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Battle Hymn or Battle Scars? Why Amy Chua is Wrong About Parenting

Affiliate Disclosure | in Motherhood | by | with 17 Comments

[info_box]Today’s guest post comes from Tana Agudelo. When I asked her to share a little about herself this is what she had to say: “I adore all things natural.  The scent of lavender makes me swoon.  I’m always on the hunt for fresh, raw, organic, fair trade, or handmade.  I love babies and the Awesome God who makes them.   I have a super amazing husband, seven super wonderful children, and when I’m not answering the MOMMY call, I like to paint and read and cook and lots of other stuff as well, especially if it has anything to do with art or food or music or food or books.”[/info_box]

What Does it Take to Raise a Child to Excel?

. . . to push through when it is HARD? I recently read Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, preceding the release of her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

My heart actually hurt. I felt fear, grief and even horror.

Chua explains how she “mothers”, and I use the term loosely, her two daughters to be the very best of the best:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • 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
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin

That is a bit harsh

. . . but the part that made me feel fear, sadness, and horror, was the seriously damaging method she uses to drive her daughters to perfection. Her parenting regime includes assaulting her children with berating, humiliating and degrading attacks, both verbal and physical, to achieve her ends. And to what end is that?

It is all in the name of SUCCESS.

Does Chua mention that Asian young women have the highest rate of depression and suicide in the USA? Or that Asians in general have the lowest rate of treating mental illness, in part because they do not admit to depression or other emotional disturbances? No and no.*

Some parents out there will see this as justification for their unloving behavior. Some parents will take this as fuel to their fire to be as cruel as they want to be (and yes, our sin nature DOES want to be cruel, sometimes) excusing themselves that it is really for the child’s best, after all, and it does bring results.

How sad is it that these children are being driven to the point of shutting off all their emotions, closing their hearts to how these words and actions make them feel, and becoming robotic performers so that they can make their parents happy? All children want to feed their own innate need for love, so in their soul hunger these famished children grasp a poor substitute: conditional love, which is about as nourishing for the soul as eating fruit loops for breakfast.

A Better Way

I have a lot of problems with what Amy Chua promotes. But my biggest, and by far the most relevant issue, is that God does not treat us this way, nor does He tell us in His Word to treat others this way.

We are to be kind, tenderhearted, merciful, forgiving.

We are to love, to have joy, to be peaceful.

Patient. Kind.

Good. Faithful.



Chua’s method promises a veneer of outward success but at what cost? Loss of self. Loss of freedom, hopes, dreams, imagination and innovative thinking. Loss of children knowing they are loved because of who they are instead of the letters on their report card.

And Yet . . .

She raises questions in my mind: Is any part of it valid? Should we push our children to excellence? And if so, how can we do it without hurting them?

I desire for my children to find their purpose in life, their own special calling. I know that He made them for something. There is a reason, no, reasons, why they are here. My job is to point them to The One who can reveal these purposes to them. I can give them opportunities to develop their minds, hone skills and talents, and educate them broadly. Ultimately, though, it is between them and God as to just who they become.

We have responsibilities as parents. There is no question. Parents make choices all the time for their children. One would hope that most of these choices are in the best interests in the child. But should we require our children to only make A’s? Not allow them to watch TV and keep them away from friends so that they will not be distracted from study? How and to what do we say no?

I wouldn’t let one of my daughters, now grown, quit piano even when it was clear that she was not as capable (yet) as her older siblings, until she was at the point of being constantly frustrated, embarrassed, felt incompetent, and had stomach aches each piano lesson day. It wasn’t until her teacher actually cried with frustration during a lesson (and seeing how horrible that made my daughter feel) that I realized this was MY requirement, not God’s requirement of her. I did not want my children to be quitters.

But Then Again . . .

I also really wanted them to play the piano. About that time one of my sons said to me, “Why is it so important for us to do this? Do we HAVE to be pianists?” I made the decision then that I was simply not going to force my dreams onto them anymore. If there was interest on their part, I would do whatever I could to make it happen. But I was not going to make them do it anymore. Two of the five taking lessons at that time chose to continue. Three chose to do something else: swim team, drama, and ballet.

There is nothing wrong with making a child stick with something for a while, if you are giving them the proper help, support, and love to make it through. God does not abandon us when He lets us go through challenges. It is vital that we ask ourselves what we are trying to attain in the process, however, and also seek God’s guidance as to what is most important at the moment – the lesson to be learned, the habit instilled, or possibly the act of mercy and understanding in rescuing, because God does in fact rescue us from a situation sometimes.

It is a beautiful grace that God can take anyone, no matter where they have come from and no matter what they have experienced, and redeem their past. All things work together for good, after all, we are promised in His Word. That includes all the wounding we have received at our parents hands, and the wounding our children are certainly receiving from us. This comforts me deeply  in the midst of mistakes and regrets.

But if we are striving to be like our Heavenly Father Who is full of grace, mercy, and tenderness in His dealings with us, then our choices will be communicated to our children in a far different tone than the yelling and insulting method of Chua and many other mothers across the world. Even when our Father allows us to go through difficulties and will not give us relief just yet, He walks through all of it with us, even carries us through them . . . we likewise can be this for our children.

I could go and on about the merits of playtime with friends, discussions over TV versus no TV, the development of imagination and free thinking, and believing in the uniqueness of each person . . . oh, so many bunny trails! But the heart of what struck me from all of this is just that: the heart. Ultimately, all of the success and accomplishments of this world will fade into nothing. What remains is our heart – our soul, our spirit, what we gave to God and what He did through us with what we gave Him.

Here’s the bottom line: I want my children to be the best they can be. I require things of them . . . sometimes things that they don’t like . . . and I will help them as much as I am able. But I will not, I hope, ever exasperate them. Let’s speak grace to our children in all things. If our hearts are tender and merciful, even when we need to require hard things from them, they will know that they are loved and that we truly are leading them in love.

*I was further saddened when I read about the personal struggles some Asian young women face in their pursuit of success at all cost. You can read about some of those things here, here, and especially here. (If you read down to the first couple of comments on this article, there is a really impressive story from the director of engineering at Facebook, who was also raised by Chinese parents. SOOO worth reading his comments.)

Photo Credit: Anissa Thompson

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17 Responses to Battle Hymn or Battle Scars? Why Amy Chua is Wrong About Parenting

  1. Whittney says:

    Great Tana!

  2. Heather says:

    Thanks again, Tana. I don’t want to sound like a broken record but knowing you is like finding a buoy in the middle of choppy waters. Your experience and confidence in God help stabilize my unpracticed efforts at swimming these waters. You’re a lifesaver!

  3. Morgan Mayes says:

    I love the post and agree with a lot of it. The one place I think I want to come in and discuss is that point that you made about the piano lessons. I have not gotten to this point as a parent, yet, but I am discussing it from my own experience.

    My mother also put us all into piano lessons. We had to start when we were 9. And we were supposed to keep going until we could pick up an ‘average’ piece of sheet music and play it fairly easily. I know that we all hit times of absolutely hating (hating hating hating) piano lessons. I’m pretty sure there were tears (maybe not from our teacher, but still). But we were required to continue. ‘

    This was something that stood out to me, because my mom didn’t make us finish things very often if we were not interested/wanting to. When I was an older teen/young adult I really had to struggle with sticking through with something because I committed to it or just should (still have to struggle with this sometimes, I might add). It wasn’t important growing up. We even changed curriculums often throughout the year because we weren’t learning well or liking how we were learning or something. I wasn’t taught to stick it out.

    But with piano, we were forced to. And it got better. I ended up leaving for college before I ever was super great, but I can definitely work through an average piece of sheet music, and I have a solid base so that I know I could even self teach myself so much more. My brother, who hated piano at one point more than I ever did, is now a composer and owes a LOT of who he is to his love of the piano.

    Perhaps with this sort of thing it’s not a matter of letting children stop something that could be very valuable to them in their lives just because it’s hard, they aren’t interested, or something like that. Maybe it’s finding alternatives for them to learn by, switching teachers, switching the way it’s taught etc. Maybe each child just has a different learning style.

    Another thing I was forced to learn was how to sew. Sometimes I hated it. Now I’m one of the only adults I know who can sew even simple things, not to talk about that I can create patterns and sew fairly elaborate pieces (if I do say so myself ). This is a skill I want ALL my children to have, because I have seen firsthand how valuable it is. People are always saying they wish they could.

    The same with piano. I hear adults ALL the time say “Oh, I wish I could sew, that would be SO helpful.” or “I wish I could play the piano. That would be fun” or “I can’t cook to save my life” etc etc… When they were children, I doubt they ever thought they would say that. Part of our job as parents is to guide our children based on the much more extensive life experience we have. If we know that these sorts of skills would be wonderful to have as an adult, I wonder if there is a way to lovingly, un-Nazi mama-ingly help our children learn them?

    All this for discussion.

    • Tana says:

      Morgan, thanks for your comments. I totally agree that it is valuable, vital even, to have children learn to stick with things. I was just using this as an example, actually, of one instance where I needed to recognize that I was the one who was adamant about something that was not worth the cost to this particular child. I then chose to let my kids choose, and a couple of my children quit piano, but that was a choice for my family alone. I am not prescribing this for everyone, not at all. My husband has a Masters Degree in piano performance, by the way, so music is important and valued in our family. It was just what was right, especially concerning that particular child, decided after MUCH PRAYER. (She is twenty now and still talks about how thankful she is that I let her to stop, lol.) I do believe that if we had decided that it was necessary for her to continue, there would have been ways to approach it differently, find yet a new teacher, whatever it took, to make it more survivable and possibly even pleasurable at some point for her. It was just an example of how sometimes a parent needs to evaluate the WHY of something and then ask the Lord if it is truly as important for THIS child as we might think it is. The lesson of not quitting needs to be learned, but it does not have to be learned in every single thing, because sometimes we also need to know how to re-evaluate our steps and decide to take a new path, as well. That is what we did – focused her time for learning in other areas that were more suited to her interests and abilities. I think it is important that children have SOMETHING to learn well, to stick with until they have proficiency – but it does not have to be piano necessarily, is what I found out. Does that make sense? As for your friends who wish to have learned the piano, tell them to go for it, it is NEVER too late!!!

  4. Morgan Mayes says:

    By the way, upon rereading your post, I think I’m more adding to it, than arguing at all with it. :) I do not think we should yell at, berate or talk down to our children to get them to attain what I was speaking of.

  5. Kate C. says:

    I agree with Morgan.
    Also, I doubt Amy Chua is a believer, so it’s unfair to compare her ungracious parenting methods to those who have Christ. Of course you aren’t going to extend grace and love if you’ve never experienced the true form yourself. Just a thought.

    • Tana says:

      Kate, in my original post there was a much longer section regarding teaching children to stick with things, but it was way too long to include everything. See my response to Morgan if you are interested. But I really think we can totally hold Amy Chua’s teaching in her new book for parents up to the light of scripture and say that what she is promoting is ungodly and sinful and sad. True, she most likely has not experienced grace and love, SAD, but she is publicly encouraging others to follow her example of doing whatever it takes, even seriously hurting our children’s hearts and spirits, for the sake of success, and there are people who will follow her example, to the great detriment of their children. That is my problem with what she is teaching, not the pursuit of excellence, and that is why I wrote this post. I feel sad for every child who will suffer under the rigidity of parents who care more about outward success than the hearts of their kids – the thing that truly lasts beyond this life. I love the idea of being the very best we can be, working really hard at things that are difficult, not giving up, facing huge challenges, even if we don’t do well, at least we tried with everything in us, all of that. It is the METHOD by which she is doing this, as well as the results at any cost ideology, that I am at odds with. (by the way, as example, my 13 year old makes straight As, plays clarinet quite well, runs cross country and plays soccer, she is smart and talented and a joy. She does all of this happily, no tears, no screaming, no Nazi mom needed for that. She thrives on our love, enjoyment, and encouragement of her. Now cleaning her room, that is quite another thing, LOL.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have to say for the sake of argument, that I agree with you and Amy Chua both about halfway. I think Chua takes it too far, there is no doubt. I agree with you about the importance of play, and friends and school plays. I think it is short sighted of Chua to think that only violin and piano have merit, rather than learning the complex concept of music as a total. There is alot of things that Chua glosses over in the effort to attain ‘her version of perfection’. Cause I want my kid to excel, but I value different things than she does, clearly. But I don’t honestly think that yelling at your kids causes them emotional harm. I think it what you are yelling at them. And while yelling is not always so EFFECTIVE, sometimes it gets the job done. I don’t insult my kids and I don’t hit my kids, but if I choose to raise my voice, that’s my perogative. I don’t think it is damaging my kids. I am in charge, not them. Period.

    But I think what Chua is combatting is the parenting philosophy that places youth and children on a high pedestal. As though the childhood years should be about fun and lightness and no pressure and no keeping score. Life just isn’t ever like that, and trying to save your child any pain is not only a pipe dream, it is also damaging. This ideology is pervasive in American culture these days. I think it breeds narcicissm. We need competetion, all kids need to lose sometimes and everyone need to learn how to fight fair and be a gracious loser. These are hugely important lessons. Winning is fun. It is fun when you are 3 and it is fun when you are 30. But we have to teach our kids how to do it, so that they don’t ave to learn on their own when they are adults.

    But I would challenge you when you say that God doesn’t love us that way. I don’t know how you see things, but my God is not so touchy feely. Love flows freely from my God, I assure you. But turn away from God and you will not feel his love. And even his love can be difficult. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, I struggled with ridicule about my weight during adolescense and my mother died of cancer when I was 20. But am I angry at God? Of course not. I have come through adversity shining. I now have a family of my own and my life is deeper because I have known darkness. But a warm and fuzzy God? I kind of see Him as all knowing and all seeing, authoritative yet He knows a heck of alot more than me, so I should shut up and put my life in His hands. You know, slow to anger and quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry. And my God absolutely yells….Wat do you think Job would say about this?

    I also would encourage you to consider that Chua may be a believer. Because we do not all practice religion the same way. I NEVER take offense to anything, but I took offense to that comment, because Christians don’t come in just one color. We are varied and different. I was raised as an Episcopal by a mother who was a Presbyterian in the South where all my friends were Southern Baptist. Today I live in the North and am married to an Irish Catholic. Let’s just say I have has lots of experiences with lots of different practicing Christians.

    • Tana says:

      Anonymous, I do not know if you will come back and see what I write here, but in case you do, I first of all did not ever intend to presume to know the heart of Amy Chua. Only God knows if she believes in Him with saving faith. I can say that reading her article, and the examples she gave of how she treated her husband, how she ridiculed him, did not listen to him, or let him lead in the discipline of their daughter, and how she screamed herself hoarse and refused to let her daughter to leave the piano for hours for even a drink or to use the bathroom, are some clues as to what is in her heart. From that I can conclude that she is not exhibiting the outward signs of following Christ in her dealings with her family, in THESE instances.
      I am not sure what offended you, and would like to have you point it out?
      If you are referring to my response to Kate, where I said, “true, she most likely has not experienced grace and love”… I said most likely because I do not in fact know her at all and cannot make that call, even if I did know her. I am assuming that since she has written a book on raising children and does not point her readers to Christ, then that is not a major factor in her life at the very least, we might conclude?
      As to yelling at children, the book of James tells us that the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God As a younger mother, I assure you that I raised my voice at my children, more times than I care to remember. It was hard work to overcome this and learn the habit of speaking with respect and honor of the persons they are. There is nothing beautiful or holy about losing our tempers with our children and nothing that is gained in outward obedience that will not backfire on us later, because children learn by our actions SO MUCH MORE than we realize and they do not forget as much as we would like them to. God has righteous anger at sin, but we most usually cannot really claim that. If we are grieved over our children’s sin, then the realistic reaction we usually have is heartbroken-ness instead of anger, and for me, remembering that I also sin daily drives me to mercy, even while I have to be firm.

      And I agree that God is all knowing and all seeing, He is Sovereign and does not release us from difficulties in life before the work He wants to accomplish is done in us. His purposes are high and much more far-sighted than we can ever imagine, this side of heaven. My own life has been a rather difficult and sometimes dark journey for a lot of the years of it, and I have learned incredible strength through those trials and adversities. I also learned, though, that God is not the harsh task-master, cold, judging, and always angry, that I once thought Him to be, being raised in an angry, abusive home. I did not intend to come across as believing in a touchy-feely God. I am, though, SO thankful that He is the One who created gentleness, kindness, tenderness, etc. I love what Martin Luther wrote, “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy”. We are in part responsible for how our children see God. I wanted/still want SO MUCH for my children to not have to struggle with always feeling that God was waiting to zap them with His wrath and anger for any reason, so I could not teach them that by my actions. He is a mighty warrior, a supreme judge, but He is also, quite unimaginably, the One Who thought up the color pink. (I might never be able to reconcile that in my mind!) I hope you will feel free to dialog about this further if you are interested. Thank you for your comments.

  7. Sunny Espanet says:

    Very interesting topic!

    To add to the conversation, a study came across my desk from the Preschool Director at our church entitled “7 Predictors that Children will be Christ Followers as Adults,” based on a survey of 500 evangelical Christian parents with grown children conducted by Ed Stetzer. Dr. Stetzer has two doctorates and is president of LifeWay research and the LifeWay Missiologist in residence.

    While I was in agreement with most of the Predictors (such as “family served together”), I really had concerns about #2–“Parents emphasized good grades (simply indicates involvement in child’s life).”

    At the time, it did not sound like a big deal, but I could just see this statement being misinterpreted and misused. Add to it the context of this NYT article, and I’m sad to say I was correct.

    I once heard a wonderful Titus 2 woman speak. She has been an educator for 30+ years and raised 2 children to be “Christ Followers as Adults”. She emphasized that it is important to compliment kids based on their EFFORT, not the RESULTS of their work. One child may breeze through math with little effort and make all A’s. The sibling may try really hard (much harder comparably) but still get C’s.

    In both cases, focusing on the RESULT, “good grades”, can be disastrous.

    For the A student, he has the propensity to only try things he knows he will master. (And who masters something the very first time they try?) Eventually, this leads to fear of failure, so this child could be doomed with a spectacularly under-performing future (because of fear/pride he won’t try new things, even though he may be able to do them). Worse, when this person encounters a wife/boss/friend who doesn’t exalt him as he is accustomed, he is subject to trading in that person for another who may be able to fill the void. His paradigm is very “works” centered, focused on how he can please others, and how others can please him…..which he translates to be attributes of God as well.

    For the C student, he has the propensity to develop a “chip on the shoulder” thinking that he is just a victim in a tragically unfair world. He learns from his parents that love is conditional, and that unless he performs well (irrespective of his good intentions), he will not receive love….and translates these attributes to God as well. This child may never really find his “niche” because he grows an increasingly prohibitive attitude, thinking “why bother?”

    (note that I said “propensity” not “guarantee”!!!)

    In the speaker’s opinion, both situations could be avoided or at least mitigated by elevating the CHARACTER of the child rather than the OUTCOME of their work. (And of course, both situations can be redeemed by God himself, but I’m focusing on the parenting strategies here.)

    In reference to this current conversation, I have to say that I do not have the parenting experience of either author as my oldest is only 5. But, if I were to follow the train of thought I just presented, there is no right or wrong answer between “forcing” the child to stay in piano lessons or allowing them to “quit”. Either answer can be perfectly correct, depending on the character of the child. If my child has shown diligence, faithfulness and perseverance with the lessons and in other areas, I have no problem saying, “you may stop piano lessons.” However, if my child’s character reflects that she is prone to quitting when things get tough, we would have a long conversation with her pointing out God’s word and what He says about the character qualities of diligence (vs. slothfulness), contentment (vs. covetousness), humility (vs. pride), loyalty (vs. unfaithfulness), and thoroughness (vs. incompleteness). Then, I would highlight that it makes me no difference if she is “good” at piano, but it is critically important that she has good character, so quitting piano is not an option for her at this time, and that we will reevaluate the situation in 6 months.

    Likewise, I think it is important to look at MY character qualities as a parent, as well. If I struggle with my child’s under-performance, that is likely a pride issue on my part. If I yell at or berate my child, that is an anger issue. Period. Neither of these things are EVER acceptable when we compare our actions against God’s word. However, I am so thankful that I live under grace, and am allowed to fail miserably and still be allowed the privilege of trying again tomorrow! I pray that as I work through my own character weaknesses, as more-and-more time passes I am less-and-less prone to falling back into my sinful ways. And I pray the same for my children as well. Also, I try daily to fill each child’s warehouse with God’s truth, so when they go to take inventory, they will find eternal wisdom on their shelves, not my failures and inadequacies. Teaching my children to hear and respond to the voice of God will ultimately be the only thing standing between them and a weekly therapist appointment, because I know that I will fail them, lol!

    Thank you, Tana, for speaking a similar message of encouragement today! While I certainly don’t have this whole “mothering” thing totally figured out, I often reflect on a quote from Josh McDowell of Campus Crusade for Christ, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” I think ultimately that God has provided us, through His word, a blueprint whereas we can have BOTH rules AND relationship. Sacrificing one for the other is unnecessary, as that is not His blueprint. However, we can often get the two out of balance when we rely only on our own wisdom, which is why it is critical we turn to him every day, every hour, every minute to find HIS will for our walk, and teach our children to do the same.

  8. Penny says:

    I think your stance might be a bit stronger than is necessary. Are there cons to Chua’s approach? Yes, of course! However, Western parenting is full of cons itself, namely that American children consistently rank low in terms of actual skills, yet right at the top in terms of confidence… Really, have a quick look around and you’ll see a culture full of people who lack critical thinking skills, and rank high in terms of emotional sensitivity, rather than in pragmatic discussion skills. I definitively do not have the fortitude to take Chua’s approach, but dismissing her points entirely would be a mistake, in my opinion. There are good and bad sides to Eastern parenting, just as much as there are good and bad sides to Western parenting – the key is to be open to seeing the positive values inherent in both.

    • Tana says:

      I agree with you. I am not promoting permissive “Western parenting” either. I mainly have a problem with screaming abusively, being so hard/harsh, and deciding every single thing in life for kids, especially when they are getting older and need practice being an adult before they get out of the house. I also don’t agree with not seeing value in having friends or being artistic or athletic, either, but that is beside the point. The point I was trying but obviously failed to get across is that the kind of parenting being promoted in this book is hurtful and I believe there is a better way – if someone wants their children to excel at the level Chua’s are, it is possible without the rage.

  9. Vivian says:

    I enjoyed your take, Tana, especially having already read the WSJ article and then seeing some statistics on the horrible asian-american suicide rate.

    To speak to some of the other comments.. the choice is not between pushing to succeed in an “Eastern mom style” vs. nurture and affirmation with no call to excellence in a “western parenting style”, one can nurture AND encourage AND call to excellence all at the same time. And as a parent of some older college-age and grown children, I would highly recommend that approach! And can affirm the positive results from that style, and God’s grace. You don’t have to be harsh to push excellence!

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