But, like the long-running working mom vs. stay-at-home mother debate, this one is more theoretical than practical.
Most American parents simply lack the wherewithal to be a proper Tiger Mother. (Which, Chua tells us, can be a mother of any ethnicity. It can even be a dad.)
Private lessons, be they in piano, violin or whatever, are luxuries for families that are counting every penny. And if Susie or Johnny wants to quit, well, that’s money saved.
I’m guessing Chua and her husband, also a Yale law professor, send their daughters to private schools. And when the girls were toddlers, Chua had a Mandarin-speaking babysitter or student spend four or five hours a day with them so they would grow up bilingual.
You don’t necessarily have to be wealthy to be a Tiger Mother, I suppose. But it helps.
And you absolutely need focus. Confining a kid to the piano bench for hours on end requires that you be there too, or at least in the vicinity. It’s a tough role for the mom working long hours or caring for an ill parent.
This has always been true of the mommy wars: They are waged in the ranks of the affluent, among people who enjoy choices.
For years, working women battled a perverse logic that said mothers of means should stay home with their children, while mothers of low income should put their kids in day care and get themselves a job.
Chua will command the talk show circuit for a time, and sell a lot of books, but the Tiger Mother furor will be short-lived. Most families are too stressed and too strapped to adopt her extreme parenting style.
And in the end, the offspring of Tiger Mothers and slacker moms and dads will walk confidently into the world, and most of them will do just fine.