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The Root: When Parents Play To Win

Amy Chua's recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has some incensed over her style of parenting. Others contend that many parents could learn from her example. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Amy Chua's recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has some incensed over her style of parenting. Others contend that many parents could learn from her example.

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Michel Martin is the host of NPR's Tell Me More, the mother of school-age twins and the stepmother to two adult stepdaughters.

When a couple of the regular panelists on the parenting roundtable we feature on my news-talk show, Tell Me More, walked into the studio minutes after author Amy Chua had left, one of the moms recalled the remark made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when he followed President George W. Bush at a United Nations gathering in 2006. "Remember when [Chavez] said he could smell sulfur?" she said, "Well, I do now."

I could see her point. While I personally wouldn't go so far as to call Chua the devil, you can easily see why her new parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is leaving a trail of furious blog posts in her wake. In the book, Chua, a Chinese-American mother of two (who is also a Yale law professor), describes her uber-tough parenting style, a style that leaves little room for choice and none for mediocrity — or, for that matter, playdates, sleepovers, school plays, sports or anything that most of us would consider fun.

No, Mama Amy is all about staying on task: acing every test, playing piano or violin for hours, even missing tourist sites while on vacation so that her girls can practice, practice, practice. And don't even get me started on the verbal abuse. She cops to calling her kids "lazy," "pathetic," "cowardly," "barbarians" — even "garbage" — when they fail to measure up to her expectations.

Chua is pushing a lot of people's buttons; an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," generated more than 5,000 comments — many from fellow Asian Americans — but it might push black people's buttons most of all.

Chua has the kind of theory of life that many black people just cannot stand. There is no mention in the book of a larger purpose, God, community or interest in anything other than herself, her kids, and their grades and accolades — preferably from famous people like the jurists she invited to her home to listen to her children perform.

While she does pause to care for two very ill family members and has potlucks for her students, you really get the sense that she is oblivious to the lives of everybody else in the world who does not touch her life directly; that, say, a drunk driver could mow down somebody else's kid on her street and she would be too busy drilling her kids with flash cards to take the bereaved parents a casserole. Perhaps most aggravating is that Chua has no patience with those who challenge the status quo, implying that people who challenge the power structure — no matter how stacked or rigged it may be — are just too lazy and selfish to master it.

You can also see where her arbitrary pronouncements, while not in and of themselves racist, could travel a very short road to that point, along with her zero tolerance for anything but white European culture in its narrowest form. Example: She goes so far as to say that her kids must play piano or violin, because if they played drums, they might wind up on drugs. She was kidding, but was she really? There is no jazz in Chua's world.

And that's all too bad, but black people should still buy this book and study it for its underlying message, which is this: There are no shortcuts to achievement — and no racial secrets — only strategies.

No excuses, no shortcuts — figure out winning strategies and follow through. Earlier generations of black people knew these strategies well and talked about them often, but today's popular culture no longer seems to celebrate these simple truths. At last year's BET Honors awards show, for example, Sean "Diddy" Combs told the audience about how very hard he had worked to get to the top of his game, following in the footsteps of his very hardworking mother. He talked about literally running to appointments when he could not get a taxi so that he could return with assignments completed before his then-boss, Andre Harrell, finished a phone call.

But that's not the Sean Combs we mostly hear about, that he himself usually promotes. That Combs donates half a million dollars to his alma mater, Howard University (from which he failed to graduate), but spends half that much to buy a car for his teenage son. Far be it for me to tell him what to do with his money, but you get the point: Having learned, to his own benefit, the message of hard work, discipline and persistence from the ancestors, he is nonetheless passing on the message of excessive consumption and ease to the next generation.

More relevant to the rest of us is the fact that the data have shown for years now that black and, to a slightly lesser extent, Hispanic youths on average spend hours more each day watching television and using mobile devices than do white and Asian kids ... and something tells me they are not all watching Sid the Science Kid.

What should they be doing with their time? They don't have to spend all of it practicing violin and piano, but their parents could be doing more to ride herd on their kids' activities and to assert their authority. I know many black parents who do this anyway, but they generally keep quiet about it, and I am not sure why. I suspect one reason might be that they remember being ridiculed for being nerds when they were kids, or they have their own ambivalence about giving their children more when so many black kids are not getting enough.

But we need to keep talking about the habits of success, especially the habit of persistence in the face of failure. Ironically, those are the kinds of habits for which our top black athletes, such as Donovan McNabb and LeBron James, are best known, even in the face of the ongoing stereotype that they are all about luck and raw talent. And it is all the more crucial for black parents, who, unlike Asians, are burdened with the stereotype of being considered lazy, unintellectual and all about the party.

Every day, I see kids who will practice jump shots and blocking and tackling for hours a day, with their parents' support, because they know that the harder they work, the more talented they get. Yet they shut down when it comes to applying that same effort to their academic work.

Similarly, I've personally seen white and Asian kids apply time and time again for coveted fellowships and internships, despite rejection, while black kids react to rejection by withdrawing altogether from contention. I know heads of schools who have to fight with black parents to get them to fight to turn off the Playstations and the televisions until the grades go up — and fight they must, because that is what the job of being a parent entails.

We all know this, and it's time to name it and fight it.

But we also know that even as we try to teach our kids the habits of success for a tough, new world, there is a time for everything: for joy, for laughter, to lift as we climb and to speak truth to power. Without the sacrifices that African-American parents made and continue to make to advance the cause of equal opportunity in education, I very much doubt that women and other minorities like Chua would have the opportunities they have today.

And this is something that Chua can stand to learn from us.