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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Jean-Jacques of New Haven: Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

In the middle of the 18th century, a cranky Swiss intellectual published a manual for child-rearing that became the talk of Europe.   As the childless bachelor Immanuel Kant figured out, Rousseau’s Emile was not really a parenting guide at all-it was a complex and subtle work of political and social theory.  Rousseau wanted to reach a more popular audience and have a wider influence than earlier political thinkers; to present the teaching of the Social Contract in the form of a self-help book for nannies and moms was a stroke of genius.   

If you bought Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to help solve your own parenting challenges with her Chinese mothering recipe, consider Rousseau’s apparent response to a reader who used Emile to raise his own kids:  “so much the worse for you, and so much the worse for them.”

Amy Chua is not a child psychologist or social worker but a Yale Law professor and the author of one of the best books about globalization, World on Fire.    A suitable antidote to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ triumphalism, World on Fire documents how rapidly-introduced capitalism and commerce can exacerbate social, cultural and political tensions in developing and transitional countries.    Chua’s analysis is driven by a fine appreciation of the interaction of politics, economics and culture; something rare among law professors and largely non-existent at the time among economists (exceptions: Dani Rodrik and Joe Stiglitz). 

World on Fire is reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s early counter-current writings about the corruption, decadence, alienation and social divisiveness wrought by modern commerce and modern morals.  Read carefully, Rousseau wasn’t really preaching a return to traditional, closed societies; but rather a correction and extension of modernity based upon the integration and synthesis of modern values and practices with older traditions re-interpreted in light of new pathologies.  Along similar lines, in World on Fire, Chua doesn’t  advocate the reversal of globalization, much less a return to command or corporatist economics in transitional countries, but instead sensitivity to social and cultural particulars.   World on Fire gives some useful clues to understanding the deeper truth in Chua’s new book.

The obvious and well-worn message of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is “spare the rod, spoil the child.”  The novelty is that the message isn’t coming from the obvious sources, not from a neo-con or a Tea Partier or the Christian Right, but from a sophisticated well-turned out Ivy League academic.  And Chua plays the China Card.  The educated classes in America are fascinated by the rise of China, and Asia in general.  Strict child-rearing is not an Asian monopoly; but presenting it that way makes it a lot more palatable (or at least interesting) to today’s Sinophile elites.     But the more subtle and significant theme of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is one that is worthy of serious reflection:  the clash of cultures makes America stronger rather than weaker.   We shouldn’t be afraid of it or suppress it. 

Chua's point is that through immigration America has been renewed and revitalized as the values of older cultures have confronted American freedom and openness.  Immigrants and the children of immigrants should be proud not ashamed of the traditions in which they were raised, even if those traditions clash with the predominant atmosphere of permissiveness and choice in America-and even while they themselves take advantage of the opportunities that the new world has to offer. 

At the same time, Chua offers a lesson that will most certainly be lost on those who are charmed by the book’s more sensationalist claims on behalf of “Chinese” discipline.  Chua displays how a failure to compromise with and even embrace elements of Western permissiveness and choice can put the traditional family at risk, threatening that which one most wants to preserve.  The story of her coming to terms with the resistance and rebellion of one of her two daughters is as important and perhaps more important than Chua’s pitch for strictness.  In a (massive) concession to liberalism’s concern with individuality, Chua admits that traditional discipline just won’t work with some children, including members of her own family.      

Many of the most touching-and funny- scenes in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother make it clear that the Chua home is far from a household modeled on simple despotism.  There are endless debates about the value and justification of Chinese mothering; Chua, husband and children alike argue like law professors.    The Chua version of Chinese mothering embraces freedom of speech.   

  Like the great Rousseau, Chua sometimes argues tendentiously.  As with Rousseau’s praise for ‘noble savages” and virtuous Swiss villagers, Chua’s ode to the Chinese mother can descend into crude cultural stereotyping, junk social science or both (as with Rousseau, one needs to notice the subtle self-parody and self-doubt that accompany the posturing).   Chua implies that all successful Chinese or Chinese-American children are the product of strict traditional parenting, which refuses to spoil the child.  Growing up in Toronto, one of the great sites of the Chinese diaspora, the Chinese-Canadian kids I knew, especially in law school, were indeed very successful.  Contrary to Chua’s formula, they were often spoiled beyond my wildest adolescent dreams.  European sports cars, designer clothes, a frenetic social and dating life apparently weren’t at odds with academic and professional achievement. 

Chua can be as complex and paradoxical as Rousseau.  At the very center of her book is an admiring recollection of her mother-in-law, a fervent believer in the American way of independence, freedom and spontaneity.   That was the way that her husband Jed was raised, the fellow Yale Law professor husband and secular Jew that she adores:  namely, in almost total opposition to the “tiger mother” philosophy.     But the paradox contains a vital truth.  One of the very untraditional teachings of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the richness and possibility of cross-cultural families.  In the home, disagreement and conflict-but also respect and mutual adjustment-between cultures and between generations provide the best education for a strong multicultural America.    

Posted by Rob Howse on January 16, 2011 at 01:24 AM in Books | Permalink


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i don't know what you guys are talking about--Amy Chua balanced her career and motherhood extremely well.
she's a law professor who's managed to write three books while mothering two girls who are both amazing musicians. say what you want about her methods, but that's impressive!
people also need to understand that sure, her kids didn't get many (or any) sleep overs, but ten years from now, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld probably isn't going to remember those missed sleep overs.
but she might remember carnegie hall.

Posted by: someone | Apr 21, 2011 12:57:53 AM

Dr. Chua did what worked for her and you lefties who go on and on about choice don't like it. So what! If your way works for you then fine but get off her back. Her way worked for her. I'd suggest that some of you "critics" read the entire title of her book instead of your knee-jerking responses and read one of her daughters' response to her method. Americans seem to find her choice terrible but who cares. I'll take her method over the "self-esteem" pablum anytime.

Posted by: Ruckweiler | Mar 27, 2011 2:54:15 PM

Hi all, I just read the post and comments. I totaly agree with JD.
When anyone does choose to treat his/her children like Chua does, I'd rather he/she said she does it for him/herself, not the children.
Otherwise it does all sound pretty self-righteous.
We'll see how her children will turn out in terms of personal success and happiness, in ten or so years. And we'll let them be the judges, of course.
The way I see it, if you wish to die alone in a nursing home, I suggest you listen to Amy Chua.
Roma, Italia

Posted by: diana | Feb 27, 2011 12:19:57 PM

World on Fire is NOT one of the best books on globalization. It was a well-crafted lawyer's argument, totally unsupported by any actual evidence. (see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=519623 ) Rousseau may also have been spectacularly wrong (what exactly is the general will anyway after Kenneth Arrow?) but I am at least grateful that his ideas endured.

Posted by: Tom Ginsburg | Jan 26, 2011 10:45:11 PM

Rob, your post is simply by far the best thing written about the notorious Chua book that I've yet seen written by anyone anywhere-- the first review that did not project the reader's anxieties about China or child-rearing but instead focused on putting the book into a larger context (both Chua's other books and Jean-Jacques). Thanks!

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 26, 2011 2:23:40 PM

Maybe by spending as much time as possible away from her kids, Amy Chua was putting their welfare first...

Posted by: Shalom Beck | Jan 17, 2011 8:46:59 AM

Let's take a look at Chua's parenting philosophy 5 or 10 years from now, to consider its success, from the standpoint of her children. Assuming success, that doesn't mean her philosophy is a good model for other parents to follow.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 17, 2011 7:23:38 AM

Not to mention the further point that we are focusing on Chua's choices, of course, because she's the one writing the book on her parenting philosophy, not her husband's. So any insinuation of sexism is pretty off-base.

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2011 9:07:59 PM

MUT, you simply missed it, but JD mentioned it in both his posts: "Jed obviously is to "blame" here, too" and "Jed could have surely gotten a job at Duke or UNC."

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2011 9:03:49 PM

I do think it's interesting that the comments to this post only make mention of the idea of Chua giving up her position at Duke to accommodate her children's needs and, ostensibly, her husband's career. If Chua writes accurately about Jed Rubenfeld's view that parents owe everything to their children, then why didn't Rubenfeld leave Yale to be closer to his wife/children? These issues are, of course, for them to settle themselves, but it's interesting that the idea of the husband sacrificing his career standing (if you call leaving YLS for Duke a sacrifice) doesn't seem to enter into the equation.

Posted by: MJT | Jan 16, 2011 8:51:30 PM

Or to rephrase Bruce and JD's debate, Chua's position at Duke was "balancing child care with professional opportunities." But "balancing" implies that, once in a while, the kids get tossed under the bus if the professional opportunity is sufficiently lucrative. That is, at least to some extent, inconsistent with someone writing in the Wall Street Journal that "[t]hey would give up anything for their children."

Of course, I am not advocating that parents should give up anything and everything for their children. But JD's point is that Chua did.

Posted by: anon | Jan 16, 2011 4:20:14 PM

Bruce, I wouldn't deign to write a book talking about my parenting strategy/skills. I especially wouldn't focus on how single-mindedly dedicated I was to my children's success if I obvious chose slight career advantage (teaching at, say, Cardozo or Fordham instead of Duke) at the expense of my children. I am not one to cast stones at other people's choices, UNLESS those people have chose to put their lives in the public domain through a book with a six figure advance. Surely, you are not going to argue that all things being equal, kids are better off with their parents living 600 miles apart... And surely, through at least 2001 the Chua-Rubenfeld children would have been better off with loving, but non-"Chinese", parenting by BOTH parents, than with their actual situation, regardless of how one feels about the "Chinese" methods.

Posted by: JD | Jan 16, 2011 3:03:41 PM

JD, I think your sense of certainty about how not only you should raise children, but how *everyone* should raise their children, is over-inflated.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 16, 2011 2:56:31 PM

Chua didn't have a "visiting position" in another city. She was a member of the Duke Faculty until 2001, which means that her precious little girl, now 14, was deprived of one parent much of the time when she was under 5. That's not "balancing professional opportunities with child car"--that's putting your own interests ahead of your kids'. Jed could have surely gotten a job at Duke or UNC, or Amy at Quinnipiac, or one of the numerous NYC metro schools.

Posted by: JD | Jan 16, 2011 12:38:05 PM

JD, I don't see the inconsistency in having high standards for your kids on the one hand and balancing child care with professional opportunities on the other. If the kids had not practiced piano, I don't get how that affects the question about whether to accept a visiting position in another city.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 16, 2011 11:14:04 AM

Funny thing about "Tiger Mom" Chua. For all the energy she put into her kids, she also was sufficiently ambitious about herself (and Jed obviously is to "blame" here, too), that she was willing to live in a different city from her kids' father for quite a few years so she could teach at Duke. What's more important for your kids: three hours of piano lessons a day, or seeing their dad every day?

Posted by: JD | Jan 16, 2011 10:50:29 AM

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