Book Review

Point of Contact

Brooke Ventura
Amy Chua
Thursday, June 30th 2011
Jul/Aug 2011

No matter how Jack provoked me, I never ever struck him. When I first began babysitting him, his mother and I discussed corporal punishment, and we both agreed it wasn't an appropriate disciplinary measure for a babysitter to use. Of course, this was before the memorable even-ing I caught him calmly roasting a gummy worm with his bare fingers on the gas stove where I was boiling water for pasta. Although he was only six, he knew it was wrong and I knew he knew it’only ten minutes earlier when he had been helping me pour the pasta into the pot, I had warned him not to put his hands near the flame. I lunged across the kitchen, snatched his hand away from the stove, and slapped it. Despite my conversation with his mother, I felt I was justified’a temporary sting was better than burned fingers, and he'd been wantonly disobedient. (For what it's worth, his parents agreed with my actions when I told them later that evening.)

When dealing with sin, our natural reaction is to revert to the law’a child breaks a rule and he's punished; similarly, when we encounter a problem, our instinct is to create a new law (or rule) to prevent the problem. Amy Chua realized there's a problem among the descendants of immigrant families in America today, a problem she terms "generational decline" in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her solution to the problem is to implement the "law" of Chinese parenting. According to Chua, the work ethic and discipline that characterize immigrant parents gradually decline upon the birth of their second-generation children, and all but disintegrates with the third, resulting in "soft, entitled" offspring who grow up "feeling that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore [are] much more likely to disobey their parents" (22). Determined to prevent this trend from manifesting itself in her daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), Chua decided to raise them "the Chinese way." While she doesn't strictly define "the Chinese way," she does give a loose characterization of what it entails: no play dates or sleepovers; no participation in school plays; no complaining about not being allowed to participate in school plays; getting an A on every test; being first in every class, except gym and drama; and playing the piano and violin.

It's a formidable list but nothing in comparison to the description she gives of how she applied it. To contemporary Western eyes (even those as conservative and spare-the-rod oriented as my own), Chua's method comes across as downright abusive. I wasn't twenty pages into the book before I read the story of how Lulu (then three) refused to apply her chubby finger to the same key on the piano three times, and in response her mother put her outside on the doorstep (in twenty-degree weather) in nothing more than a sweater, skirt, and tights. She describes knock-down drag-out fights with both of her children, trying every trick in the book to get them to practice their piano and violin’threats, guilt-trips, name-calling, everything short of physical violence. Half-hearted attempts at birthday cards are rejected; A-minuses on tests result in dozens of practice tests being purchased and completed; and vacations are spent driving all over the East Coast in search of the most prestigious music teachers in the country to tutor her girls. Trips to Europe are punctuated by instrument practice, until even hotel managers and restaurant owners intervene’competitions and auditions are stacked back to back, and we're treated to measure-by-measure notes to her daughters on how to improve their performance. All of this is recorded in unapologetic detail, punctuated by tales of her attempts to turn the family dog into a canine prodigy and incisive excursus on how the Western method of parenting falls short even on its own minimalist standards. She makes it quite clear that her husband Jed and even her own parents (who are largely responsible for her ideas on parenting) questioned her tactics and urged her in no uncertain terms to lay off. Determined not to cave and raise facile, pathetic Westerners, she plows on in the fashion of the tiger, fearlessly and recklessly, adamant that her daughters should become a credit to herself and her family.

For a while, the law works. Sophia, described by her mother as having the maturity and sensitivity she herself ought to have had, patiently weathers the harsh criticisms and cutting remarks, practicing and studying with only occasional complaints and protests. Lulu, having inherited her mother's pugilistic temperament, refuses to give in without a fight, hotly resenting her interference, and challenging her at every turn. Chua stands her ground and it pays off: the girls are praised and admired by all who meet them, and word of their musical talent quickly spreads. Sophia wins a competition and is invited to play at Carnegie Hall; Lulu becomes the protégée of a highly sought after Julliard music professor; and both girls are asked to participate in a prestigious Hungarian music festival.

But each victory comes at a cost, and the battles become longer and more intense, especially with Lulu (in a violently rebellious fit, she chops off all of her own hair, refuses to go to her violin lessons, and engages her mother in public screaming matches). Over time, Chua begins to realize that the violin’which for her symbolizes excellence, refinement, and depth’has come to symbolize oppression for her daughter. She is forced to reconsider the importance of her vision for her daughter's future, and whether or not it's worth the price her family is beginning to pay. Things come to a screaming halt in a café in Red Square in Moscow, when Lulu threatens to smash every glass in the restaurant before she gives in to her mother's demand that she try some caviar. At the end of her wits and patience, Chua finally gives in and tells Lulu she may give up the violin.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Online, Chua was asked what sort of relationship she currently has with her daughters. While she affirmed that she has a wonderful relationship with both of them, she was careful to qualify her response:

I certainly made mistakes and have regrets’my book is a kind of coming-of-age book (for the mom!), and the person at the beginning of the book, whose voice is reflected in the Journal excerpt, is not exactly the same person at the end of the book. In a nutshell, I get my comeuppance; much of the book is about my decision to retreat (but only partially) from the strict immigrant model. Having said that, if I had to do it all over, I would do basically the same thing, with some adjustments.

At the end of the book, Chua writes that she favors the hybrid approach: "The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path" (225).

But what she didn't appear to recognize, and what is crucial for Christians to remember, is that the law does not produce righteousness. It is immaterial whether a parenting system is rooted in an established tradition, de rigueur child psychology, or a mix of both. There is no law, no method, no plan devised by the ever-innovative mind of man that can root out the laziness that desires pleasure over excellence, or the willfulness that values a roasted gummy worm over obedience. The law can cultivate external righteousness’after all, Sophia and Lulu did grow up to be intelligent, refined, and cultivated young women’but it cannot create the desire for true righteousness nor curb the sin that perverts it. Certainly the law can be edifying, which is why we're told to bring up our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4) and to not withhold the rod (or hand) of correction from disobedient little fingers (Prov. 15:22). The problem lies in the fact that within an economy of sinners, the law can only be mediated sinfully. No matter how well intentioned a parent (or babysitter) may be, eventually she will apply the law unjustly; it's not that the law fails us but that our sin cripples us. As Christian parents who seek not only to prevent decline but also to encourage growth in children, we teach and enforce the law in light of the gospel. In this way, our ability to eschew vice is found in Christ's righteousness through the grace of God the Father, and not by the works of our hands.

Thursday, June 30th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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