How Amy Chua Will Save Meritocracy
She calls her kids “garbage”. She forbids them from eating, sleeping, drinking water or taking bathroom breaks until they master a piano piece. It’s been four years since Amy Chua, the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother, took the world by storm with her bestselling memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she details her self-labeled ''Chinese parenting method’’. What the &*$% is that thing that reeks of harmful stereotypes, you may ask ? It consists of a ruthless parenting regime that forces straight As on a child. Among other atrocities, it also punishes her with standing in the middle of a snowstorm without a coat in case of subpar performances. Have you ever felt insecure about your artistic talent ? Then consider yourself lucky that you did not have Chua as a mother, who outright rejected the two mediocre birthday cards her daughters made her when they were seven and four. Have you ever felt that your parents forced on you inhuman expectations ? Chua’s mandatory six hours per day marathon supervised music practices and her habit of making her children do twenty multiplication speed tests of a hundred problems each every night will make you feel like you grew up floating on a little cloud in heaven by comparison. Accordingly, Chua got besieged with death threats, charges of child abuse and predictions of bleak futures for her two daughters. Her email inbox morphed into a hellish war zone full of invectives directed at her family. Literally overnight, all the major media networks vilified her and made her the World’s Worst Mother. Since very few people can achieve that level of hatred, my curiosity was immediately piqued. After reading a review of the memoir in La Presse, I headed to the BANQ and checked the sleek thin book out. And I instantly fell in love with Chua.
I swear I am not crazy. I do not sympathize with child abuse of any kind. In fact, I am the most anti-child abuse person you will ever meet. But do not judge a book by its cover (or by its bad press, in this case), because it’s not about a manic parent who wants to crank out stratospheric achievements at all costs for her progeny. If you take the time to read the book carefully, you will see that she actually has a very simple empowering message for her children. Beyond the perfect report cards, the international piano competition win that led to a Carnegie Hall performance at age fourteen, the violin lessons with a world-renowned violin teacher, the screaming, the yelling and the draconian punishments, she simply wants her kids to have unshakable faith in themselves. She taught her two daughters to believe that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to regardless of their current circumstances through hard work and ingenuity and if they doubted themselves and generated “bad” results, then goshdarnit, mommy was going to use extreme psychological warfare tactics to show them what they are truly capable of ! Yes, I do realize that this message reeks of the American Dream and of the much-maligned meritocratic myth (What about all the people who were simply BORN IN UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCES, SUCH AS POVERTY OR DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SITUATIONS ?! What about the people who simply LACK NATURAL TALENT ?! What about people who have a DISABILITY ?!? WHAT ABOUT THEM ?! You can’t forget that they exist too !). But hear me out, because I think that such a perspective may be exactly what that broken system needs, for the following reason: her approach forces you to become aware of your current circumstances and to assess what is standing in your way because sooner or later, brute force hard work is simply going to stop working. But if you follow her brutal philosophy that upholds guaranteed success no matter what, that is no excuse to quit. Quite the opposite, it’s time to get in the trenches and figure out a way to tackle the problem. Case in point, Chua’s own father, a traveling research scientist from whom she gets her outlook on life, made her study in Germany during her junior year of high school even if she did not know a word of German. Left to her own devices, she found ways to thrive by relying on universal symbols and sympathetic translators. Obviously, this example does not hold mustard to someone who was born in disadvantageous socio-economic circumstances, but the point is the same: in order to overcome your barriers, whatever they might be, you have to understand how they work against you and maneuver accordingly. Being aware of the obstacles that stand in your way is, in this sense, not a signal to give up but rather a chance to consider an endless ocean of alternative paths that are so often hidden to reach your goals. And for people who were born in poverty, in dysfunctional homes or in any kind of disadvantageous situations, that can be incredibly empowering. Of course, some things will undeniably be harder for them. Nothing can help the fact that they started off with less. But that does not mean that they are doomed to suffer a lifetime of injustice in silence.
It is admirable to try to reduce societal inequalities and give everyone an equal fighting chance, and I wholeheartedly think those initiatives should be pursued to shrink unfair gaps as much as possible. But by definition, absolute utopias will never exist. No matter how egalitarian we end up getting, there will always be people who will be a little bit different through external circumstances that are no fault of their own. And for those people, learning that a little bit of craftiness and thinking outside the box can get them just as far as anyone else is a salutary beacon of hope.