Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and mother of two, published her controversial and highly criticized memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011. It chronicles her journey of parenting daughters the Chinese way on American soil. Rather than allowing children to become self-indulgent, underachieving drains on society (her perception of Western children), Chinese parenting aims for the child’s highest success in every endeavor at all costs for the glory of the family. Chapter one opens with bullet points of things Chinese children are never allowed to do, including: attend sleepovers, watch TV, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A.
Since their toddler days, daughters Sophia and Lulu followed rigorous routines to pave their way to elite futures, academically and musically. Instruments dominated non-school, non-homework hours. Chua cashed in some of her pension funds to buy Lulu one of the finest violins in the world. On every vacation, the first order of business was securing the hotel lounge piano for practice. These practices were frequently punctuated with harsh remarks from Chua such as: “If you don’t get this perfect, I am going to burn your stuffed animals!” and “Oh my god, you are just getting worse and worse.” This intensity drove both daughters and Chua to shouting matches, public embarrassment and icy distance. Chua admits that being hated is part of being a Chinese parent but is ultimately worth it.
Did her method succeed? Both daughters are music prodigies, straight-A students and fluent in Mandarin. Such accomplishments might convince any parent of this strategy. One might expect her book to end victoriously with a ten step plan to copy her success. Instead, these five lonely sentences end her story:
“Given that life is so short and so fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest? We all have to die, but which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told [my husband] that I want to get another dog.”1
After accomplishing world-class results parenting her daughters, Chua is left pondering what it means to fully live in light of life’s certain end. Sure, her daughters have every success any parent could hope for, but in the quiet corners of her mind she is left wanting.
It’s easy to criticize her. We American Christian parents would never demand so much from our kids in such demeaning ways. We also want the best for our children but express it differently. Rather than berate them, we praise them endlessly. Instead of hyper-scheduling their days and months, we let them decide what they want to do and divide up taxiing duties with neighborhood moms. When it’s time to prepare for tests, think about college, compete or behave, we make deals and offer incentives (video games or cars), hoping for the best outcome. Children might forgo family dinners, church activities and even homework along the way; as long as they are well-behaved, moderately successful, attend church on occasion and are above all happy, we’ve done a good job – right? If so, why does parenting leave many Christians asking the same questions as Chua?
Both parenting strategies are problematic and lacking. One idolizes the family’s success; the other idolizes the child’s individual success. Neither strategy employs life-giving methods for God-glorifying ends. Neither strategy points parent nor child to Christ.
Because purpose and identity are found in Jesus, Christians do not have to subscribe to the world’s parenting methods. Tedd Tripp observes:
“You want your child to live for the glory of God. You want your child to realize that life worth living is life lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Your methods must show submission to the same Lord.”2 (emphasis mine)
It should not surprise us that “good church kids” grow up with similar habits, goals, worldviews and issues as non-church goers. God is often an add-on in Christian households rather than the focal point. While most Christian parents would affirm the quote above, their practices oppose it. Jaws drop at Amy Chua’s behavior, but are children served any better when they are affirmed as privileged, moral centers of their own universe?
Scripture consistently teaches that only God can quench the thirst of every soul, parents and children included. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:11).” In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” All satisfaction, joy and purpose are found in Him, not in raising phenomenal kids or being phenomenal kids. As parents, we are responsible for organizing the lives of our children to reflect the gospel as the center of life. To do anything else teaches them the world’s offerings are better than our Savior.
Academic prestige and financial success are deceitful dreams to pass on, as are high self-esteem and extracurricular happiness. When Jesus is the goal of parenting, we are free not to demand our children bring home good grades; we are free to say no when they covet the newest, most expensive clothes. If children misbehave in public or lose another competition, we are not devastated. When they come home crying because they’ve been bullied, there is no retaliation or pumping them up about how great they are. When a friend’s child is smarter, more popular and better looking, we thank God for the eternal, not temporal, work He is accomplishing in our children for the kingdom. God’s word is robust enough for the task and more satisfying than the world’s answer to child-rearing.
Short cuts don’t exist in raising children who worship Jesus with the whole of their being. This counter-cultural approach to parenting will cost enormous amounts of time, peer approval, affection from your children and many tears. The pay-off is a home structured around the worship of an eternal King, turning out generations who live for Him and not worldly success.
The violin and good grades will get a child far, but will they satisfy? Birthday parties and good manners are fine things, but can they sustain faith in Christ? As Chua observes, we all die…will getting another dog fill the void until that day and in the days that follow?
- Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, pg. 229.
- Tripp, Tedd. Shepherding a Child’s Heart, pg. 71.