Thursday, December 29, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Many of you have, no doubt, read the extract from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that made so many people so hot under the collar. In it, Chua detailed what appeared to be her absolutely brutal methods for driving her children to technical excellence in school and music. Like so much we read in the newspaper, the extract was designed to polarise and it did so perfectly. It created an absolute furore, a wealth of free publicity which led to mega sales of the book. I certainly found Chua's article appalling; however, I recently sat down and read her book, wherein I discovered a more complex story.

Battle Hymn opens with Chua's claim that she, and all good Chinese (read: strict immigrant) mothers, know how to raise their children properly. They are dominant and controlling, and commit themselves utterly to driving their children to excellence. Growing up, Chua's two daughters had no play dates, no sleepovers, no school camps, no television, and no extracurricular activities except music. Thus they had plenty of time to work hard, get perfect grades, and master an instrument. Satisfaction, claims Chua, is to be found in mastery of something, and mastery doesn't come easily. So her daughters practiced their musical instruments for more than an hour every day, and three to five hours if a performance was looming; and when they were unwilling to rehearse Chua stood over them screaming, threatening to destroy their soft toys and even withholding food and water until they had completed their practice.

This is pretty much where the article stopped and, of course, it was ghastly. We were left with the picture of a psychotic mother brutally dominating her children as they attempted to master the instruments of her choice. This is not an entirely inaccurate impression, but it omits the good humour, the self-deprecating tone, and the way Chua's methods fell to pieces with her second daughter, which are all detailed in the book.

Daughter one, Sophia, was willing to get with the program. She went along with the rules and the practice, and calmly excelled at everything. Lulu, however, was different. Lulu just said no. The battles grew more and more heated until, despite her natural gifts, years of accomplishment and a love of playing, Lulu flat out refused to pick up the violin. The book details how mother and daughter interacted and how Chua eventually admitted defeat, allowing Lulu, at thirteen, to make some of her own choices about how to spend her time. Lulu now sets much of her own agenda and, shock horror, wastes time playing tennis.

Chua relates her ambitions and her methods as well as her rages at Lulu and where she went wrong, and freely admits the things they missed when both of them obstinately refused to give way. The girls continued to practice when travelling with the family; and there were times when the whole family missed one thing or another because Lulu refused to practice and Chua refused to leave the hotel until the practice had been completed. At one level, this is crazy; at another, I have some sympathy for Chua – unlike so many of us with our children, at least she stood her ground.

Battle Hymn is more than a parenting story, however. It is also the classic immigrant tale. The daughter of migrants, Chua had limited opportunities and was determined to be successful in a measurable way. Now that she has made good, Chua is absolutely determined that her own children will have every opportunity made available to them. Utterly predictably, her oldest child has taken up the mantle and excels, while the second child has adapted to the dominant culture and rebels against the strict cultural mores of her mother.

The book is also about family and Chua writes simply and well about her parents and their shift from China to America; the illness and death of Florence, Chua's mother-in-law; and the terrible leukaemia of Katrin, Chua's sister.

Overall, the book is candid, moving and very funny, and Chua has a nice self-deprecating tone. She is an odd mix of extremely sharp and charmingly naive, brutal and fragile, and I found myself loving to loathe her.

On a more personal level, Chua's book raises serious questions for me as a parent. While I will never be the sort of mother who will stand over her children for hours of music practice or drive them all over creation to see particular teachers, I often wonder whether I don't demand enough from or for them. I'm not sure how to balance the needs of childhood – for play, daydreaming and exploration, which my kids excel at – with the fact that they don't seem to be learning as much as I would hope.

At home, my husband and I have focussed on relational demands: respect, obedience, graciousness and kindness; but I wonder if we should be demanding more intellectually. One of our daughters is constantly bored at school; the school fails to stretch her academically. A parent like Chua would be in there, devising curricula and making it happen, while I sit at home, fretting and naively trusting that the school will actually do what it promises. I don't want to compensate for the school's lack by filling my daughter's hours at home with academic challenges – surely that is what the hours at school are for – but I am afraid of her becoming lazy and stupid just through sheer lack of exercising her thinking muscles.

And yet, like most concerns I have for my children, these issues are really about me. Chua writes that letting most kids follow their passion leads to ten hours a day on Facebook as they lack the discipline to become really good at what they love; they need parents to provide the drive. In fact, she goes on, most people really suck at what they love because they are too lazy to practice enough to become good.

Her comment stings. I was bored out of my skull for most of my schooling and doodled around at home, and now I'm an adult who is often not quite sure what I'm doing or why. Were I slightly different or had I more drive, I would have written books or be working on a newspaper or doing something else professional rather than sweeping the floor, wiping snotty noses and making notes on a blog from time to time. In Chua's eyes, I am certainly an underachiever, but I don't know where her drive comes from or how to get it.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that people with great drive are always settled in themselves, or even kind. And there's the nub – what is success? Chua is very focused on measurable success: learning things quickly; being top of the class; earning the praise of well-regarded people; having a prestigious career at a famous institution. But the kind of success Chua dreams of often comes at great cost. Chua's daughters had a nanny (Mandarin speaking so that they would grow up bilingual, of course); and Chua details the many years that she and the girls lived in one city and her husband in another as their careers took them in different geographical directions. Meanwhile, Chua spent her girls' childhoods racing from work to school to home to music lessons and back to work again, desperate to fill every minute with useful activity, which is the sort of behaviour I associate with a certain emptiness in oneself. I can't imagine running on that sort of treadmill, or paying that sort of price, to gain the conventional markers of success. What is life if it is not about raising one's own infants, or spending evenings with one's own husband, or just sitting listening to the silence?

As for the hours her daughters spent practicing their instruments when others would be throwing snowballs or hanging out with their girlfriends – it's hard to know what really matters in this life. It might be rather thrilling to be a musical virtuoso; it might be rather satisfying to be sought after by prestigious institutions; but then again, I have had most of my life-giving experiences when I'm just doing nothing. Reading Chua's book raises the all-important question, what does it mean to live life to the fullest? Is it to cram every moment full of work and family, or is there more? Battle Hymn doesn't claim to answer these questions; in fact, it ends with these questions, and the answers, of course, differ from person to person and shift and change for an individual over time.

As for my parenting style, I can't dismiss Chua's methods all-out. I know far too many kids who seem to spend their lives in front of a screen, and have so little real attention paid to their gifts, interests and development that it is hard to imagine them growing into anything much other than consumers. There is merit in a strict, disciplined and intentional upbringing; and it is great for kids to become so good at something that they are brimming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Chua tells a story in which she tore up the birthday cards her daughters had made her. They had been slapped together in five minutes, and she rejected the lack of care they had put into the cards, demanding more from her daughters. The bloggerati was horrified, yet I think Chua was right. We constantly praise our kids for drivel, but it hardly encourages them to stretch out and discover what they are capable of; instead, it tells them that a lazy mediocrity is just fine. And perhaps such a mediocrity is enough in a society in which a major university has plastered billboards with slogans of 'Relax' and 'It's all good' – but it hardly encourages excellence.

As a parent myself of daughters who sometimes make beautiful things and other times churn out horrible slop, I found myself cheering Chua – and when the next piece of crap came my way, I gently raised an eyebrow. I asked whether it was really the best my kid could do, and talked about how presentation and effort communicate a great deal about love and care or lack thereof. I didn't yell and tear the piece up, but it disappeared and something decent took its place.

Chua's methods and goals are extreme; but if they give our parenting a nudge, so that we kindly and gently ask our children to do a little better, then we might just be surprised at what our kids are capable of; and our kids might have the privilege, too, of being delighted by their own strengths and abilities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Poems for all the Lovely People


When she's not cooking or cleaning or reading aloud or writing or singing, what on earth does a woman at home with kids do with her time? (Yes, I get asked this question occasionally.) Well, one of the other things I do each week is sit in a classroom reading and writing with a bunch of terrific kids, most of whom have a refugee background. It's great fun, and I freely admit I probably get more out of it than the kids do. You can read about one instance of 'more' here.

And just as, a year or two ago, I wrote a set of poems incorporating names from the classroom, over the last month I have again written a set of poems which include the class list, and collated the poems into a little illustrated book. It is no great poetic work, just a heap of lovin' fun to make some fantastic kids belly laugh. The book was debuted in class over the last two weeks; and each kid has taken home a copy to keep and read over the holidays. You, I am sure, have enough books to keep you occupied over the holidays, but here's a couple of the poems for the child in you.


Faiza (pronounced fay-zah)

Faiza plays a
Game of catch.
Away rolls the ball
Into a patch
Of shadow where the light grows dull.
Faiza runs and finds her ball.
Faiza gaze a-
cross the green.
Here comes a man with a mowing machine!
Faiza runs off with the ball
And bounces it against a wall.
Marbles, four square,
Hopscotch, hey!
Faiza plays the
Days away.



Ziad's name means 'more than enough',
But enough of what? Well, that's a bit tough.
Is it dozens of smiles? An abundance of brains?
Plenty of sunshine? Or showers of rain?
Does he have a herd of elephants
To carry him through the streets?
A great big pile of umbrellas and hats
To shade him from the heat?
Outside his window perhaps he sees
A fleet of shining cars
Or looking up above at night
A universe of stars.

Or could this 'more' be what he gives
As he fills our lives with joy?
Whatever it is, however he lives,
Ziad is our abundant boy!



How does it feel, Jibreel, to be
Climbing the branches of a tree,
Pushing through leaves way up high,
Arms reaching out to touch the sky?

How does it feel, Jibreel, to run
Round the oval in the sun
Through the grass or kicking a ball
And hearing it thud against the wall?

How does it feel, Jibreel, to rest
Down in the shade with one of your best
Friends in the world, chatting away?
How do you feel, Jibreel, today?


Why did I start reading with these kids? Click here to find out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Moving Pictures


I was sitting in my grandfather's chair, a daughter curled in my lap. She was watching a video with her sisters and had asked me to join them. As Eloise scampered around the screen, I glanced out the window and saw that the butterfly bush was in full bloom. Great sprays of purple flowers swayed and danced in the breeze.

Then I saw the butterflies. One, Two and Three were on the bush, sipping at nectar; Four and Five circled each other in a great lazy spiral upwards; and Six flitted in and out of my field of vision. One and Two drifted up and swapped places and Six had a rest on a leaf. Four and Five descended again and paused for refreshment. Three floated over the fence and, finding nothing but a line of carports, soon ducked back to a cluster of flowers.

'Look!' I said to the girls, 'look! Butterflies!' and all three turned and stood to get a better view. Butterflies darted past, butterflies rested on flowers, butterflies drifted over the fence. The moving picture on the small screen trundled on, unnoticed, while we gazed at the living moving picture framed by the lounge room window.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Praying into the Night

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 112 (Spring 2011). The Summer edition is out now, with my reflection on a visit to a witch doctor. To subscribe to Zadok, click here.


Many ancient traditions prescribe prayers for waking, for eating, and for going to sleep at night. I think this is great. I’d love to be the sort of person who formally prays at these times, but I never really manage it. In the hurly-burly of family life, when waking means being kicked in the kidneys at half past five by a restless two year old; when eating means sitting down to a child’s ‘no like that’, popping up a minute later to fetch milk in the pink cup, no the green cup, and having someone’s crusts flicked onto one’s plate; when sleeping means staggering to bed at the end of the day after half an hour’s respite lying flat on the couch... well, I just can’t manage a long structured prayer at those times; and this bothers me.

Is formal prayer necessary? Perhaps. It’s certainly something I do every week at church, and have used at various stages to help structure and guide my thoughts; but now I have three young children, it feels too hard. I spend some time most days sitting quietly and listening, but the effort of words is too much.

Yet I’ve started to realise that, for all my concern, I do pray constantly. It’s just not particularly consciously nor in the long wordy way so many suggest. When I wake, the first thought that usually comes to mind is ‘thank you’. Thank you for this day, my gentle husband, those hilarious children, the crisp winter mornings. For a thick coat and my red woolly arm warmers, for things large and small, I am grateful. It’s not a deliberate prayer, nor is it carefully articulated; instead, as I lie in bed and ponder getting up, I am momentarily flooded with gratitude.

Later, as I make coffee and hover over the toaster, I give thanks for this drink which smells so good, for hot toast and cold butter, for enough in my belly and the bellies of my kids. I remember the children who are hungry, and ask ‘please’. Please feed them, please teach us how to share, Lord have mercy on us all.

On the walk to school, a driver in a hurry shoots around the corner; I yank back my kids. Then I yell at the car and wave my finger in the air. A minute or two later, the fright and anger ebb to be replaced by a wave of ‘sorry’. Sorry that I cannot control my temper, that I have not yet learned the ways of gentleness. Sorry that I am aggressive in my fear; sorry that my children had to see it. I apologise to my kids, and to the One who is always present, I apologise also.

At a dozen points during the day – a swirl of yellow leaves dances through the air; a toddler announces she loves me; a sweet mandarin segment explodes in my mouth; the perfect word slots into place – I am momentarily overcome with sheer gratitude at being alive.

When the moon is up and the house is quiet, I slide back into bed. I soon grow warm nestled into my husband; and in the darkness I drowsily think ‘thank you’ once again: for this bed, this family, this house, this day, for the things that have gone well. Thank you too for the gracious presence at the places where I stumbled.

As I drift off, it becomes less a conscious thought and more a way of being. I am no longer just a tired woman falling asleep. Instead, this very ordinary person is becoming a small miracle, a conduit of gratitude, as with each slow breath I exhale my prayer deep into the night: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Spider, A Gift


I never thought of myself as a wise woman until a spider came to live above my kitchen sink... I chat with her as we do our housework: me at the dishes, Arachne at her loom. As water splashes into the sink, I contemplate webs and weaving, fear and friendship, and whatever else her presence evokes.


You can read more of my reflection on a friendly spider in Barefoot Magazine's Summer 2011 issue. This is a bittersweet announcement since it is, very sadly, the last issue of Barefoot.

You can find Barefoot Magazine at all good newsagents, or order your copy here.

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