Allow me to start by saying this is a difficult book to review, in part because it is a personal account of how Ms. Chua raised her own children, and in part because I question whether I am reviewing the book or the philosophy.
Ms. Chua’s highly contentious book reached American media last year, and the stormy debate that followed was fascinating, heated, and described the author as either a demon or a messiah, depending on the viewpoint. I have to say, for me, she seems to be a little bit of both.
The book centers on Ms. Chua (a first generation Chinese American), her Jewish husband, and her two daughters, Sophie and Lulu. Ms. Chua was raised in the “traditional” Chinese style: math drills, absolute obedience to her parents, required lessons in music, outstanding scholastic achievement, incredibly high expectations, and no room for failure. She went to an Ivy League school for both undergrad and grad school, as did 2 of her sisters, and she became a successful lawyer on Wall Street. She and her husband started a family, and agreed to raise their children in the same manner, though her husband was raised by much more Western philosophies.
There were some points that were spot on. Ms. Chua believes that having fun doing something is directly related to being good at that thing. To become good at it, practice is required, which is not fun. To become truly excellent at it, a LOT of perfect practice is required. Eventually, with all this practice, you will be incredible at said thing, and it will eventually become fun. Math drills, classical piano and violin lessons, etc. will be fun if you are good enough at them. And anything less than perfection is not an option.
I will give credit to the author in that she seems to be perfectly candid about her life, and her parenting style. She discusses the conflict between living in America and raising children in the “Chinese” way. She discusses the successes and the failures, the family dramas, and her personal demons with a sense of passion and humor. For these reasons I tip my hat to her. But she is also a snob. She looks down on Western parenting, holds playdates and sleepovers in utter contempt, and essentially describes anyone not ascribing to her parenting method as simpering morons. I think these opinions were the cause for much of the vitriol aimed at her- people felt she was attacking their parenting histories and behaviors, and finding them wanting.
As to the parenting model itself, I don’t know what to say. I am not a parent yet, but I can see arguments to be made on both sides. I believe in teaching work ethic, discipline in the home, and excellence in academics and whatever other interest one pursues. What I have a fundamental problem with is the product that comes out of a childhood full of math drills, 6-7 hours of piano practice per day, and high pressure to achieve the highest grades on every test. What kind of adult comes from that environment? Will they be able to make decisions and adapt to new environments? Will they be able to think in a non-linear way and be an innovative force? Will they continue down this path without the constant badgering and hovering of a parent? I don’t know.
I’ve read the reports about American students vs. Indian/Chinese/really anyone else, and they terrify me. I read blogs about ass hat children bitching about how they got a car, but not an iPad2 for Christmas, and it angers me. But is this the answer? Or is there a better way to have the best of all these possible worlds?
I simply don’t know, but I am going to do a lot of thinking before siring any children. Perhaps this is the best kind of book for that reason- no easy answers, just a lot of hard questions.