Finish That Homework!

Erin Patrice O’Brien for The Wall Street Journal
Amy Chua with her daughters Lulu and Sophia, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011

In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama tells us that when he was a boy in Indonesia, his mother

five days a week…came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she left for work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted…she would patiently repeat her most powerful defense:

“This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

President Obama is the evidently successful result of having had a Tiger Mother, the term made current by Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which the author describes her similarly exacting approach to motherhood. Her challenging goals for her two daughters were a picnic neither for them nor for her. To get those girls to Carnegie Hall and Harvard involved hours of piano and violin practice, math and spelling drills, the expectation that they would have perfect grades, and be the best at whatever they did; and their mother was there “in the trenches,” as she says, with them. It takes self-discipline and a lot of time to be a Tiger Mother, and that’s where, according to Chua, American parents have let their offspring down.

Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale University, with two daughters whom she has raised with firmness, to say the least. That her account of some of her views and practices—standing over them at the piano for hours at a time, rejecting ill-done Mother’s Day cards or careless essays, requiring A report cards—horrified some of the wide audience for her book shouldn’t surprise. Did anyone ever admire the way other parents bring up their kids? There’s scarcely a subject more fraught with reproach and scrutiny, more fertile for theories, than parenting, and motherhood in particular. And what woman doesn’t feel a raft of guilty, vulnerable, anxious emotions about her own qualities as a mother? Fathers, no doubt, feel uncertainties too, but aren’t held to account in the same way, nor are they expected to develop a philosophy.

Chua defends hers by saying she is paying the children the compliment of assuming that they can accomplish what she demands, that they sense her respect for them, and that it’s the Chinese way. She is, after all, only perpetuating her own upbringing:

When I was little, my mother used to say, “Why do you need to sleep at someone else’s house? What’s wrong with your own family?” As a parent, I took the same position…. Sophia didn’t need to be exposed to the worst of Western society, and I wasn’t going to let platitudes like “Children need to explore” or “They need…

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