This 2011 gem was a misunderstood work that I read sometime around publication, with one child aged six and two infants. They’re more mature now – should we be enforcing two hours of flute practice instead of a half hour like lazy western parents? I thought it would be good to revisit the work. That thought that has simmered since Chua’s guest starring role in Hillbilly Elegy: (where Chua’s unflinching mothering is applied beyond her own kids.) I wanted to confront at least one of the uncomfortable-because-it-might-be-true lessons I remembered: no playdates.
The title might have determined the reception of the work. The actual tale, while certainly descriptive of battle – against laziness, against acceptance (“Most people stink at the things they love” p. 205) is more of an apologia or confessional, with the pros and cons. It is honest enough of the liabilities of the strict approach, the pains and confrontations between mother and daughter. How can the mother, a Yale law school professor, find the necessary time to implement these strategies with two daughters?
The Battle in question is really with the younger daughter, Lulu. Like her older sister a musical “prodigy” which means “practices a lot.” A lot. Is it worth the cost? The book in the end doesn’t really answer. Time will.
Lulu ultimately rebels against her violin practice…a dramatic confrontation in Moscow is the mother-daughter Ragnarok. But Lulu is free. Still, she decides to apply the lessons of discipline to her chosen field, in this case, Tennis. Where she validates the fundamental lesson of the book:
Chinese parents have higher dreams for their children, and higher regard for knowing how much they can take (p. 8)
The apothesis of parenting is a confrontation about whether it is possible for Lulu to play a difficult piece, The Little White Donkey (p. 62). In the end, despite the parental strain, she does, and is proud of it. Lulu remains so today, as a Harvard undergraduate, majoring in history. I think the second half is the most important lesson, but one easily mistaken for demanding mere obedience.
We’re keeping the play dates, but maybe pushing a little harder on the practice time. The other fundamental takeaway: Chinese parents understand nothing is fun until you’re good at it. (p.29). Side note: a dialog between Seth Godin & Amy Chua would be fascinating to see.