I've read thousands of books in my life. Some have made me angry, some have made me giddy. Some have inspired me to do things I wouldn't have tried, and others even made me cry.
But no book ever gave me heart palpitations -- until last week.
I spent a day and a half chasing the Tiger Mother last week. She was too busy to talk, her publicist finally told me. Which was about as surprising as the sun coming up in the east this morning.
The Tiger Mother is, of course, Amy Chua, the Yale law professor and El Cerrito High School graduate who ignited a passionate national debate over parenting with her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."
Serious, real serious
The book details her "Chinese" parenting methods applied to her two now-teenage daughters, requiring six hours a day of piano and violin practices, seven days a week, on top of absolute academic excellence. An A- was considered failure.
The banned list in Chua's household included: sleepovers, school plays, TV, computer games, play dates and any instrument playing other than piano or violin.
I'm tired just writing that last paragraph.
But I'm Westernized. I let my kids do all those terribly fun things. I also make them do their homework, drag them to art museums, buy them as many books as they want and force them to listen to classical music in the car. Of course, in my car, classical music is the Beatles and Van Halen.
I also let them make choices -- maybe too many choices, I thought, after reading the first 80 pages of Chua's book, in between leaving messages for people who might help me track her down. She was back in the Bay Area to publicize the book, which has garnered her criticism from the likes of David Brooks at the New York Times and both Western and Chinese parents, and exposed her to death threats.
Yeah, like anyone could kill Amy Chua. They'd have to catch her first.
I was fired up after reading the book Thursday. I wasn't sure whether it was admiration for a woman so dedicated to making her children excel, or because the rhythm of her writing reflects how she talks in interviews -- fast, like machine gun fire. Or perhaps it was the lifestyle she describes in the book that had my adrenaline going.
Whatever, I felt fully caffeinated and ready for some parenting when I got home. I sat for 90 minutes with my 2-year-old, watching old "Sesame Street" episodes. We sang, we did the alphabet, we wondered what in God's name a Snuffleupagus is. I also read for an extended time with my 8-year-old, which might not sound like much, but I didn't think I could get away with demanding she become fluent in Mandarin by morning.
I left a couple more messages Friday and picked up the book again. And got to the part where Chua bought her kids a dog -- and went about trying to turn it, too, into a super achiever.
That's when my chest started to hurt from Chua's frantic pacing and the description of her obsessive behavior and occasionally insane demands. It didn't get any better when I read the part about her throwing back the homemade birthday cards her daughters made her, and demanding they make better ones.
Chua says kids are stronger than we think and it's our job to make them be the best adults they can be, so they'll feel confidence and joy at who they are. I can't argue with the theory, although her degree of application is maddening. I also can't argue with people who criticize her, although I will say the book is written with more humor and love than I expected. Chua seems to understand at least some of her flaws (and gets better about them by book's end), but instead of dwelling on them, she charges through them like a stuntwoman running through a wall of fire.
The problem is she has each daughter by the hand when she does it.
The kids don't have much choice. Which sounds like the biggest difference between what Chua calls "Chinese" parenting and "Western" parenting. But I agree with those who criticize Chua for not allowing her kids more air to breathe; that she's stunting their creativity and potential for growth in a wide variety of areas.
Chua would just say that many of those areas are unworthy and by diverting her kids around them, she's done them a favor. And it's hard to argue with her results. Both girls are exceptional students and musicians.
Then again, Chua asserts that playing drums will lead a child into doing drugs which, as a drummer, made me laugh out loud. Then I remembered how happy I was when my 9-year-old chose to learn violin last year, mostly because it was her decision, and she's sticking with it. There's a lot of gratification for a parent when you help steer your kids into making good decisions, not just great achievements.