Through the Looking-Glass

An anthropologist's unconventional look at children, work, and play

Amy Chua and the Battle Hymn of Humpty Dumpty

What do Amy Chua and Humpty-Dumpty have in common?

In Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There Humpty Dumpty declares to Alice: "When I use a word...it means just what I chose it to mean--- neither more nor less." When Amy Chua uses a word ‘it means just what she chooses it to mean, neither more nor less.' What do I mean by this and how does it help us to understand what Amy Chua says in her provocative memoir/how-to guide, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press)? Let's start with the main words in her title:

Battle Hymn. In the same conversation with Alice mentioned above, Humpty Dumpty asserts that "glory" means "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!" I believe that this is the key to understanding what Amy Chua says in her book because, like Humpty, in her vocabulary "a nice knock-down argument" means "glory" along with lots and lots of book sales (currently #10 on the Amazon best-seller list). Chua presents herself as a mother who is always ready to do battle with her children (as well as with her readers) because she is in charge, she knows what is best and she is always right. Humpty Dumpty was also certain that he was always right because he was in charge of defining the meaning of words. When Alice asks him how he can make words mean so many different things Humpty responds that "the question is...which is to be master----that's all." Amy portrays herself as "the master" of her children and the book is a "hymn" to her mastery. I do not believe that she is the master of her children but that is irrelevant because right now she has mastered the art of selling books and she did it by following Humpty Dumpty's definition of "glory."

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Tiger Mother. Amy says that she was born in the Chinese "Year of the Tiger" and this makes her a "Tiger" mother. The tiger is also a common symbol for China (especially in terms if its assumed aggressiveness and ferocity) and so Amy Chua is a Chinese "Tiger" mother. While we know that she is not "really" a tiger debates have sprung up about whether she is "really" Chinese but, again, this is not the point. What is the point is that when Amy says she is a "Tiger" mother or a "Chinese" mother the purpose of this claim is so that she can contrast her "Chinese/Tiger" ways with the practices of "Western" mothers. This allows her to present her parenting tactics in "shock and awe" terms (no sleepovers! "you're garbage!" and so on) while comparing her "Chinese" tactics to the undemanding (although self-confidence boosting) practices of all "Western" mothers. By making these grossly exaggerated cultural stereotypes the centerpiece of her "battle" she has successfully set the terms of the debate that has ensued since she first published her article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" in the Wall Street Journal in January of this year.

Rather than endlessly debating the stereotyped differences between "Chinese" mothers vs. "American" mothers or "Asian parenting" contrasted with "Western parenting" I would recommend two books that actually provide useful insights about different parenting styles in specific cultures and social settings. First, I would suggest the book, A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies (Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, 2000, Cambridge University Press). This is a wonderfully creative book that presents a series of seven "childcare manuals" guided by the question, if Benjamin Spock were born in Bali (or Ifaluk or in a Turkish village or if he grew up as a Beng in the Ivory Coast, or among the Warlpiri in Australia, the Fulani in West Africa or in the historical times of the Puritans) what kind of a childcare manual would he have written? The result is a look into the very different cultural worlds that babies grow up in that is informed by the ethnographic and historical work on this topic in these societies conducted by anthropologists but presented in the imaginative framework of the "how-to" manual.

If you would prefer a more "encyclopedic" or topical approach to understanding issues related to infants, children and adolescents then I would recommend a new book, The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion (2009, University of Chicago Press, Richard A. Shweder, Ed.). In this book you will find a richly detailed compendium of information about "the child" that contains essays from experts on over 500 topics (from "abandonment and infanticide" to "youth movements"-- apparently there are no Z topics related to children!). The Child is available as a book or online and contains entries from several researchers who are bloggers on this Psychology Today website, including Marc Bekoff, David Lancy, Helen B. Schwartzman, and Joan C. Williams.

Unless you enjoy battles that have been rigged and hymns that are not sincere I would recommend that you avoid The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. After all, when the parenting battles are finally over and the last hymns have been sung to this hyped-up controversy it may be instructive to think about what ultimately happened to Humpty Dumpty.

 

 

 

 

Helen B. Schwartzman is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.

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