Maureen Downey: Roar of Tiger moms

Over the holidays, my 19-year-old son told me that he wished I had not let him wriggle out of music lessons. I should have marched him to a music studio and made him take up an instrument.

“But you complained bitterly that you didn’t want lessons,” I reminded him.

Yes, he agreed, but now that he understands the pleasure of playing an instrument — and is paying for his own lessons as a college student — he wishes that I had forced him.

That conversation came to mind when I read Amy Chua’s provocative piece “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal.

The essay is from her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in which she venerates an authoritarian parenting style more Dr. No than Dr. Spock.

After reading the piece by this ultimate mama grizzly, I wasn’t sure if I should congratulate Chua for raising two accomplished daughters or help the poor girls escape through a bedroom window.

However, I see the value in Chua’s basic message that children need to learn that hard work is the necessary prerequisite for mastery and, as she says, “Nothing is fun until you are good at it.”

A professor at Yale Law School, Chua says it’s a fable that Asian students are inherently talented at math and science and that’s why they do so well in school.

She credits the legendary academic success of Asian students to a take-no-prisoners parenting style that has zero tolerance for sleepovers, play dates, TV or computer games or even school plays.

Her daughters Sophia and Lulu were not going to cast aside their piano concertos or their calculus to be part of the chorus of “Carousel.” Nor were they going to fritter time or brain cells at sleepovers where a gaggle of girls watched “Jersey Shore” and “Project Runway” for six hours.

Her successful daughters could not bring home less than an A, choose their own extracurricular activities, play any instrument other than piano or violin, date boys or be anything but the No. 1 student in every class except the unimportant ones, gym and drama.

As Chua notes: “My Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.”

Chua cites a personal and painful example, at least to me. When her 7-year-old daughter Lulu insisted she couldn’t play a complex piano piece, Chua forced her to keep at it, dragging the little girl’s doll house to the car and threatening to give it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if the child didn’t nail “The Little White Donkey.”

Chua also blustered no lunch or dinner or presents for holidays or birthdays. She made the child stay at the keys, refusing her even water or bathroom breaks.

And finally, Lulu played the piece perfectly. And both mother and daughter rejoiced in the achievement.

Chua says that Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents would never do for fear of scarring their child for life or being arrested for abuse, including telling disrespectful children that they’re “garbage.”

“As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized,” writes Chua.

The relations between American parents and their children are so fragile and so inhibited by exaggerated concerns over self-esteem that openness about such touchy topics as weight is near impossible. Chinese mothers, she says, can tell their daughters that they are becoming fatties.

“By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of ‘health’ and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image,” says Chua.

The reason that Chinese parents can be so brutally honest, she says, is because Chinese children never doubt that they are loved or that their parents have their best interests at heart.

Their parents demand better of their children because they know they are capable of it.

I agree with teachers who say their jobs would be a lot easier if their students had Chua as a mother.

And I also agree that parents often allow children to say that they just aren’t good at math when they bring home a C rather than rush out and get 100 practice tests for them as Chinese mothers would do.

(Except a Chinese mother would rush out even if the child brought home a B on a test, according to Chua.).

Still, I recoiled when Chua recounts how her father responded to her second-place finish in a history contest.

“Never, ever disgrace me like that again,” he told her.