In our politically correct culture, we've been taught not to make generalizations based on a person's ethnicity. Now along comes Amy Chua, who blows that idea to smithereens in her bold new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."
Chinese children, she says, are more successful in life than most other children -- not because of their genetic makeup, but because they are raised "the Chinese way." The Chinese method of child-rearing involves intense dedication and hours and hours of homework and practice -- and nearly no free time, friends or TV.
"Many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly," Chua writes. Indulging children's whims, fretting over their self-esteem and allowing them to quit when things get difficult are the antithesis of the Chinese way. Being hard on a child, she argues, shows confidence, love and high expectations.
She certainly has a point. Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, was raised the Chinese way and is doing her best to raise her daughters (who have a Caucasian father) that way, as well.
Her daughters are stellar students and accomplished musicians, performing at Carnegie Hall, acing their classes, speaking fluent Mandarin. But achieving all this meant forgoing much of what Westerners think makes childhood happy -- including any kind of softness. In her memoir, Chua positions herself as a harpy who shrieks at her children, belittles their achievements, mocks their desires. When one daughter says she wants a pet, Chua snaps, "You already have a pet. Your violin is your pet."
This book is both appalling and inspiring, and it has prompted a frenzy of controversy. In response to the vitriolic reaction, Chua now says: "Much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself."
Really? So when she screams that her daughters are "garbage" and "lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic," are we supposed to laugh? When she denies her daughter a bathroom break and threatens to burn her stuffed animals, one by one, until she masters a difficult piano piece, is this funny? And is any of this the literal truth?
It is impossible to tell where (or if) Chua is exaggerating, and that is the chief flaw of the book. Chua told the San Francisco Chronicle that her children actually are allowed play dates, yet in the book, she writes firmly, "Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, weren't ever allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play ... "
The point of this book is twofold -- to tout the benefits of strict upbringing, and to point out its limitations, but Chua spends 99 percent of the book on the first point, and gives only a nod to the second.
The memoir is her journey as a mother, and while her older daughter acquiesces to her demands, her younger daughter rebels with a resolve as steely as Chua's own. By the end of the book, Chua has met her match and, reluctantly, she loosens her grip. There is no epiphany here, just capitulation.
Reading this book invokes conflicting emotions -- sadness for the childhood her daughters have lost, and regret at the unexplored potential of so many others. Surely there is a middle way.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's books editor.