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Wrath of the Snake Mother

Unless you have been living in a cave the past few months you’ve heard about a book titled "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, an American daughter of Chinese immigrants and mother of two Chinese-Jewish-American girls. (She’s also a lawyer and a college professor living in Connecticut.) Her book has been discussed in print and online ad nauseum and generated "Mommy Wars"-like controversy, especially among parents. So in anticipation of a long plane trip, I executed my first-ever-book-download to my iPad to see, from the standpoint of a writer and a mother, why this relatively slim volume has struck such a strong chord (pun intended).

Greta lang
Greta lang

Chua's underlying premise seems to be "the end justifies the means" when it comes to parenting: Chinese mothers push their children hard to achieve and the myth of the Asian prodigy is simply a matter of parent-driven consistency and hard work. While she maintains that American parents in general do not believe in this work ethic for their children (and are as a result doing them a disservice), she allows that one need not be Chinese (or even a mother) to be a Chinese mother. Anyone who has ever read Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" (or even seen the movie) will know that Chinese mothers are stereotypically pushy, interfering, insulting and guilt inducing control freaks who mostly drive their children crazy. I don't know Amy Chua, but I do know a few parents in my neighborhood who might be characterized as Chinese mothers, although they are not Chinese at all.

As I read the first half of the book, I was by turns fascinated, horrified and amused by Ms. Chua's descriptions of her and her husband's decision to raise their two daughters in the Chinese tradition. The main focus of her attention is classical music training for the two girls starting at an early age and to the exclusion of other American style activities such as play dates, sleep-overs, television and video games. However you may feel about these activities that to some signal the end of civilization as we know it, Chua's berating of her daughters, forcing them to practice for hours at a time (even on vacations) as well as throwing a handmade card into her daughter's face is the sort of incendiary action that creates an immediate and negative knee-jerk reaction in many Americans (including me). I couldn't help feeling that some incidents were exaggerated or isolated at the very least since her actions struck me as counter-intuitive (keeping a child from much needed sleep on vacation so she could practice piano until midnight in a closed restaurant). I wondered if the book hadn't been written with the idea in mind that the controversy would generate good book sales. Chua knows that calling her daughter “garbage” is shocking and even describes in her book a dinner party where an enraged parent left and another was reduced to tears after hearing Chua recount her “shocking” teaching method.

I have to admit I was impressed by her determination and consistency and for sure there were moments of joy between her and her children, but it was hard for me to imagine her relationship with her husband while all this transpired (he is a rather vague presence in the book) and her insistence that Chinese children love, adore and thank their Chinese parents for this treatment rang a little false with me. There are many inconsistencies in the book as well as aspects of Chua's personality and lifestyle to turn readers off including her lengthy list of vacation spots she and her family have traveled to and the lack of explanation as to how she held a professorship at an Ivy league school while controlling her daughters' days and driving them on occasion five hours to meet with a potential piano teacher. As if I don't already have an inferiority complex. I have found forcing my children to do things a thankless (never mind exhausting) and usually unfulfilling task and apparently don't have the fortitude of a Tiger mother (Chua's Chinese Zodiac sign) to let my children's tears and resentment roll off my back. Is there such a thing as a Duck mother?

I looked up the qualities of my own Chinese sign which I knew from the place mats at "New Garden" (the sole Chinese restaurant in my town growing up) to be the Snake. Snakes appear laid-back, but are apparently very hard-working, excellent problem-solvers, work well under tight deadlines (I thought that was called procrastination) and are devoted to their family and friends but rarely take others' advice (hmmm). I tried to lay the aspects of my Chinese sign over the guidelines for parenting as Chua has with her Tiger position, but had to admit to myself that I tend to vacillate between being strict and goal oriented with my kids and other times letting them play mindless video games, eat candy and watch TV.

As with many things in life, I think Tiger Mothering may be best suited to the diaspora that created it and when introduced into another setting needs to be adapted to the cultural differences it is subject to. My parents were raised by parents of the "Greatest Generation" and they in turn were Baby Boomers raising Baby Busters and Generation X-ers. My siblings and I were several generations removed from immigrant status to start with, but still were raised with and retained some of the qualities, both good and bad, handed down from generations of parents before us. However, my children were born after the turn of this century and I would no more try to raise them in a static 1970's "bubble" that resembles my upbringing than I would attempt to raise them in a style typical of my Grandmother's turn of the (last) century childhood.

Parenting is difficult in the best of circumstances and when you throw in the wildly differing personalities of the people involved and our rapidly changing, multi-cultural world it doesn't make sense to grimly white -knuckle your way through raising your kids in spite of outside factors. Besides, "Snake Mother" definitely doesn't have the same ring to it as "Tiger Mother" and conjures up visions of children being consumed whole and family pets in retreat. For now I will try to keep my Dog and Goat on the road to happiness as well as success and get busy exploring the careers suggested for Snakes: analyst, potter, painter, scientist, astrologist, sociologist and magician. All things required to be a perfect mother.