PERFORMING UNDER PRESSURE: Girls busily practice electronic keyboarding under the monitoring of their mothers in Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China (WANG SIWEI)
In her new bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, Yale law professor, recounts her adventures in Chinese parenting and reveals the secrets she thinks are behind how Chinese parents try to bring out the best in their children.
The self-styled "tiger mother," born and raised in the United States by immigrant parents, describes how she applied traditional "Chinese parenting," which she learned from her own parents, to her two daughters. She banned her two girls from ever attending a sleepover, having a play date, being in a school play, complaining about not being in a school play, watching TV or playing computer games. They were not allowed to choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No.1 student in every subject except gym and drama or play any instrument other than the piano or violin.
Chua rode the girls hard, making sure they practiced at least three hours a day even on vacations, when she would call ahead to arrange access to pianos for Sophia in hotel bars and basement storage rooms.
The extreme situations recounted in the book include when the mother threatened her then-7-year-old daughter with donating her dollhouse to the Salvation Army piece by piece if the girl didn't master a difficult piano composition by the next day. In another case, the mother called the other daughter "garbage" at a dinner party when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward her.
The success of this strategy is hard to dispute. Older daughter Sophia is a piano prodigy who played Carnegie Hall when she was 14. The second, more rebellious daughter, Lulu, is a gifted violinist.
Later in her book Chua tried to temper her harsh way of teaching with admission the hard-core parenting didn't always work, especially on Lulu. According to a Time magazine story, the mother worked out some surprising compromises with her children: Sophia could go out on dates and must practice the piano for an hour and a half each day instead of as many as six hours and Lulu is allowed to pursue her passion for tennis.
However, it is the "battle hymn" part of the book that triggered fevered debates over Chua's tough love strategies and made the book shoot to the top of bestseller lists even as it's been denounced on the airwaves and the Internet.
Self-doubting American parents who subscribe to more nurturing parenting styles even worry about not adequately preparing their children to survive in the global economy after reading Chua's book.
Speaking at a community college in North Caroline in December 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States has arrived at a "Sputnik moment": referring to the country's 1957 wake-up call to catch up to the Soviet Union in the space race by investing in math and science education.
In the same month, the latest test results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that has been given every three years since 2000 to 15-year-old students worldwide, were released. American students were mired in the middle: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, 17th overall. For the first time since PISA began its rankings in 2000, students in Shanghai took the test and achieved a decisive first place in all three categories. The ranking seems to have given some U.S. parents more reason to question the quality of U.S. primary and secondary education.
Roar of unpopularity
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, most parents in China reading reviews on Chua's book refuse to follow her lead or identify themselves as "Chua-style Chinese parents."
Chua implies in her book that the tiger-mother approach isn't an ethnicity but a philosophy, the willingness to force academic excellence and musical mastery upon their children with grueling hard work.