Just the first two paragraphs of her WSJ article may have you convinced that this woman is the Mommie Dearest from hell -- a caricature of the stereotypical pushy Asian parent. Here's an abbreviated list of the many things her teenaged daughters have not been allowed to do: Have playdates. Watch television. Act in school plays. Play any instrument but the violin and piano. NOT play the violin and piano. Etc.
But here's the scary part: she's for real. So is the fact that she once called her daughter "garbage" for speaking disrespectfully to her and threw a homemade birthday card back into the other daughter's face when it didn't meet her standards for effort.
TIME magazine covered the whole fracas in this week's cover issue. And here's the deal. First, I COMPLETELY DISAGREE with various details of Amy Chua's approach (if for no other reason than that while they are young, my actions and attitudes reflect and represent God to my kids (eek! scary! I fail!) and last I checked, God doesn't call us garbage). But. In one respect, as the TIME article points out, she's onto something.
Have you read NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children? It's chock full of scientific studies that call into question all kinds of conventional assumptions about the way kids think and operate. And specifically, in one chapter the authors debunk the whole more-praise-is-better myth that many parents buy into. The TIME article on Chua quotes the same research. Here's the Cliff Notes (TM) version: Slathering praise on your kids for being smart, clever, artistic, etc. can actually do more harm than good. It's way more helpful and effective to comment on their efforts, not their abilities.
It's not just that too much praise creates praise junkies -- kids who are never sure of how they're doing unless an adult compliments it. ("Do you like my drawing, Mom? Do you?" Yeah, I hear that.) It's that kids who are told they're smart all the time often develop such a paralyzing fear of failure that they simply won't tackle anything too challenging, too fraught with frustration.
I've made this mistake. After we had our oldest child tested, I sometimes thought it might motivate him to try harder and reach his potential if I let him know about that potential. "You are a bright kid," I'd tell him, alluding to his verbal IQ score. I don't I ever came out and told him he was smarter than other kids. But who knows what leaked out between the lines?
And sure enough, this child is my most frustration-prone. My most unwilling to stick with a difficult task. My most sensitive to perceived failure. Can I take all the blame for that? No. But my bumbling attempts to beef up his self-esteem may actually have backfired. Perhaps he subconsciously believes that not understanding a tricky math problem or struggling with some memory work undermines his value as a "smart kid."
Since reading Nurture Shock, I've changed a few of the ways I interact with my kids. Most of all, I've made a deliberate effort to praise, or even just remark on, their effort, hard work, and persistence. Especially when they've had to push through a few obstacles to lay hold of success. I'm not going to go all Amy Chua on them -- I'm probably more Siamese cat than Tiger Mom -- but I do want them to reap the sweeter rewards of the higher-hanging fruit.
The TIME article concludes thusly:
Think of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as a well-timed taunt aimed at our own complacent sense of superiority, our belief that America will always come out on top. That won't be the case unless we make it so. We can get caught up in the provocative details of Chua's book (did she really threaten to burn her daughter's stuffed animals?), or we can use her larger point as an impetus to push ourselves forward, the way our countrymen often have in the past.