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Lorenzo Ciniglio/Polaris

Mad mom

Books | 'Tiger mother' Amy Chua turns a good thing, childhood success, into an idol

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

Once, when one of my sons was first taking piano lessons, I sat with him on the piano bench while he practiced. Even after two decades I cringe when remembering how I blew up with frustration as he kept fumbling over the same several measures.

If Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of the best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin, 2011), ever awoke with a start about her bad behavior while riding shotgun on the piano bench, she doesn't let on. She describes her demands that her kids be top students and musicians. She brags of how she screamed, yelled, motivated, shamed, spent, drove, and hectored her children.

Chua makes a powerful case that her methods in America seem over-the-top, but they work. The evidence: her two brilliant and musical daughters, including one who won an international piano competition and played at Carnegie Hall when she was 16. She claims such success vindicates her three- to seven-hour sessions of name-calling, threats, screaming fits, and refusal to let girls go to the bathroom: "The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That's how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated."

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Some folks have applauded Chua's methods. Charles Murray wrote, "Large numbers of talented children everywhere would profit from Chua's approach, and instead are frittering away their gifts-they're nice kids, not brats, but they are also self-indulgent and inclined to make excuses for themselves. There are also large numbers of children who are not especially talented, but would do a lot better in school if their parents applied the same intense home supplements to their classroom."

Others have accused Chua of near child abuse and entered into a furious debate about Western vs. Chinese parenting. Chua does report that she backed down when Lulu, her 13-year-old daughter, showed hatred for her mother and her life. Lulu gained the opportunity to drop violin and pursue a different passion, tennis, with determination and focus.

I'm trying to think this through as a Christian. I'm amazed at Chua's single-minded devotion to her goal of having her children achieve academic success to echo her own pattern (Harvard, Harvard Law, Yale Law). But academic stardom wasn't enough. Musical success was also crucial to her: "Violin symbolized control. Over generational decline. Over birth order. Over one's destiny. Over one's children. . . . In short, the violin symbolized the success of the Chinese parenting model."

Maybe, as Charles Murray writes, Chua's daughters have the genetic makeup that virtually guaranteed their success. Maybe she wasted all that yelling and screaming. But maybe she did make the difference between extraordinary achievement and just ordinary success. At the end of the day, is that what makes Chua's life worth living? Is that what gives her children worth?

Chua's book should get us thinking about the things we long for and do anything to attain. Those things are idols. To borrow from pastor Tim Keller, we take good things (our children's success) and make them into ultimate things that woo us and ultimately crush us.

It's a relief to put down Chua's book, with its frenzied striving after human perfection, and pick up Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts (Zondervan, 2011). Voskamp invites us to slow down, to learn how to live the full life of eucharisteo (with grace, thanksgiving, joy) regardless of circumstances.

With lovely word pictures inspired by everyday life in her family and on her farm, she writes about her struggle to live joyfully amid sin and sorrow and suffering. She preaches-as Chua does-the value of practice. "Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation. Practice, practice, practice." But she's practicing for something bigger than a concert at Carnegie Hall: "There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things. It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing. The moments will add up."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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