So, I recently read Amy Chua’s increasingly controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin 2011), and I had told several friends while I was reading it that I would absolutely not write about parenting and whether I agreed with Prof. Chua in her approach to the task — as a friar who would never have children of his own, I simply feel that it is not my place to pick a side (as if there were real sides to choose).
So I won’t do that. Instead, I found myself intrigued by the possibility this ‘Chinese approach to parenting’ might offer to other aspects of our lives, particularly in living a Christian life. Therefore, I want to talk a little about that and how the book resonated with my own experience of childhood and life.
I really liked the book. There, I said it. I’m sure, like Chua, I will be immediately criticized by some for my apparent disregard for the psychological well-being of children in the rearing process. But, I think that what is often missing in the lives of today’s young adults is a formative experience of discipline and high expectations.
While reading the book I often thought about Christian character in the way that theologian Stanley Hauerwas has discussed it in his work. The notion of character ethics, rooted as it is in the traditional understanding of virtue, relies on the notion that one must work at living and acting a certain way.
This way of being-in-the-world is shaped by the operative narrative of the person, which in the case of Christianity should be the Gospels. One becomes a Christian, makes Christian decisions and acts like a Christian by doing it. One asks questions of him or herself such as “what kind of person do I wish to become?” in place of more traditional moral questions like “what ought I do?”
The response, “I wish to become a Christian,” requires that one practices being a Christian: Both in the performative sense of the word practice (as in, I practice medicine or I practice law) and in the disciplinary or training sense (as in, I need to practice the piano).
What would the Church look like with parents, mentors and peers that helped each other practice Christian living in a way that resembled Chua’s Chinese parenting? What might it look like if the Body of Christ, that is the Church, was composed of “Tiger Christians?”
Our expectations of ourselves and others would be elevated, accountability might increase and the way we lived might be more in-step with what we ultimately desire in wholeheartedly following Christ. But it wouldn’t be easy. And, as Chua’s story reveals, things that yield the greatest reward in life are rarely easy.
We might not like the process, but chances are we would be better off for the results. At least that is what Chua’s daughters, to some degree, expressed. It is also, as I look back on my young life, something that I appreciate. My parents were not Tiger Parents, certainly not like Chua was, but they also weren’t — at least compared to the experiences of many of my classmates — the epitome of Western Parents either. Like Chua, there were things that my brothers and I had to do that we didn’t want to do, at least as kids. Now, I am very grateful for the way my parents raised me and my brothers. I wouldn’t be who I was today otherwise.
Ice skating comes to mind, it is something my two brothers closest in age to me and I joke about sometimes, but have come to appreciate later in life. My dad had us out on the ice not long after we were able to walk, usually decked out in a hockey helmet, our little skates tight on our feet. Now my brothers and I are excellent skaters.
Swimming was another big deal. We took swimming lessons all summer for years – YEARS. My brothers and I would secretly hope for a thunderstorm in the morning to cancel our lesson for that day (the pool was outdoors). We had no say in the matter and we complained like Chua’s youngest daughter, but we are now all very strong swimmers. A skill for which we are each grateful. School was the same way, our parents were always very involved in our education, taking copious notes during parent-teacher conferences and always siding with the teacher in a dispute (they were not the helicopter parents of today, defending their children blindly at all costs).
But there are things about which I wish I was pushed harder as a kid. The piano is a good example and reading this book reminded me of that. I took piano lessons for just under 2 years, from fourth through fifth grade. I had a very strict teacher, who was superb (in retrospect, but a tyrant to my kid world), but I — like most nine-year-olds — didn’t want to practice. Eventually, my parents said that if I wasn’t going to practice then there was no point in lessons – they were right. So I stopped.
To this day I regret that. I still play the piano, and, as much as it embarrasses me to admit this, I play very well. I play mostly in liturgical settings and I have and continue to receive many very kind compliments and praise. However, every time people lavish me with praise after a big mass or some event where I have played the piano, like during the provincial chapter earlier this month, I have a negative reaction, realizing that my potential was so much greater than it is actualized. If I can play this well after less than two-years of lessons nearly twenty years ago, what could I have accomplished if I was more disciplined, driven and forced to practice?
I think this is relevant to our lives as Christians. There are times when we are just too easy and too laid-back in our striving to live the Gospel. If we were more motivated, more expecting of ourselves and each other, perhaps the Gospel would be lived in a less-blasé manner.
What would it be like to live a more Tiger Christian life?