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The battle hymn of the befuddled parent

Richard Handler on Tiger Mom Amy Chua and the vagaries of parenting.

In the great crapshoot of life, it is generally agreed there are three things we can't control: death, taxes and the weather.

But none of these hold a candle to what we really fear is outside our mastery — our children.

Hence the ongoing commentary and fascination with North America's most prominent Tiger Mom, law professor Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

The excerpt that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal has generated more than 7,000 comments, more any previous article on its website and Chua's book continues to climb the New York Times bestseller list.

Just in case you've been on vacation, Amy Chua is a second generation Chinese-American, a super-achieving Yale law professor with two daughters on whom she has imposed a harsh parenting regime, not unlike what she was exposed to growing up: No play dates and nasty reprimands ("You're garbage! I'm going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them."), as well as rigorous musical training on the violin and piano.

Portrait of a Tiger Mom, Yale law professor and author Amy Chua. (Photo courtesy Larry D. Moore/Associated Press)

There isn't a hint of aesthetic pleasure to be gleaned from this musical training, it seems, only the expectation of robotic perfection that turns playing classical music into a domestic version of water-boarding.

There's also no talk of "self-esteem" in the Chua household. Self-esteem comes only after you have reached perfection. Get an A-minus and you would be questioned about why you didn't do better.

There is no hint of collective well-being either. The experts tell us that "emotional intelligence" can be worth more than academic striving and simple IQ when it comes to worldly accomplishment.

New York Times columnist David Brooks weighed in  to argue that play dates would have served Chua's children better in a world now ruled by organizational mores.

But, in a way, Chua's drive to success is the epitome of American individuality (and immigrant striving) rather than the ancient Confucian sense of balance, in which the individual strives to live in a harmonious society.

In fact, some of the most vociferous letters of response to her parenting style comes from Chinese mothers and dads who not only hate the stereotype but maintain that this kind of upbringing can be terribly damaging.

Little envy mixed in

In fact, one Chinese-American writer told The New York Times that it has taken years of therapy just to begin to undo the damage of such parental authoritarianism.

(Parenthetically, the New Yorker reports that psychoanalysis is the vogue in China these days, decades after it has been largely abandoned in North America as too lengthy, costly and ultimately ineffective.)

In her recent interviews, Chua has begun to backpeddle furiously, saying she never intended her memoir to be an instruction manual for North American parents.

Still, almost all those who comment on this book probably do so with a certain degree of anxiety themselves.

Call her the Red Guard of parental striving if you dare. But somewhere, down deep, we are probably all deeply ambivalent and, yes, a little envious of Madame Chua.

We are envious because her style puts the rest of us raising children and indulging them as much as we do to shame. And it's cosmically unfair because Amy Chua's daughters, after all that bullying, seem sane and delightful (so far at least).

Does ruthlessness work?

It's clear that Prof. Chua would never have written her memoir if her daughters were suffering from depression and eating disorders and required a barrage of therapy and acres of medication just to get over these parental demands.

One of her children has even played at Carnegie Hall. And, as one columnist took pains to point out, yours didn't!

Perhaps a hundred thousand articles have been written about how we have sabotaged our children by lowering the bar of expectation and achievement. (Let's say that 90,000 are somewhat accurate.)

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, has made a career of telling us that self-esteem is established only through real striving, not worthless praise about how smart or pretty or talented a child is.

Work and method are to be praised, Dweck says, not inbuilt character.

For her part, Amy Chua succeeded apparently by doing neither. She didn't praise or encourage, she only demanded, at least in the excerpts everybody has feasted on.

It's not clear what she left out of the book (her daughters have hinted plenty). But we are left feeling that discipline and ruthlessness works.

Not his game. Tennis great Andre Agassi in January 2011 after it was announced he will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (Jessica Ebelhar/Associated Press)

There was no rebellion. (One daughter gave up her instrument finally to take up competitive tennis, with the same drive). And no mental disorders. Her kids seem well adjusted and talented.

If that is the case, Amy Chua is insanely lucky because, as many of us have discovered over the years, parenting is a great crapshoot.

One book written some years ago (I forget the title, but it caused a ruckus) suggested that parents have very little to do with how their children turn out. Their peer group was more important.

As parents, we are always overcompensating, always overcorrecting our course, and yes, at times, overindulging. Probably because we sense that, like the weather, parenting is too slippery, too unpredictable to get just right.

Perhaps that is why it feels so much more consoling to hear Andre Agassi, the former tennis superstar, tell interviewers asking about his memoir, Open, that he now hates tennis.

Trained from a young age by an Amy Chua-like dad, he became the best in the world and now, despite that achievement and mastery, recoils from his sport.

So much for Chua's theory about achievement being the key to self-esteem and contentment. It didn't happen to Agassi.

But that's child-rearing for you, isn't it? Like the weather, there's no way around it and its difficulties.

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