Larry Cunningham's Berkshire Beyond Buffett is the kind of book I might expect to see produced by a business school academic; it is unsurprising to see that it has been published by an excellent business school press. The book is oriented around an extremely interesting question: does Berkshire offers some sort of competitive advantage beyond that provided by its once-in-a-generation-brilliant chairman Warren Buffett?
Berkshire has invested in a vast array of businesses; in each of those businesses Buffett looks for a "moat." That is, he looks for a market position that will deter competitors from appearing, prevent customers from disappearing, and retain contracting advantages over suppliers, workers, and other inputs.
But what is Berkshire’s moat? Is it the fact that it is good at finding moats? Or is it something else? Larry answers this question in a way that gets at a division in business schools between management-oriented approaches to scholarship and finance-oriented ones. Financial analysis would focus on the existence of barriers to entry (moats); it might also focus on the low cost of capital that Berkshire Hathaway enjoys, given, among other things, its stellar track record. Management departments might look to something else: a strong corporate culture. In this case, Larry reads more as a management scholar than a finance scholar. Larry's describes, through case studies on a number of Berkshire’s subsidiaries, an ethos that focuses on:
- long time horizons
- an approach to management that is hands off but investor-oriented
- an eschewal of complicated financial engineering
- a preference for straightforward products and quiet but respected branding.
In his view, it is this ethos that makes Berkshire a better manager of firms than most.
Can corporate culture explain business success? It is difficult to measure, but obviously it must play some role. If culture was meaningless we could evaluate the quality of a workplace without setting foot inside it, and nobody does that. In my mind, the more difficult question is this: is Berkshire’s culture replicable? Although Larry has developed a translatable story about what works for Berkshire, implementing it may require a certain set of special skills that most managers simply do not enjoy or possess – to describe, in this view, would not result in the ability to do.
Along the way I learned some interesting things about Berkshire. For example, and for what's it worth:
- The firm is not secretly an insurance company with a hobby in acquiring other firms. Insurance revenues form a minority of the revenues of the conglomerate.
- Nor is it a hedge fund, although it does take positions in numerous companies that it does not own. Those revenues, however, are dwarfed by the revenues provided by the firms it does own.
- Nor is Berkshire a story about a few winning companies saddled to a bunch of modest losers, or, at least, it does not seem to be. In its extremely diversified way, the company has enjoyed productivity from almost unit.
At the Glom, we haven't hid our fascination with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and we have even held a discussion among other law prof supermoms on the book. One of my disappointments with the book was that Prof. Chua didn't discuss her dreams, aspirations, successes and failures in her on career path. Today, I saw this interview with Chua that talks a little bit about her dissatisfaction with law school and practicing law.
Law school tore down my confidence. I hated being called on. It's not a discipline that comes naturally to me. I did not click with law. I'm the hardest worker, but I could not retain the information
Chua then explains that her hard work led her to a clerkship, which she did not enjoy, and a career at Cravath, which she also didn't enjoy, though she worked extremely hard at both. After a 14-year odyssey to break into tenure-track teaching, she found a niche for herself in law and ethnicity in developing countries, a few leaps away from traditional law classes and law practice. One can jump to the conclusion that she might have been happier in a different graduate program in that field without the wandering in the wilderness.
As a professor, this makes me wonder how many really smart folks stumble into law school and just don't enjoy it because they would "click" with a different discipline. As a law professor, we have the amazing flexibility of dabbling in other disciplines, but most folks in law school are destined for the less flexible world of practicing law. I know that I have seen my share of students who are used to succeeding in school by working very, very hard and are flummoxed by the first year of law school. Some double down and work even harder, like Chua, but others sort of stall. (Of course, this is one reason why there are a growing number of people arguing to make it cheaper for law students to leave after one year: Me, Ian Ayres & Ahkil Amar, and Ari Kaplan.
Of course the tabloid-y bit of information in the interview was that Chua and her older daughter, Sophia, were asked to be on The Amazing Race, though they declined. From reading her book, I think Chua and younger daughter, Lola, would make a more ratings-ready pairing!
We Glommers have very much enjoyed the past two days of posts and comments on Amy Chua's funny and fascinating memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Thanks to all our law professor mom participants! If you are just happening by, check out all the posts:
One of the reasons that I gathered together a whole bunch of law professor moms to talk about Professor Chua's book was that I imagined that the book would raise the question of balancing work and parenting. However, the question was raised then ignored. Though Chua focuses on the tension between pushing her children and not pushing them too hard, she skips over a tension that I know she must feel: the tension between her own career ambitions and her children's success. Early on in the book, she mentions that at Yale she felt like her world was split in half: she went to work early and left in the middle of the day to begin her second job molding her children. That's what I want to hear more about.
Chua briefly describes her childhood, in which she was raised to always be the first person in her class (no ties!), then she quickly skips over a decade to depict her ensuring that her children were first in their respective classes. Bracket for this discussion whether there is coercion in her tactics (our other posts have covered that); the bottom line is that her tactic takes an inordinate amount of time. She pushes Lulu to be concertmaster and Sophia to be the youngest pianist at Carnegie Hall, but she doesn't talk about whether that type of motherly determination required her to not push herself to be concertmaster in her own career realm. Chua is obviously an accomplished and successful teacher and scholar, but she is spending 100 hours a week driving kids to out-of-state lessons, supervising practices and writing improvement notes. However, we all have colleagues inside and outside Yale that are spending those hours on their own careers. Now, I gave up being first in my class sometime in high school, so I'm quite sanguine about letting my colleagues Larry Ribstein and Larry Solum bury me in downloads while I create a balance between productivity and parenting, but I'm wondering whether Chua had to make a decision at some point that her daughters' ranking was her priority.
Balancing career and parenting is a common topic here on the Glom, and I would have loved to have read Chua's take on that. We all have to pinpoint the equilibrium between career and parenting, and the flexibility of law teaching makes that easier than some professions. However, our profession has a lot to tempt the Type A personality and suck up every hour she has: article placement, book publishing, article downloads, media attention, university chairs/awards, etc. If the Tiger Mother was raised to drive herself in the fierce competition of life, then when did the competition shift from her own achievements to creating achievements for her children? Is this a painful shift? When her daughters are in college, will she regret that shift in priority? Will Chua enroll Coco and Pushkin in agility training, senior division? Of course, as I'm writing this I realize that the last month has made Chua and her book famous, so perhaps she is rebalancing with the writing of this memoir. However, I would have liked to have heard more about her working mom issues from the past fifteen years.
Imagine three-year-old Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld standing outside in twenty-degree wind chill weather in skirt and tights because she won’t do what her mother says. What do you see? I see a brilliant negotiator.
I tell my students that negotiation is everywhere. This aphorism may be trite, but its truth is manifestly evident in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Reading the book, I repeatedly found myself analyzing Professor Chua’s interaction with her daughters from a negotiation perspective.
Perhaps one of the most powerful concepts that has emerged from writing on negotiation in the last thirty or so years is that of the BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. The idea of a BATNA is that you need to think carefully about what will happen if you fail to reach a negotiated agreement. If your negotiated deal isn’t better than your BATNA, forget it. For lawyers, the BATNA for negotiating a settlement is nice and easy, at least in theory: if negotiation fails, you’ll go to court. So if your expected value at trial is better than the agreement on the table, reject it. If your expected value is worse, take it. Strong BATNAs provide power at the negotiation table.
The BATNA calculation, as any parent who’s ever had a child on the verge of a meltdown in the supermarket checkout line knows, is not so easy in parenting. Nonetheless, it works pretty much the same way that I've described above. What are the consequences that will ensue from not reaching some kind of agreement with your child? Will there be a tantrum of immense proportions? Will the child learn an important life lesson? Will an important family event be cancelled? It’s a calculation that parents often perform in a split second; sometimes, the miscalculations are the most edifying. (Expected value calculation, after all, is just a number that captures a combination of outcomes and probabilities. And expected value calculations might not look so good stacked up next to the reality of a child screaming bloody murder for 20 blocks as strangers on the sidewalk give you that beady, suspicious stare. Not that that’s ever happened to me, of course.)
So when Amy Chua took Lulu outside in the freezing cold, she was trying to say, “Lulu, your best alternative to a negotiated agreement here is not looking that good. I know you don’t really want to freeze, and so I think the terms I’m offering are pretty good in comparison.” And, lo and behold, Lulu did something amazing – something that marks a really great negotiator. She turned a weakness into strength. She saw through the “your BATNA is to stay out here freezing” gambit to think about what her mother’s BATNA was. In common parlance, we would say that Lulu "called her bluff." I almost feel bad for Professor Chua: it’s a rookie negotiation error. And indeed, as Professor Chua explains quite clearly, all of the sudden her own BATNA wasn’t looking too good. She saw the future, and it involved some ugly interactions with child services. Lulu has the last laugh here, coming inside to a nice warm bath and hot cocoa.
Sure, you might be thinking, but we’re talking about a child here. Well, exactly. A great point about negotiation is that power dynamics can be tremendously fluid, and sometimes they’re defined in ways we wouldn’t predict. They can be especially interesting when the parties, like children, act in unexpected ways. Who has more power, Lulu or her mother? On paper, Chua holds the cards. She runs the house: she can threaten to burn the stuffed animals, prevent trips to the bathroom, and so on, and so on. But Lulu has power too. She can force her mother to either actually carry out her wild threats or abandon them, showing that they were empty threats all along. Perhaps more powerfully, she can mortify her mother and demonstrate that their relationship hangs in the balance. She uses a child’s unpredictability to her great advantage. Lulu the negotiator makes it clear that Chua’s BATNA is a bummer: have a really bad relationship with your child, not just now but maybe later, not to mention having that relationship play out in public.
Certainly, it may be peculiarly Western to believe that you need to negotiate with your child. Indeed, Chua mentions explicitly at one point in the book that Chinese parents view children as extensions of themselves. But children are people, and I’d argue that watching Lulu negotiate is a good reminder that it’s awfully useful to take children seriously as human beings. Lulu is a terrific negotiator. I’d like to have her come and speak to my students.
Sigh. I wish Amy Chua was my mother. Now, keep in mind that I (a) can't draw to save my life (ask my basic tax students, who erupt into peals of laughter when I attempt to draw a tree) and (b) am the least musical person I know (ask anyone who has heard me sing along to the car radio). I'm sure my birthday cards would have been rejected by Chua, and that I'd never be able to master the Little White Donkey.
So why do I feel compelled to defend Chua? As I read her memoir and the ensuing criticism, I kept getting the feeling that this debate is a luxury. Yes, I think being impossible to please is a poor parenting technique that likely produces anxiety-ridden children later on. And yes, I strongly believe that a child should feel loved for herself, and not just for her accomplishments. That said, I think kids are tougher than we often give them credit for, and that we should expect more from them. What we are all trying to do, therefore, is balance unconditional love with high expectations.
The common reaction to Chua is that she gets this balance wrong by focusing too much on accomplishment and perfection. This reaction, however, assumes that the default is the stereotypical upper-middle class mother who shuttles her son to little league games where no score is kept, and raves about his performance as "Villager Number Six" in the school play. And if the choice were Chua or this stereotype, I'd probably choose the stereotype.
But for me growing up, and for a large chunk of children not in the upper-middle class, that's not the choice (I wasn't poor, but I was the scholarship girl in second-hand clothes who lived on the wrong side of the tracks). All too often, the default is parents who are physically or emotionally absent, or parents that don't have the time and money to decide between Western and Tiger-style parenting. Think of all the "choices" upper-middle class professionals have: breast or bottle, nanny or day care, to work outside the home or not. For many, however, those decisions are made for them by their economic circumstances. In a sense, the debate over Chua reflects our luxurious environs: Whether one or three hours is the appropriate-length practice session is irrelevant when you can't afford a piano and have to work nights instead of supervising your child's practice sessions at all. I bet a ton of people would kill for the opportunities the Chua children have, however they are packaged.
The bigger problem, however, isn't parents who want to do right by their kids but just can't afford the opportunities Chua provides. The bigger problem is parents who basically don't care about their kids, for whatever reason. When I was younger, I called my parents "libertarian" in their parenting approach; now I call it "negligent." The result was a mother who was never home, a father who was always asleep, and nobody who was interested in what I was doing or how well I was doing it, or in spending any time with me at all. I essentially raised myself. On a micro-level, I bet it's much harder on a child when they think nobody cares about them at all, rather than when they think their parents care too much or in the wrong way.
And on a macro-level, I think negligence is worse than over-parenting. When negligence happens in an upper-middle class environment, it might not be such a big deal (but for the emotional toll on the child). The child likely goes to a school with caring teachers who can take her under their wing. Perhaps a neighbor or a friend's parent does so. To the extent her peer group is a bad influence, this probably means they skip school once in a while to get drunk, but do not drop out altogether. But they still get a decent education, go on to college, and then live a life of their choosing. I tend to think, like a recent WSJ article suggested, that once a family is economically secure, parenting decisions are not that influential.
But when parental negligence is coupled with economic insecurity, the results can be devastating. The local schools are failing, and it's less likely the neglected child can get a teacher to take an interest in her. Due to the prevalance of single parents and adults scrambling to take whatever job they can get, there are probably fewer adults around after school to pay attention to her. And if the norm is to quit high school or not attend college, the effects of a bad peer group are much worse. Not only does the child herself have fewer options, but the net impact on our society's economy and well-being is magnified.
So if the choice is no parent or a tiger parent, I'll take a tiger parent any day.
As I said in my intro to this book club, I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I'm caught between talking about the substance of the book and the "meta": how Chua presents herself and her story. So let me try a paragraph or two on each.
First, substance. Chua presents a strident call-to-arms, "we're different and that's better and we're not going to succumb" approach with a conviction in her own rightness at which I marvel. Because parenting is such a shot in the dark. We make choices for our kids and hope that we're doing the right thing for them, equipping them for a world we can't even imagine, any more than my parents in 1983 could imagine the YouTube or the iPhone4. But we don't know what the right thing is, in general or for any particular child. Maybe pushing a child to be "number one" is the answer. Maybe it's the road to depression, self-loathing, and dysfunction. We don't know. We just kind of fake it and hope for the best.
Lyrissa reminds us of Herodotus' teaching that we can't say anyone is happy until they are dead, i.e. until the end of the story. I share Christine's sense of frustration with Chua's nonending, but I also think that's a strength of the book. We don't, any of us, know how our children's story will end. Hopefully none of us will.
In terms of meta, Sarah just posted an elegant account of the many Amy Chuas, so I'll content myself by observing the destabilizing role of death in the book. Some of the most haunting lines for me described Chua's relationship with her mother-in-law, Florence. Here's the passage:
Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl--she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare.
I find these words almost unspeakably sad.
Chua recounts how, in a conversation where her cancer-ridden sister has just told her that she didn't have any hope for survival, Katrin tells her not to be so hard on Lulu. Chua is a frustratingly unreliable narrator, but it seems like Katrin's sickness, the loss of Florence, and Lulu's intransigence combine to force Chua to acknowledge that some things are outside her control. She can't quite give up her old ways (tennis, anyone?), and "humbled" certainly seems like the wrong adjective to describe her at the end of the book. But she does seem more willing to make things up as she goes along and to let us see her doing it.
My immediate reaction to Amy Chua's fascinating and brave book and the media storm that followed it was surprise. My surprised reaction was not to Chua's story but to the distinction between Western parenting and Chinese parenting on which it was based and that was particularly highlighted by the media. Strict ambitious Chinese parenting described by Chua was consistently compared to permissive Western parenting. Having spent a lot of time in the last two years thinking and writing about the transformation of American parenting norms - I believe the differences are not as stark.
Chua describes Chinese parenting as extremely intense, demanding children to excel at all costs and investing family resources (time, money and energy) to ensure these goals are met. In our article titled Over-Parenting, Zvi Triger and I describe the ways in which parenting in the United States has changed over the last two decades and has become what we call "intensive parenting." Intensive Parenting is prevalent in middle and upper-middle class families. Intensive parenting is first of all cultivating. Parents spend time and resources identifying their children's strengths and scheduling their days to cultivate these strengths. Children's lives are chock-full with activities designed to make sure they develop to their full potential. Intensive parenting is also informed - parents spend significant amounts of time making sure that they are abreast of all the information necessary to excel at child-rearing. This may mean reading volumes of child development literature or spending hours researching the best after-school French class. Finally, intensive parents consistently monitor their children to assure these goals are met, whether through constant cell phone communication or regular involvement in schools. So really Western intensive parenting and Chinese parenting share a lot in common. Both have high expectations and ambitions for children and parents alike.
Since both parenting styles have high expectations from parents, they both exert an enormous toll on parents. Chua in her book describes in many words the cost of her parenting style to her relationship with her youngest daughter - the daughter who resisted. But neither Chua nor Western intensive parents discuss the toll of these parenting styles on themselves. Both Western intensive parenting and Chinese parenting are extremely intense for parents. They require a massive investment of time. whether it is to accompany your child to piano lessons and oversee hours of practice as Chua describes or whether it is to take children from one after-school activity to another and continually negotiate that each institution caters to your child's need as many Western intensive parents do. These parenting style have costs for adult careers, time spent with spouses and just general adult free time. Unlike our parents, parents today have far less free time that is real adult-time -- not catered to children activities. Yet, this is a topic rarely discussed by Chua or by Western parents.
Having said all of that, I should acknowledge that there are obviously differences between the two parenting styles. These differences become stark particularly when things go wrong. When things go wrong and the child fails, the Chinese parent, according to Chua, blames the child and demands more work to achieve the goal. The Western intensive parent instead blames the institution or the teacher, arguing that the child would have excelled, absent a problem with the institutional arrangement.
Finally, I have to say that I am very glad that Chua wrote her book. Glad not just because it was an honest book and a fascinating read. I am glad because I believe it underscores the message of our Over-Parenting article. In the article we show that the law in many ways is already endorsing Western intensive parenting norms and we caution against further incorporation of intensive parenting norms into the law. We argue that Western intensive parenting is class and culture dependent and not shared by all cultures and classes. In the article we highlight other cultures' parenting practices, which endorse less parental involvement and more free play. Chua's parenting style is a different variation, endorsing intense involvement but using methods that are foreign to Western intensive parenting. The storm that followed the publication of Chua's book showed how strongly people feel about their parenting styles and the danger of enforcing one parenting style through legal standards on all.
I want to build on Christine's earlier post and focus on the fact that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir. So there are at least three Amy Chuas to discuss: Author Amy Chua; Narrator Amy Chua; and "Amy Chua," the book's subject. The book makes clear from very early on that Narrator Amy Chua is unreliable. (Indeed, in a recent interview, Author Amy Chua says, "I've always loved books with unreliable narrators.") Sometimes Narrator Amy Chua is just inconsistent: for example, at the beginning she tells us that her daughters were "never" allowed to go on sleepovers, and later we find out this isn't true. But more frequently, and more enjoyably, she's obtuse, which is the source of most of the humor in this very funny book. For example, in a section that caused both my father and me to laugh so hard that we had to put down the book, "Amy Chua" berates her husband, "What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?" Sophie and Lulu are the daughters, and Coco is, of course, the family's dog. Narrator Amy Chua implies that "Amy Chua" means this seriously, but Author Amy Chua asks us to laugh.
In other words, Author Amy Chua has created a character, an intense, exaggerated, over-the-top character. (This seems to be a character that she created over time, telling these stories at dinner parties like ones she describes in her book.) A character doesn't have to be false, exactly. I highlight particular aspects of myself when I teach, and they are real, but by leaving some parts of me out of the classroom and emphasizing other parts, I create a character. This person is similar to me in many ways (Professor Lawsky loves tax, video games, sports, her kids, and tax, and she loses things, like the eraser and the remote control), but she is not all of me (just one obvious example: any serious stuff related to my family stays out). If you got to know just the character who teaches my classes, you would not know me.
So I find it unsurprising that Author Amy Chua is maternal and moderate and thus "disappointing" when she discusses parenting at Davos, or that Amy Chua's real-life daughter writes in the New York Post that "no outsider can know what our family is like." Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir, but it is enjoyable in large part because Author Amy Chua does such a good job of creating characters, instead of giving us an accurate blow-by-blow account of life in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. I think Ali G is funny, but I don't expect to get the same sort of entertainment from an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. And if the organizers of Davos had wanted Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to come alive, they should have asked Amy Chua to come as "Amy Chua."
I think the hardest part about reading Chua's book for me is that it is like catching myself in a mirror -- and I don't look that great. I am a junior Tiger Mom, with Tiger Mom aspirations. Like Chua, we have rules that are not universally accepted around us (limited electronics use, fairly censored TV watching, computer only in common areas, etc.) And, like Chua, I am a yeller: a warrior with words, and with sarcasm. (Last week, when my daughter was lamenting having to write a long essay, I countered with "Well, if you don't like to write more than a few sentences, I have a list of mediocre colleges you may want to think about. And a list of occupations, most of which end in "repair.") Reading some of Chua's and Lulu's verbal jousting was a little too close for comfort. I also felt the heartbreak of thirteen-year-old Lulu's detaching from Chua, which felt all-too-familiar to me. I kept thinking of the song "Slipping Through My Fingers," from the musical Mamma Mia. I wanted to pound on my Kindle screen and tell Chua to wake up and get her daughter back.
But because I walk a similar path, I understand Chua's motivations. We are all products of our childhood, and we all vicariously use our children as avatars to mimic or correct our childhood. Chua seems to be doing both -- she wants to use her strict parenting to ensure that her children have similarly successful outcomes as well as acquire hard-earned insights and skills on the arduous journey, but she also (like Western Parents) wants her kids to have what she didn't. Luxurious foreign travel. Dresses from Barney's. Musical instruments that cost as much as automobiles. Tastefully simple celebrations with lots of guests that reek sophistication. Chua is trying to give her kids the best of both worlds: the work ethic of the recent immigrant and the sophistication and pedigree of a Mayflower descendant. And she has seen many reaffirming payoffs, though we see that her strategy is high-risk and high-reward.
I also understand her basic quandary: how to "make" a child do anything. My first child was my "Lulu," so I figured out at about two months that I couldn't make a child do anything they didn't want to do. Unless you are willing to resort to some sort of physical coercion, which I'm not, then the second-best strategy is to try to make the child want to do what you want the child to do. this can be achieved, if at all, through reasoning or incentives (otherwise known as bribery and threats). And sometimes, nothing works and you find yourself with a child who still says "no," even after you've taken away every physical possession known to man and grounded them for their natural life span. Then you realize they are on to you. Like the ants in A Bug's Life, children can sometimes catch on to the fact that parental control is fairly illusory and depends completely on the voluntary compliance of the child. If I could have warned Chua of anything, it is that the child will have this epiphany earlier rather than later if you do not choose your battles. If Chua's main goal is to have her children emerge successful and having reached their full academic/musical potential, then she should only try to use control as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. So I winced when I read that she went into "bet the family" fighting mode over Lulu playing at her own Bat Mitzvah and over Lulu trying caviar. Getting her way in those episodes was an end in itself, proving that children must obey their parents, not a means to the greater end of self actualization. And of course we know what happened next, if you have read the book.
In the end, the parenting memoir as genre doesn't have much to offer as advice. Chua has an "n" of two, with mixed results, which aren't complete yet. All of us have small n's, with way too many confounding variables. If we don't like Chua's methods, it is hard to combat her anecdote with our anecdotes. Many commentators and reviewers have questioned whether her children are really hapy/will be really happy in the future/etc. There's really no way to know, and no way to know if their happiness/unhappiness is linked to the fact that their parents heaped both huge amounts of love and expectations on them. I think the best way to read Battle Hymn for the Tiger Mother is as an account of one woman's decision to parent in a particular way and the transformation that occurs in her because of that choice. As I said in an earlier post, I'm not sure that enough time has passed between the events in the memoir and the writing of the memoir for the author to have truly processed the transformation of Tiger Mother. Unfortunately, she has said "no sequel," so we may just have to catch up with her at a conference in a few years to get the rest of the story!
Parenting is hard. It is by far the most challenging (and most rewarding) thing that I have ever done. It makes billing 3,000 hours per year at big law look like a walk in the park. So I am not in a position to critique any parenting techniques or decisions that are based on love, compassion and concern for the children.
And regardless of what you personally think about Amy Chua's parenting style, I think her love for her children comes through clearly in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You can question her methods and tactics, but not her love or devotion to her children. Yes, the cynic could say that her children are not her primary concern; rather, she is living through her children and hoping to shine in the light of their successes (even Chua acknowledges this cynical perspective in the book). But I find it hard to be cynical about a parent who spends so much time interacting and working with her children and who, in the end, modifies her approach to preserve that fragile parent-child bond.
I will admit that my parenting style is very different from that portrayed in the book. I will also admit, however, that I was not surprised by the explanation or adoption of what Chua refers to as the Chinese way of parenting because, having participated extensively in a competitive activity during my childhood, I experienced some of those techniques. I am incredibly grateful to my mother for all of her love and devotion. And although I am raising my children differently, I do not think my parenting philosophy is better or worse--it is just different.
Nevertheless, I recognize that we as a society do judge parenting techniques. As I was reading Chua's book and thinking about this forum, I was reminded of another parenting book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman. The Waldman book is an interesting review of the challenges of parenting, particularly when the "Bad Mother police force" is watching your every move. The motivation for that book also is interesting--the author was criticized heavily by other mothers after publishing an essay in the New York Times about loving her husband more than her children (see, e.g., here and here). (Notably, Waldman commented on Battle Hymn, see here.) Chua likewise has apparently received death threats over her book. Moreover, I suspect many of us have experienced or heard horror stories about the often judgmental cliques that develop among mothers, starting with the preschool crowd.
This harsh criticism of, and resulting guilt inflicted on, undeserving parents bothers me more than whether we let our children attend playdates and sleepovers. This conduct is even more troubling when you consider how children may mimic the conduct of their parents (see, e.g., here, here and here). As such, I suggest a battle hymn for civility and support among parents.
Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother is a brave and provocative work--inspirational and disturbing in roughly equal measure.
To be a mother is to be judged. Strangers in public places offer advice about whether your baby is dressed appropriately for the climate; family members, friends, and mere acquaintances feel at liberty to share their often strong opinions about how you feed or discipline your children. Amy Chua is therefore brave to offer up her parenting for minute public scrutiny in this book that is part memoir and part spirited defense of parenting methods that many of her readers are likely to brand extreme, including calling children names ("fat", "lazy") and making invidious comparisons between one child and another.
As a mother of three sons (ages 12, 9, 6), I found Chua's honesty about the difficulties (battles, really) of parenting to be remarkably inspirational. One of Chua's themes is the difficulty of attempting to inculcate one's children with values that do not seem to be shared by the wider culture. Like Chua, I sometimes feel as if cultural forces are aligned against my attempts to produce respectful, disciplined, and hard-working children, and it is inspirational to hear of another parent's struggle against these same forces. Like Chua's children, my own sometimes make me feel like an ogre when I am standing over them demanding (often quite loudly) that they re-do a project or assignment until it represents their best efforts. Many times I feel like throwing up my hands when I am dealing with an obstinate and argumentative child who simply doesn't want to do the work required to realize his full potential as a student, especially since these battles are always waged after a long day at work, when I'd like to relax and read a novel. Chua's book truly inspired me to redouble my efforts with my sons and not to cut myself slack when I am feeling overworked and exhausted. In fact, Chua's book was so inspirational that the "Tiger Mother" moniker has become a running joke in our house. When my sons are obstinate about doing their work, I'll say to them, "Don't make me go all Tiger Mother on you." It is, I hope, a joking reminder that I'm willing to do whatever is necessary to make them the best students they can be.
Chua's book is billed, in part, as a memoir, and as the book unfolds, Chua begins to question, albeit mildly, whether her "Chinese mother" model can and should be applied by every parent to every child. Chua's older daughter responds well to her parenting methods, which involve a highly regimented and demanding schedule of study and piano practice under the constant, intense, and highly critical gaze of Chua herself. Her youngest daughter, however, eventually rebels, but not before she has become a highly accomplished violinist, and even her rebellion involves merely quitting violin and being unpleasant to her mother; she remains, evidently, an extraordinary student and is talented both musically and athletically. Despite this, Chua tell her daughters at the end of the book that she would do nothing differently if she had it do all over again. She insists that she made "great choices" in parenting, and she defends her extreme methods "even though all those people worried that you [i.e., her daughters] would be permanently damaged psychologically." (227). Throughout, she rails against lazy Western parents who place insufficient demands on their offspring and allow them to choose mediocrity.
The point, though, is that Chua's daughters are still too young for her to make a fully informed judgment about the virtues of her parenting style as applied. Herodotus wrote, "Call no man happy until he is dead." By the same token, no parenting can be judged successful when the children have not even become adults. And even if Chua's parenting produces accomplished adults, are accomplishments the ends of successful parenting, or are they only means?
In judging her own parenting, Chua falls prey to what a friend of mine calls the "reflection doctrine." Chua judges her parenting successful because her daughters have accomplishments, such as playing at Carnegie Hall, that reflect well on Chua herself. Chua's daughters accuse her of only valuing them to they extent that they are extensions of herself. In what is probably the climactic scene of the book, Chua's younger daughter shouts at her "You don't love me. You think you do, but you don't. You just make me feel bad about myself every second. . . . You're a terrible mother. You're selfish. You don't care about anyone but yourself . . . .Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself." (205). No one should be judged by what her teen daughter shouts at her in a fit of anger, but after reading the book, it is easy to see how Chua's daughters could come to feel as if they were only valuable for their accomplishments. Even her more compliant older daughter complains, in essence, that no matter what she does to please Chua, it is not good enough.
For me, but not for Chua herself, the central tension in this memoir is between being a parent with high expectations versus being a parent who can never be pleased. On Chua's account, her own mother and father could never be pleased, and she seems to attribute her extraordinary success in life to the perfectionism that her parents' attitudes inspired. Yet perfectionism has costs. Chua admits that she started off as a math major in college to try to please her parents but dropped it when her father "told me I was in over my head, saving me." (31). She wrote her senior thesis on a subject she found boring, again because it "seemed vaguely sciencelike." (31). She went to law school, "mainly because I didn't want to go to medical school." She attributes her success in law school to "working psychotically hard" rather than to being brilliant. (31). Meanwhile, she worried that law wasn't her "calling": "I didn't care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me. I also wasn't naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it." After law school, she went to Wall Street as "the path of least resistance." Though she was good at the job, she felt like an impostor. (31). Even once she entered academia, she often suffered from writer's block, despite her obvious talents and abilities and, yes, accomplishments.
Despite her own experiences, Chua never asks herself if the costs of being a parent who cannot be pleased are ultimately worth it. Chua attributes her success but not her difficulty in finding her way in life to her parents' methods. She freely admits, however, that her husband was equally successful even though his parents took a much more relaxed approach. Unlike Chua, her husband "loved the law," "loved writing briefs and litigating," loved prosecuting, wrote "for fun" a "100-page article on the right of privacy--it just poured right out of him." The article was published by the Harvard Law Review, and her husband got a job at Yale Law School without applying "even though [Chua] was the one who always wanted to become an academic." (32). Could there be a lesson here? If there is, Chua doesn't see it.
I have so much to say about this fascinating book, I'm going to split my thoughts into separate posts and look forward to reading my friends' posts in between. This post is mostly on the topic of the memoir. In case you haven't been to a bookstore in the past two decades, you may want to know that the memoir is the genre of choice these days. The autobiography used to be the arena of the at least once famous writer, but the memoir celebrates everyman (or everywoman) by presenting the forces that shaped that person as somehow distinctive. These forces are usually a bad childhood marked by someone's (the writer or a family member's) mental illness, substance abuse or both. As Tolstoy reminded us, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I am addicted to memoirs, and I've even read an amazing memoir by another female law professor, Elyn Saks.
Amy Chua's memoir is not marked by any of the typical antagonists of the memoir -- no mental or physical illness, no substance abuse, no legal or financial problems. Instead, the tension is between Chua's parenting style and the expectations of modern U.S. culture. Unfortunately, we never see who wins. My first quibble with the memoir is that it attempts to tell a story that is not finished. If we are to truly judge her choices by their results, then the results aren't in. Sophia and Lulu are still teenagers at home, and we get the sense that there will be other clashes between the Tiger Mom and her pride. Chua's sister, whose cancer is chronicled somewhat, is still in treatment. No loose ends are tied up. This is a substantive problem and also a form problem. The last chapter reads as a series of texts among Chua, Sophia and Lulu, sort of a "ok, 'bye/see ya later/love ya/ok, bye" ending. Secondly, perhaps because the events in the book are still fresh, Chua studiously omits many details about her husband, which she acknowledges, and her marriage, which follows from the first omission. Not wanting to write about one's husband and marriage seems reasonable to most people, but it makes for a strange book that one writes about one's children. It's like viewing their family life with an obstructed view, and the family life is the main topic of the book. I kept asking myself, "What did her husband think to himself/say to her/tell the 911 operator about that?"
No memoir is worth reading unless the writer has processed the events and has the self-awareness to write about them honestly from the viewpoint of both a participant and an observer. Chua as writer seems very self-aware. She is very funny and purposefully sets up dramatic irony between what she seems to be saying about a particular incident and the reaction that she knows the reader will have. She takes a transparently tongue-in-cheek tone that lets us know that she gets it, just like we do. Though she is rarely critical of herself in her own voice, she allows many criticisms to be thrown toward her out of the mouths of her children, whom she has already presented as extremely intelligent and wise. Chua knows that these criticisms will resonate with us, just as they must have resonated with her. The only moment that I thought she lacked self-honesty (and this may be simple a lapse in editing) was early on when she anticipated argument that she was pushing her prodigy children for her own selfish desires. She counters this argument by saying that if it was all for herself, then she would spend hours and hours on Saturdays and Sundays doing yoga or other "moms day out" type of indulgences. However, the Chua that we get to know would not accept this argument. Chua has detailed how her life has been about learning and teaching her children the connection between short-term hardship and sacrifice and lifelong reward. So I believe Chua's own counterargument to herself would be that she could easily be sacrificing hours and hours of yoga, book club and manicures so that she could receive praise from her friends and colleagues at the girls' recitals, Bat Mitzvah concerts, and Carnegie Hall extravaganzas. And finally, I do wonder if more separation in time from the book's writing and the events of the book (which seem to have happened the day before the book was bound) would have given the book even more insights.
My immediate reaction upon finishing Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother was utter exhaustion. I consider it a good parenting day if I get home from work at a decent hour, survive the homework gauntlet, get a reasonably healhy and tasty dinner on the table, and get my three kids into bed without them inflicting any serious physical or emotional injury on each other. But Amy Chua somehow finds time to be a tenured law professor at Yale, travel around the world, supervise her children's music practice for hours every day, write pages of music practice notes, and clock her daughter doing 2000 multiplication problems a night (although in fairness, this last task may not have happened every night). I am clearly completely inadequate at this multi-tasking thing.
But on a more serious note, I found myself reflecting on the implications of tiger parenting in light of my current position. I recently moved into administration on the university level and thus am now spending a great deal of time on the challenges facing our undergraduate students. As was widely reported a few weeks ago, the emotional health of college freshmen hit an all-time low this academic year -- students report feeling more stressed out and depressed now than at any time in the past 25 years. Although this trend is no doubt due in part to the current state of the economy, something more seems to be going on -- many students today are lacking resilience. One passage in Battle Hymm rang particularly true for me; Chua writes that when a child receives a bad grade, Western parents in essence assume the problem is someone else's fault and not their child's -- Western parents "may schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher's credentials." Chinese parents, on the other hand, "excoriate, punish, and shame the child," and work through "dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests . . . for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A." (I have to believe that on some level the child of a Chinese parent eventually earns the A just to get her parent to leave her alone, rather than valuing the achievement for its own sake.) At their core, both these scenarios involve parents coming to the rescue, albeit in very different ways. And both run the risk of children failing to internalize a drive to succeed and learning how to cope with and then bounce back from, on their own initiative, a personal failure. To put the point more crudely, in the Western parenting world, children play on teams where everybody gets a trophy (a personal pet peeve of mine). In the Chinese parenting world according to Chua, children are only permitted to do activities where it is already apparent they will eventually be able to win the equivalent of a gold medal. In both worlds, the child always gets a trophy. So is it any surprise our kids can't cope when they get to college or law school and are confronted with the reality that a grading curve means everyone, no matter how many practice tests you take, simply cannot get an A? Western parents surely don't have all the answers when it comes to resilience, but I am not convinced Chinese parents do either.
Finally, even if we assume for a minute that Chua's parenting approach might be good training for academic or musical excellence, that is true only for solitary pursuits. A child who never plays a team sport, or has a sleepover or a playdate (and Chua clings to her antipathy towards these even despite her increased flexibility at the end of the book) lacks the opportunity to learn how to negotiate conflict, to motivate others, or indeed to lead. This is a significant failure in our increasingly interconnected world. So, for example, an adult who was raised by a Chinese mother may be well situated to be a concert violinist or a brilliant mathematician developing theories alone in an academic office, but would not be prepared to function effectively as a part of a team at Ford or Microsoft -- or to lead, inspire, and motivate a group of other (presumably less capable) employees there. We have had sleepovers the past two Saturday nights to celebrate my boy/girl twins' eleventh birthdays, and I have spent the past two Sundays muttering "never again" to myself as I picked yet another cheese puff out of our basement sofa. But after finishing the very thought-provoking Battle Hymm, I regretfully conclude that there may have to be some more messy and conflict-ridden sleepovers in my future.
I think there are many good ways to raise children. Different things work for different kids and parents, so I try to steer clear of judging other parents for how they raise their kids. That having been said, I have some pretty fundamental disagreements with the views Amy Chua expresses in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, less because I disagree with the way in which she raised her kids and more because she appears convinced that hers is the only right way.
In the book, Chua focuses almost all of her energy on ensuring that her daughters outscore and outperform (in the things that she thinks matter) all of the other kids who might be viewed as competition. And she is quite dismissive of "Western" parents who don't properly focus on that goal. If she is right that the "Chinese way" is all about having your child rank first, that is not a society in which I want to raise my child. I think it would be a real nightmare to go to a school where every child has been taught to measure her success by how many other children she has beaten, and to measure her failures by how many kids got a better score on a test. Leaving aside the obvious problem that in any class, only one child is going to be able to meet the goal of being number one, I don't want my daughter aspiring to show up other kids in her class. I want her to do well in school. I want her to work hard. But I also want her to work well with others. I want her to be the child who brings out the best in others. That skill may not be tested, and it may mean that another child will do better on a test than she will, but that is all right with me.
I also don't want to live in a place where other parents view my child as competition rather than as a fun, interesting person who is friends with their kids. Having the support of other parents with kids around my daughter's age has made me a much better parent. And those parents all want the best for my daughter. I just cannot imagine raising my daughter wondering whether her friends' parents are hoping that she will fail (or at least not succeed too much) so that their children can get the highest score on every test.
To my ears, this sounds like a completely, ridiculously obvious point. But Chua seems never to back off of her view that her obsession with being first creates a better society and should be the only way. Even at the end, she is scheming to try to ensure that her daughter will beat all of the other kids in tennis. My guess is that Chua would say either that I am weak or that I am valuing the wrong things. I will leave it that we just have very different values, both for our children and for the society in which we live.