Amy Chua is taking a lot of internet heat for her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and I can understand why. The juicy extracts from the book (I haven't read it) make her seem like the classic type-A evil stepmother. The threats, the demands, the endless lessons, the privations... it all sounds very intense. It's sparked some debate (framed by Chua herself) about the cultural differences in Chinese-style and "Western-style" parenting.
The thing is, I knew a lot of kids raised like that, or at least, from the outside the parenting structures look very similar to the Tiger Mother Method. The kids I grew up with didn't all have Asian parents. I was certainly raised like that, by mutual agreement between my Japanese mother and my WASP American father. My sister and I were woken up at 5:30 every weekday morning so we could get in our piano and violin practice before breakfast. While one practiced, the other did math drills. Yeah, math drills, with my mother timing how quickly we did our multiplication tables and fractions and comparing them against yesterday's times. I feel sorry for my mother that in spite of her best efforts to this day I remain pretty pathetic at basic math.
I remember once when I got an A- on a history paper and I felt pretty happy about that until my dad asked me, neutrally, "Why didn't you get an A?" This was in 5th grade.
My sister and I had private French lessons from kindergarten (my sister was 3) until we got into a private school (for my second grade) where French was part of the curriculum; when we reached junior high we also added Latin to the studies, along with computer class. My mom supervised our homework every day after school, and limited our TV time to a half-hour every day. That meant we were only allowed one show, which, for some reason, my sister and I decided should be Scooby Doo. It's an awful show, but we didn't know it at the time. During summer we went to Japan and attended summer school all summer. We also went to Japanese school on Saturdays. Studying was our primary activity.
By the time we graduated high school we had enough AP credits to basically skip a year of college. With AP scores of 5 in English, Calculus, Latin, and French, I could skip nearly all the required undergraduate classes at my university. (I think I did worse on the Biology and Physics AP exams though.) And that was typical at my high school. In fact, I was a good student but far from the best in the class. There were kids there who were taking math classes at U.C. Berkeley because advanced calculus wasn't advanced enough for their level. There were kids who had skipped a year or two so were graduating at 16 or 17. There were kids who already fluently spoke three or four languages. There were kids planning to go to conservatory to study music, who'd won national music competitions and who practiced their instruments 4 hours before school and 4 hours after. There were kids who had papers published in academic journals.
This was all quite normal to me. I realize I had an incredibly privileged experience.
But life was far from hard and I would actually describe my childhood as idyllic. As much as our parents expected from us, and they did -- it was understood that we were supposed to be the top of our class, every year -- they also never let us doubt their unconditional love and support. I was lucky enough to have a mom who didn't work for most of my childhood and she made us wonderful breakfasts -- crepes, toast, and jam -- to make up for those early morning music lessons. She welcomed us home from school with a little piece of home-made cake or a cookie and a cup of tea. She let us know we were brilliant and imaginative and wonderful and the center of her world. I really did feel, for a long time, that I could truly do anything, anything at all I set my mind to. It was a really liberating feeling. I grew into a very self-confident little kid, and then a pretty self-confident (arrogant, maybe) young adult.
My dad treated me always as an equal. He listened to my arguments and presented counter-arguments. We had some fiery disputes because he was an arch-conservative -- my early reading material consisted of The American Spectator, Commentary (a conservative Jewish publication, very erudite), the National Review, and the Economist. At twelve I probably had read more essays by William F Buckley Jr than any other eighth-grader in Berkeley, CA. Of course, I became a socialist in high school and declared myself for Marx. But I always had to prove my points and my dad wouldn't let me get away with intellectual laziness.
I think what it comes down to is respect. My parents expected a lot from us, and set up schedules that required a great deal of commitment from us. But the deal we had was that we always knew we had their love and respect. I always felt free to negotiate, as when I persuaded my parents to let us take riding lessons on Saturdays instead of going to Japanese school, or to stop piano lessons to focus on drama in high school. Nothing was set in stone. And their love was clearly manifest, all around us, every day. At least, I remember feeling it.
So I don't think Chua is right to frame this as Western versus Chinese styles. It seems to me to be more about a certain type of parent who puts academic achievement first. I grew up surrounded in that culture, and amongst my peers were black kids, asian kids, jewish kids, white european kids from europe, poor kids, and, of course, rich kids. I guess mostly pretty rich kids. That sort of education is expensive. But what tied us all together that our parents all believed passionately in the value of taking advantage of a good education and investing that in their kids. That attitude is not at odds with a loving and supportive family life and a blissful childhood. In my case, at least, I think that my parents' focus on education made my childhood happier, full of adventure and curiosity and activity.
And I still feel, oddly enough, that I can do almost anything I set my mind to. Thanks for that, Mom and Dad.