Should You Let Your Child Pursue Their Passions?

The "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" raises parenting questions.

Moms Talk is a new feature that is part of a new initiative on Patch to reach out to moms and families. Millburn-Short Hills Patch invites you and your circle of friends to help build a community of support for mothers and their families right here. Each week in Moms Talk, we take your questions, give advice and share solutions. Moms Talk will also be the place to drop in for a talk about the latest parenting hot topic. Have a question or suggestion to raise in this weekly feature? Send an e-mail to jen@patch.com.

Recently I did something I said I wouldn't do: I read Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." I couldn't help it; people were discussing it in emails and debating the merits of it at my younger son's basketball game. Though I'm not a fan of child-rearing books, this one so quickly became part of the national conversation that I had to download it and read it on my husband's Kindle.

I couldn't put it down. 

Say what you want about Amy Chua—she's an extreme parent, an abusive taskmaster, a narcissistic nightmare and just plain mean, old Mom. She's definitely tough: She doesn't allow any of those fun, time killing activities like play dates, sleepovers, school plays, or marathon Facebook sessions. But she's a terse, excellent writer and the book reads like a thriller—it's fast-paced and chapters end in cliffhangers. Will Chua's daughters Sophia and Lulu stick with the instruments their mother has imposed upon them? Will Popo, Chua's mother-in-law, survive chemotherapy? Will Coco the dog learn to behave? Is Pushkin, the second dog, smart enough to keep up? Will Chua's sister, Katrin, survive her bone marrow transplant? Will Chua's husband, law professor and novelist, Jed Rubenfeld, leave her? (Actually, that last question doesn't come up in the book, but you do start to wonder how much wear and tear the Chua-Rubenfeld marriage can take).

Amy Chua's approach to raising kids is not for everyone. She doesn't have any compunction about describing herself as "compulsively cruel." She has the energy and self-discipline to sit for hours (not just one or two a day, but entire evenings and weekends) and listen while her daughters play piano and violin. Their practice sessions are grueling, even when Chua isn't there. Before she travels, she leaves the girls copious notes about how to practice their songs, measure for measure.

Her attention to detail borders on freakish but she gets the job done and she isn't ashamed. When one of Chua's law student finds the practice-makes-perfect notes she leaves for her daughters, he shows it to her in horror; Chua recites the student's comments and then reproduces the notes he mocked. "DRILLS PAGE 7 Opening measures: mm. 18 & 19: a. Use 1/2 the bow pressure & faster bow on chords. Lower elbow. Keep violin still! b. Drill little notes (da da dum) to make them clear-drop fingers more quickly..." 

Both girls become extremely accomplished musicians, winning competitions, studying with master teachers, playing on the third floor of Carnegie Hall. One of the daughters emerges happy, confident and proud of her accomplishments. The other daughter, not so much. 

You have to give Chua credit for owning up to the fact that her Tiger Mother approach backfired with her younger daughter, Lulu. It is not ruining anything to say eventually Lulu does exactly the opposite of what Chua wants. She doesn't become a drug addict or a prostitute, but she throws over violin for tennis, is quickly successful (she makes the varsity team in middle school) and seems to take real pleasure from it.

What Chua leaves out of the book are topics that might not be important to her but do come up when you're raising teenagers:. There is no discussion of sex, dating, drugs or how to get along with peers, and you wonder what kind of friendships, if any, Chua's daughters have (Chua does mention that her own parents never even discussed puberty with her, a word she describes as "gross"). Chua is a bit of a narcissist and it's hard to know if she has any compassion or empathy for anyone but herself. 

She doesn't ask, but you do wonder: Is jamming your interests down your children's throats really a good idea, when it triggers so many fights, tears and rebellions? Are her kids happy? Her older daughter, Sophia, is beautiful and still playing the piano. She beams out of pictures and recently wrote a letter to the New York Post, singing her mother's praises. You do worry a bit about Lulu (now 14), who looks less than thrilled in pictures. You hope she's taking notes for her memoir. You wonder about Jed, who sounds occasionally complicit in his wife's nudging the girls to stardom, but also ambivalent about Chua's single-mindnessness. To Chua's credit, she notes Jed's occasional challenge of her child-rearing methods. Chua always makes her daughters carry their luggage and instruments when they travelled. "Interestingly, Jed had the opposite instinct," she writes. "It bothered him to see the girls loaded down, and he always worried about their backs." 

It's hard to know where Chua found the time to do all of this. She sounds super-human. She's a full professor at Yale Law. She spends a lot of time meeting with students; it sounds as if they love and respect her. She's published three books, travels, and lectures. She's thinking of getting a third dog (!). While she was on book tour, she sometimes flew to three cities in one day and took the Red Eye back. 

This book seriously makes you question your own parenting skills, specifically, should you let your children pursue their passions? Chua would say "yes, but only if you decide what that those passions are ahead of time." My older son wrestles. He used to play ice hockey, a sport I disliked. Practices were early morning and late in the evening, games were (way) out of town. My son loved it, but I found it violent and thought his coaches were corrupt knuckleheads. When one of them suggested I start pulling him out of school early so that he could take private lessons at 2 p.m., I didn't consult my son; I just said no. Three concussions later, he gave up hockey and took up wrestling. I don't particularly like wrestling—the kids look like they're engaged in hand-to-hand combat and are trying to kill each other. But my son likes it. The fiercely-draining practices are during the school day, the matches are blessedly short and his coaches are decent, intelligent men, so I keep my mouth shut. 

By the same token, I let my younger son give up clarinet and School of Rock so he could play football. When he rams into someone, my stomach lurches; when he talks about plays, my eyes glaze over. But he loves it and it's satisfying to watch your child pursue something he has discovered on his own.

I know some people who grew up with extremely strict parents. They went to great colleges but also went through dark periods of alcoholism, anorexia, rampant promiscuity and other addictions. My parents were pretty strict. My father helped me write and rewrite my papers and taught me how to study. But he also complained when I gained weight. My mother made me practice the piano, read and encouraged me to exercise so I wouldn't get fat. Some of this worked, some of it backfired. I started sneaking cigarettes when I was 12, and eating batches of brownies alone, late at night. It wasn't until I got to college and was smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day and eating eight donuts for breakfast (I kid you not) that I stopped being so self-destructive. I didn't like being overweight and out of breath. A little freedom to make small mistakes and goof around goes a long way towards not screwing up big time later.

The indisputably great take-away from "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" is the loving way Chua writes about classical music. Her daughters play Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven and Bach. It is a pleasure to read how they master these composers' works, even if one does take bites out of the piano in the process. 

After finishing the book, I took Kanye, Jay Z, and Cee Lo out of my car and replaced them with Beethoven's 9 Symphonies and Mozart's Musical Masterpieces. I've been driving around the snow listening to "Eroica," "Pastoral," "The Marriage of Figaro" and "A Little Night Music." Listening to this music has been energizing, inspiring, calming and delightful. 

Yesterday, I drove my older son home from a wrestling match (he won). When he got in the car, he asked, 'What kind of music do you have in here?"

"Classical," I said, cheerfully. "We're going to be listening to Beethoven and Mozart all the time now."

"I'd rather listen to an airhorn," he said and turned the music off.

Which got me wondering: How would the Tiger Mother do raising boys?

Jessica Wolf February 09, 2011 at 06:02 PM
I actually had no interest in this book until I read your column. Thanks!
Kate Levin February 09, 2011 at 06:19 PM
Definitely let them pick! (and I'm all for letting kids "waste time" or do things "just for fun" as well...)
Laura Zinn Fromm February 09, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Thanks, Jes! I wish I was selling them!
Laura Zinn Fromm February 09, 2011 at 06:38 PM
I agree, though sometimes I have to rip the remotes out of my kids' hands so they don't play Madden 2011 all day long.
Roger Zenn February 09, 2011 at 06:47 PM
If I had a 2nd mother, I'd want it to be Laura Zinn Fromm!
Laura Zinn Fromm February 09, 2011 at 06:57 PM
Hmm, okay, I guess if I had a third son, I'd want him to be you!
Cynthia Lim February 09, 2011 at 07:15 PM
Having read the book, I found it difficult to understand why Chua's daughters had no choice of instrument to play. I wondered why she waited until her youngest threw a glass in anger at a restaurant to change her parenting style. Didn't the teeth marks of her eldest on the piano tell her anything? She would like to us to believe she wrote a memoir, but writing a memoir when her daughters are barely out of high school is a brave thing to do, especially when she champions one parenting style over another. There is now much interest in seeing how successful her daughters turn out. Thus far, they are doing great with the eldest scheduled to attend an Ivy League college. I also have a daughter who was accepted by all the top Ivy colleges. If her success were to be judged by that, she is no doubt successful, and I am certainly in the running for Best Parent Award, if there were such an award. Dare I call myself a successful parent? No, not for a very long time to come. I can only hope that I was the right, and the best parent for my daughter, and that the unconditional love I have given her will make it easier for her to live with the scars of my parenting. Whether they like it or not, Amy Chua's daughters now have the burden of either proving their mother right in how she chose to raise them, or of demonstrating that her methods did not do them any lasting harm. Either way, it must be no picnic being Amy Chua's daughters. www.thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com
Randi C. Friedman February 09, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Your column certainly spurred my interest in reading the book. I love my father for not making my decisions for me, especially the hardest, most painful ones. I also love him for encouraging me to be an independent thinker. I like the idea of children being treated as individuals and their autonomy respected. If Chua's behavior also leads to her children becoming compassionate people, sensitive to their interior landscapes and to others' lives, I think that's a greater contribution to humanity than hitting the right note. Randi C. Friedman, The Open Captioners
David F. February 09, 2011 at 11:11 PM
Great article! I really enjoyed it.
Laura Zinn Fromm February 10, 2011 at 12:49 AM
Thanks, David!
Laura Zinn Fromm February 10, 2011 at 12:53 AM
Thank you for your comment and congratulations on your daughter's many acceptances! That is amazing and impressive. You must have done something (and probably many things) right. It's tough to be anybody's mother or daughter. Most people who pay attention to these kinds of parenting conversations are probably doing the best job they can. The only way I'll really know if I've raised my kids right is if they have their own kids and are good to them, and periodically visit my husband and me in the nursing home! But as you say, that's not for a very long time to come. Thanks for weighing in.
Laura Zinn Fromm February 10, 2011 at 12:55 AM
It's tough not to try and influence your kids. Your father was brave to be so restrained. I love your "hitting the right note" pun! Thanks for weighing in.
Alan Paul February 10, 2011 at 03:24 AM
This is a really well written article. I can't believe how this lunatic has forced so many people to reevaluate their parenting skills. Enlightened children expecting everything to be handed to them are a probleem; so are parents demanding so much for their children. I suspect strongly that it is not really so the child will have a profound experience but so they will reflect well back on the only person that really matters to this type of maniacal parent; themselves. It is a study in narcissism. You did the right thing when refusing the knucklehead coaches request for private lessons. Your father did the wrong thing commenting on your weight; few things could be so potentially destructive to a teen girl. The Beethoven is a nice idea and it may soothe your soul but don't expect it to go down smoothly with the kids... On the other hand, I think there's a good chance that exposure to it now will lead them to be open and like it way down the road. To Chua's credit, it takes guts to put yourself out there so publicly with your parenting style. I have done the same thing in my new book, Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing. I'm sure people will find things to criticize in my parenting as well. During three and half years in Beijing, I saw a wide range of parenting. Part of what Chua writes about is Confucian ed. tradition, but mixed w/ American upper middle class drive and classic immigrant striving.
Julie Fingersh February 10, 2011 at 07:02 AM
Actually, after reading your thought-provoking column, I will DEFINITELY never read this book! (and feel better than ever about my own imperfect parenting ) I don't want to be cruel, but I shudder to think of the impact Chau will have on her kids long-term. What about teaching her kids that life is for living -- not just accomplishing? And not just living as extensions of their own mother's black and white version of the "right" skills to hone, the "right" way to live? How about the idea of teaching your kids about enjoying life for it's own sake, to have fun, to dream, to figure out what you love? Expose your kids to the passions and instruments and music you love most? Great. But program your kids to believe that there's a single path to walk, and that their mother is the only one who knows what it is? No thanks. I laud the author for letting her kids lead the charge to figuring out what makes them happy -- not what makes her happy. Great idea for a column!
Elizabeth Barrett February 11, 2011 at 12:57 AM
I have been hearing more than I would like to hear about Chau's book. And I agree with those who have said that her book is all about her and what she wanted, not about what her two daughters wanted. If her older daughter wants to praise her mother's approach and has prospered with that strong handed tactic, then it worked for her. Obviously, it did not work for her younger daughter. Time will tell if it worked at all. I would not have wanted to be raised by such a self-centered woman personally. I opt for allowing a child to find his or her own passion and then supporting that child in pursuing it in any way I could. Even then there is no guarantee about anything when it comes to child-rearing. I still am inclined to think that love is the best and most effective part of parenting, and that is not as easy to give as it sounds either. One suggestion about your own son and his dislike of classical music. Maybe you could compromise and alternate--you listen to his music and he returns your love by listening to yours as well. Anyway, thanks for putting this out for everyone to contemplate. Elizabeth B.
MK February 11, 2011 at 01:25 AM
The most interesting part of the book to me, so far, is the part where she talks about her own career--admittedly the result of the same kind of parenting she describes. Let's see--she aimlessly pursued mathematics, law etc out of a sense of obligation and not interest. She admits having zero passion for her "chosen" profession--something that comes out when she interviews initially at Yale. She claims to be creative but has a difficult time writing a work of fiction....etc etc. She claims things are only fun when one is good at them--but she does not sound like a person having fun. At all. To me, she sounds like the exact opposite of the person I want to raise! I will give her this, though, she has a wicked sense of humor. No really, it's wicked. ;-) I am only on Chapter 5 so I am not yet deep enough to comment fully. However, I do think living in this town where there is so much emphasis on achievement, this book is really thought provoking. I think reading this book---and watching Race to Nowhere--will be an interesting juxtaposition! For me, so far, reading this books is helping me clarify what I want most for my children: a sense of competence, yes, but also a sense of optimism. I think those two things are borne out of a combination of factors that include achievement but that originate in self determination and self control. Loved your essay---and am loving all the comments and conversation that have ensued!
jean p February 11, 2011 at 04:30 AM
More on juxtaposition...I saw four young moms at Millburn Library today in the Children's section. They were talking excitedly about Chua's book and wondering when they could get a hold of it. I listened to them while waiting for the elevator to take me up to the auditorium where M-MAC arranged a special meeting about eating disorders...and there I listened with sadness to stories of many young people's struggles as a result of the pursuit of perfection or anxiety or depression or all of those combined and more.
MK February 11, 2011 at 04:32 PM
sigh, Jean, that is sad.....
Nancy February 11, 2011 at 06:26 PM
Loved your article, have not read the book, not sure I will, but having just seen Race to Nowhere last night, my intuitive distaste for what I've heard about Chua's style is only reinforced. The focus on accomplishment, the disdain for fun and free time and independent thought, the notion that OUR success as parents and our kids success as people (in her book and even in people's comments here) can be gauged by the college bumper sticker on our car are troubling. Keep up the good work
Laura Zinn Fromm February 11, 2011 at 08:38 PM
I love what you said about wanting optimism for your children. This book has struck a nerve with people. I wonder if Amy Chua knew the book would polarize people and set off such a firestorm. Controversy sells books. Maybe she was one step ahead of us. Anyway, thanks for writing in.
Judy February 13, 2011 at 01:35 PM
Well stated article! I am enjoying the comments as well. As someone said, we cannot know the results of our parenting for a great many years. I strongly feel that Chua's parenting techniques will come back to haunt her. I will not buy her book; I have no desire to reinforce her own self satisfaction nor see her make money off her children.
M OKeef February 13, 2011 at 03:16 PM
About a month ago, China announced it is considering a law to force grown children to visit, and take care of, their parents. Apparently the police have begun getting many complaints from elders that their grown children are not paying enough attention to them and are busy pursuing their own lives/success.
M OKeef February 13, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Very sad, but I think the real issue is it depends if the drive to succeed originates with the child or is being forced upon the child by an outside force - be that parents or "keeping up with peers". If a child is putting stress on her/himself because they want to achieve something, that is a healthy thing. If the pressure is coming from an outside source, that can turn into a very unhealthy thing. So I think it is important not to incorrectly diagnose the problem. Achievement is not the problem. Let's not throw out opportunities to succeed in the name of making life less stressful for "all".
MK February 13, 2011 at 04:35 PM
(Reposted for clarity) @ M. Okeef: Interesting thought......forced me to really examine my own beliefs more deeply-thank you. Personally---and after considering what you said---I have netted out with the following: I want my children to pursue excellence to the degree that it's something they believe in--and as a means to do something constructive, productive and useful, even if the utility is art or beauty. To that end, they can pursue whatever they love. It can be art, finance, government, cooking, child raising, macrame--I don't care. I just want them to strive to do their very best and to pursue quality in all their work. I guess what I mean, too, is that I do not want them to pursue excellence as a means to ONLY one-up other people. Don't get me wrong--winning is satisfying and it's part of the human experience and it drives productivity. I am not allergic to winning but I know good people whose pursuit of "the win" has actually caused great destruction. If they are drive, my hope is that any self-created stress they feel is rooted in their creative process vs. just competing for its own empty sake or quelling external pressure. Of course, you and I both know that all we can do as parents is OUR best.... ;-) In the end, they are who they are!
M OKeef February 13, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Mommakiddies, Completely agree with your first paragraph. Have always asked my kids to do their best, decide their own goals and not worry about what everyone else is doing. As to your second paragraph that thought - competing to simply one up - didn't didn't even occur to me, but now that you have pointed it out, I agree with that sentiment as well. Good clarification and a key part of what makes it hard to be a child in this town.
judy duberstein February 14, 2011 at 01:05 AM
Having experienced the joy and diffficulty of raising children in this town, let me say that nothing has changed. Iam now experiencing having my grandchildren raised in this town and watching the same struggle over happiness vs accomplishment. My advice is to set standards but to foremost be loving and supportive. Children need to internalize their own goals and reach for them. Pressure from parents usually backfires and certainly does not develop a positive sense of self. Parenting in any age has never been easy, but it certainly is harder here. I salute you all in your struggle . Grandma Judy
MK February 14, 2011 at 01:34 AM
Grandma Judy: Knowing what you know now, is it worth it? Can children engage from Millburn with their sense of self intact if they are not high achievers? Would love your perspective.


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