January 31, 2014

The good news is that Tiger Mother Amy Chua’s child got into Harvard!

The bad news is that, after winning the Mommy Wars, Amy Chua is moving on to conquer the rest of the world. Not content with planting her foot on the bodies of her fallen foes and forcing them to read her children’s Ivy League acceptance letters again and again until they weep tears of blood and apologize profusely for daring to let their children take tennis rather than oboe, she is marching across the entire cultural landscape trampling entire ethnic groups in her wake. It makes sense. If you can win the Mommy Wars, the Uncomfortable Racially Tinged Argument Wars seem like cake.

With children safely ensconced in college, Chua, like many empty-nest parents, has had to find other hobbies. Given that, by her own account, she used to spend most of her time doing the helicopter parenting equivalent of what the menacing large man with a drum behind you does when you are rowing in a galley, a big mission was needed to fill this void.

She appears to have found one in her most recent book, aimed at riling the few people left unmoved by attacks on their parenting. The book co-written with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, also a Yale professor, argues that eight racial and religious groups are better equipped to take on Life than others. (“Ah yes, ranking racial and religious groups from best to worst,” you say to yourself. “Historically, this has gone well.”) But there’s a rationale, Chua & Rubenfeld say. These groups succeed because they combine a set of three virtues: insecurity, a superiority complex and impulse control. No immediate gratification for you — at least not right now. (Incidentally, Chua and her husband belong to two of the groups that receive positive citations, a return at least in part to the theme of Chua’s previous book: that her way is correct, and yours is not.)

I have difficulty imagining much success for this book, though. You can always parent differently. Parenting is largely an exercise in self-improvement. “I never got to be a star on the stage,” you mutter to yourself. “Baby June is going to be a star! Baby June is going to be the brightest star of them all!” Or, on a more prosaic level, you resolve to make a point to have dinner together, give your kid extra reinforcement on the softball field, or let her take art lessons. Or, in Chua’s case, you resolve to make her play the piano until she is ready to spit in your eye. And after reading the book, you can change your way of parenting to be more like hers.

But you can’t really do anything about whether or not you were born into one of the Rubenfeld-Chua duo’s approved groups — even if you wanted to, which much of the preliminary analysis suggests you shouldn’t.

Surely there are better things to do with your time than spend 225 pages ruing your heritage. If I wanted to do that, I’d just attend a family reunion. I suppose you could take the magical triad of Insecurity, Superiority and Delayed Gratification, and try to bring it to bear on your own life. But how far does that get you?

I strode out onto the street and tried to make some headway with it, but the afternoon ended badly. I had herded a large group of strangers into a barn and was waving a pitchfork at them.

“Tell me I’m great,” I shouted, menacingly. “I mean, I know I’m superior, but I won’t believe it until you tell me!”

Someone started to say something.

“NOT RIGHT NOW!” I yelled. “It won’t count if you tell me right now! Tell me … later. Delay my gratification!”

Subsequent efforts proved similarly unsuccessful. I assume the fault is with me, not the concept. Maybe it would have gone better if I’d been from one of the pre-approved groups, or if my parents had been more restrictive? Maybe I should have read the whole book first before I grabbed that pitchfork? I don’t know. I’m on tenterhooks for a sequel, though, which I bet will have even more ideas about what I’m doing wrong.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.