Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

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(So sorry for the lack of ital­ics or under­lin­ing or quo­ta­tion marks for the book title above. The blog­ging soft­ware doesn’t allow styles in the title field, and quo­ta­tion marks totally mess up the whole thing. Grr!)

This is a longer-than-usual post, but since it is a book review, I didn’t want to split it into two or more parts. I hope you will enjoy my reflec­tions and per­haps be moved to read the book your­self. Please let me know what you think in a com­ment below.

I just fin­ished read­ing Bat­tle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Pen­guin, 2011). It stirred up quite a con­tro­versy upon its release, so I requested it from our local library to see what all the hub­bub was about.

Chua, the American-born daugh­ter of Chi­nese immi­grants, writes of how and why she val­ues the Chi­nese tra­di­tion of parental author­ity and the belief that – in my words, not hers – father and mother really do know best. She uses the terms “Chi­nese par­ent­ing” and “West­ern par­ent­ing” some­what loosely, explain­ing that, of course, nei­ther all Chi­nese par­ents nor all West­ern par­ents see eye to eye. In fact, she acknowl­edges, some actual Chi­nese par­ents have adopted pat­terns of leniency with their kids, while some U.S. par­ents with­out an ounce of Chi­nese blood fall more in line with Chi­nese par­ent­ing than with the style more com­mon in the United States.

Chua shares that as a child, she was not allowed to do such things as the fol­low­ing; nor did she allow her own two daugh­ters, Sophia and Louisa (“Lulu”) to do them:

  • Attend a sleepover;
  • Have a playdate;
  • Choose their own extracur­ric­u­lar activities;
  • Get any­thing less than straight As;
  • Play any instru­ment other than piano or violin;
  • Not play piano or violin.

While at first glance, her par­ent­ing seems unrea­son­ably harsh and her expec­ta­tions – such as prac­tic­ing piano or vio­lin four, five, six hours a day – sense­lessly high for young chil­dren, as I moved through her book – an engag­ing and fast read – I found myself empathiz­ing with her in more than a few places.

Not that I would nec­es­sar­ily adopt Chua’s par­ent­ing reg­i­men for my boys, but I was able, thanks to her trans­parency in the telling, to grasp why she did what she did, what val­ues she was aim­ing for for her fam­ily and what qual­i­ties in her chil­dren, and what she was think­ing – some­times con­flicted thoughts – in the process.

What I most appre­ci­ate about Chua’s book is its bla­tant hon­esty. When she writes about the fights she and her girls, espe­cially Lulu, had over music prac­tices and per­for­mances; when she sets down in black and white some of the non-motherlike words she yelled at them in fury and frus­tra­tion; when she airs her family’s dirty laun­dry in pub­lic (with the per­mis­sion of her daugh­ters, thank good­ness, who were allowed to read the man­u­script, request dele­tions, and sug­gest addi­tions before it went to press), all I can think is, “Wow! You’re brave!” I can’t imag­ine recount­ing to a friend, let alone putting on paper for all the word to read, some of the shout­ing matches that have gone on in the midst of my moth­er­ing. No mat­ter what we think of Chua’s (and her husband’s) par­ent­ing choices, we’ve got to hand it to her for shar­ing the process and the con­se­quences so hon­estly. And if we read­ers who are also par­ents are hon­est, we can see at least a part of our­selves in her.

I remem­ber watch­ing an inter­view with Amy Chua soon after Tiger Mother came out. She pointed out that some of what she had writ­ten was intended as humor. I got the sense that those who found her par­ent­ing most objec­tion­able had not caught the jokes – or, per­haps, had not even read the book at all. Most of what she writes is, undoubt­edly, entirely seri­ous, she does pep­per the account with bits that are writ­ten with  tongue in cheek. By way of just one exam­ple, Chua describes Sophia earn­ing sec­ond place in a weekly mul­ti­pli­ca­tion speed test in fifth grade, while a Korean boy named Yoon-seok took first. True to Chinese-parenting style, Chua made Sophia do twenty 100-problem prac­tice tests a night over the next week, after which she came in first every time. Then Chua writes, “Poor Yoon-seok. He went back to Korea with his fam­ily, but prob­a­bly not because of the speed test.” That cracked me up; love that “probably”!

Where Chua pon­ders the deeper issues of Chi­nese vs. West­ern par­ent­ing, a few of her thoughts par­tic­u­larly leapt out at me. Like this:

“The Chi­nese par­ent­ing approach is weak­est when it comes to fail­ure; it just doesn’t tol­er­ate that possibility.”

And this:

[Regard­ing push­ing her girls so hard with their music] “West­ern par­ents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a par­ent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s noth­ing bet­ter for build­ing con­fi­dence than learn­ing you can do some­thing you thought you couldn’t.”

And this:

“There are all these new books out there por­tray­ing Asian moth­ers as schem­ing, cal­lous, over­driven peo­ple indif­fer­ent to their kids’ true inter­ests. For their part, many Chi­nese secretly believe that they care more about their chil­dren and are will­ing to sac­ri­fice much more for them than West­ern­ers, who seem per­fectly con­tent to let their chil­dren turn out badly. I think it’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing on both sides. All decent par­ents want to do what’s best for their chil­dren. The Chi­nese just have a totally dif­fer­ent idea of how to do that.

“West­ern par­ents try to respect their children’s indi­vid­u­al­ity, encour­ag­ing them to pur­sue their true pas­sions, sup­port­ing their choices, and pro­vid­ing pos­i­tive rein­force­ment and a nur­tur­ing envi­ron­ment. By con­trast, the Chi­nese believe that the best way to pro­tect their chil­dren is by prepar­ing them for the future, let­ting them see what they’re capa­ble of, and arm­ing them with skills, work habits, and inner con­fi­dence that no one can ever take away.”

Unchar­ac­ter­is­tic of a Chi­nese mother, Chua allowed her girls to get a dog; what’s more, the pet was offered as an incen­tive for Lulu to mas­ter a vio­lin skill. Later, a sec­ond dog was added to the fam­ily. When Chua’s girls read through her man­u­script, they ask why she included the dogs in the book. All Chua could say was “I don’t know yet. But I know they’re impor­tant. There’s some­thing inher­ently unsta­ble about a Chi­nese mother rais­ing dogs.”

For my part, I think it has some­thing to do with this – a para­graph that closes out a sec­tion where Chua has been describ­ing the detailed prac­tice instruc­tions she would leave for her daugh­ters, along with sur­prise notes of love on their pil­lows or music scores. “With dogs, you don’t have to do any­thing like this,” writes Chua. “My dogs can’t do any­thing – and what a relief. I don’t make any demands of them, and I don’t try to shape them or their future. For the most part, I trust them to make the right choices for them­selves. I always look for­ward to see­ing them, and I love just watch­ing them sleep. What a great relationship.”

The irony is glar­ing and, I’m cer­tain, not lost on Amy Chua at all.

2 Responses

  1. David Says:

    But I still think the effect pro­duced by the style of bring­ing up your chil­dren that Amy intro­duces in the book may have a dam­ag­ing impact on your chil­dren. Every­one knows that chil­dren will auto­mat­i­cally hate every­thing they have to do under pres­sure. Such an approach can only dam­age their later development.

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  2. Heidi Mann Says:

    I agree with you for the most part, David. I think Sophia is a rar­ity in how she responded to her mother pos­i­tively, for the most part. God knows, I couldn’t even get my 12-year-old to write a get-well card for a for­mer teacher he knows this past week. With any luck, a few years down the road, he’ll real­ize that such a thing is an act of kind­ness to do for some­one. If I forced him to do it (at least, over and over, and in a harsh way), he might never send a card in his life­time). Instead, as things sit, he is aware that his brother and I are each send­ing cards, and that it is mak­ing us happy to do so. That’s gotta have some pos­i­tive influ­ence, I’d think.…

    Thanks for your comment!

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