Monday, 14 February 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: Review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua
Published by Bloomsbury
Published in 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1316-4

I purchased this book myself to see what the fuss was about and was not paid for this review.

Dichotomies are a dangerous thing. Us versus them, East vs West - it's not a story that ends well for anyone. Not to mention that most of the time it's patently untrue. One thing I've learned in life so far is that no matter which two cultures you're comparing, you're just as likely to find similarities as you are differences. Which is not to eschew cultural difference and try and make everyone the same which is equally as dangerous but it's a plea for middle ground - not a concept that I think Amy Chua is overly familiar with.

She started writing this book as a comparison of Chinese parenting to Western parenting and although she says in the first few pages that you don't have to be Chinese to be a Chinese mother and many mothers of Chinese heritage aren't Chinese Mothers at all, the label remains. You can couch all you like but if you call a spade a spade, that's the name that is going to stick. Personally, I would rather call this style of parenting "Extreme" rather than "Chinese." And if she thinks that Western parenting is all about choice, freedom and liberty I would like to firmly tell her that no, trust me, that really isn't always the case. But that's another story.

That said, Amy Chua is not a cultural anthropologist and this was not designed to be a parenting guide. It's a memoir, pure and simple. It's one mother's story of how she raised her kids which turned out to work brilliantly for one daughter but was a terrible idea for the other. And she knows it. She started writing this book the day after her thirteen year old daughter screamed abuse and smashed glasses in the middle of a restaurant in Russia so the whole way through the point she was driving at was 'boy did I learn a lesson.' I'll bet she did. For all her claims of being a Chinese mother, her second daughter Lulu seemed vastly disrespectful to her mother. Maybe it's just me, maybe its because I don't have kids yet and I have no idea but I'd never have given my mother the cheek Lulu gave hers and if my daughter gave me that sort of cheek I'd be devastated. Check in with me in a decade or so and I might think differently.

(L-R): Lulu, Amy and Spohia
Erin Patrice O'Brien for The Wall Street Journal
A lot has been made of the extremity of Amy Chua's mothering. Yup, it is extreme. Jaw-droppingly so at times. The oft-quoted examples of how she forced her younger daughter to play for hours without a toilet break, called her older daughter garbage and rejected handmade birthday cards are all there. But when you read them in the context of the book, you understand a little better. This is a woman who is manically intense and knows it. She knows that writing this kind of thing down would get her some serious attention of the negative kind. But she still put it out there. She was honest. She didn't sugar coat it. And while I really disagree with her method I have to admire her courage.

What's good about the way she does things? Well, quite a lot actually. If someone with a better temperament had taken the approach she had, it probably would have been a far easier read. You see, the things that she's proposing by and large aren't terrible. For example, she said that you should instill in your kids that you think they can do more. Expect the best. Push them to succeed. Teach them the value of hard work. Get alongside them and practice with them. The point that Amy missed as her kids were growing up? When to step back. The ability to see when she's being more of a hinderance than a help. But just because she was a little over the top doesn't mean that these points are invalid. I think it's a great thing to assume strength in your child rather than assume fragility. It's good to spend time with them helping them to achieve goals. It's good to teach them that raw talent is one thing but without hard work it's not going to get you very far.

Life is tough and the job of parents is to prepare their kids for it the best they can. Amy Chua was doing the best she could and when she (finally) realised her method of mothering Lulu wasn't working she did adapt. Somewhat. But one method does not work for all kids and even within one family I often see parents adapting their styles to the personalities of their children. It's one heck of a job and to all of the parents out there who do it, putting your heart and soul into your kids, giving them the best of yourself every single day I am in awe. When I think of the future generation, I don't wring my hands and wail because I look around at my friends who are parents and see what a fabulous job they are all doing and I know we're going to have some great leaders in the future. They're going to get there by different roads but when they do they'll be incredible.

A lot of things have been written about this book in the media, starting with this article. As is usually the way with media hype, a lot of it is just that: hype. Amy Chua is not a menace to society. She hasn't abused her children. Maybe she hasn't done it the way a lot of folks would have but she did her best and she told us her story of how it happened. If you want to know the real deal - read the book. It's a very entertaining and pretty fast read of how one mother came to realise that her method of mothering needed to be adapted and changed before she lost her daughter altogether. I'm really glad she learned that lesson because a mother driving away her daughter for the sake of stupid pride is one of life's greatest tragedies.

Now we wait for the memoirs of Lulu. That'll be an interesting book.

Other reviews of Tiger Mother:
Wallace at Unputdownables
Catherine at Shu Flies
Kim at Parenting Book by Book
A Kindle in Hong Kong
Flower Patch Farm Girl


  1. I'm afraid that I tended to be a bit of a Tiger Mother. I'm a pushy person, I think. I must read this book.

  2. I know that I absolutely would have (and in fact did) give my parents the sort of cheek that Lulu gave hers - OK, no screaming abuse, and I never smashed a glass in public or anything, but I was a tough kid to raise. Not when it came to learning but when it came to being hard-headed and rebellious (though looking back my parents mostly remember that I was the one who aced school, as my sister had some challenges in that area).

    By contrast, my husband never got in trouble for doing anything worse than not wanting to go to bed on time.

    I don't intend to have kids, but if I do, at least I'll know how to handle an outburst like Lulu's, because my adult self knows what would have worked for me as a kid.

    Anyway. For lack of more succinct descriptors, I'll stick with "Chinese" and "Western", though I agree with you that those titles oversimplify and create divides where there need be none. I've found that the happiest kids and adults in Taiwan I know were or are being raised with the "Western" style of parenting. They're the ones with a holistic view on life, a strong sense of work-life balance and yet who still work hard and are generally happy. The Taiwanese adults I know who were raised in a more "Chinese" style are successful to be sure, but they're also overworked: they've felt since they were kids that they had to do more because it was expected, and they succeeded. Now, as adults, they feel like they have to keep on doing more, even at the expense of a rich inner life. I wouldn't go so far as to say it stifles creativity, as well, but I also won't pretend I haven't noticed a difference.

    One thing I'd caution future parents against: yes, definitely instill in your kids that you know they can do more and that they're strong rather than fragile, but be very careful how you apply it. While some children might read into that "I can do more! If I work harder, I'll be at the top!" but it's so easy to slip into "Mom thinks I can do more, but I'm already working hard. Clearly what I am doing now isn't good enough. I'm not good enough as I am, and she's disappointed in me. I guess I'll have to work my butt off to win her approval."

    And THAT is no good at all. It may produce brilliant work, but the underpinnings will be very insecure, indeed. I'd go so far as to say it would be come the cliche of the "dysfunctional billionaire with mother issues".

  3. I read this book last week and completely agree with your review. It was refreshing to read your realistic portrait of this book - so different from all the crazy media portrayals. I really enjoyed the book and admire Chua for exposing her strengths and faults to the world.

  4. You may be interested in hearing Susan Maushart, author of the new book, "The Winter of our Disconnect," comment on Chua’s Tiger Mother philosophy at Surprisingly Free:

  5. @Deb - I think it was good for me to read this to make sure I don't inflict my perfectionist streak on my future kids. If I hear myself doing it, I'll just think of Lulu in Russia.

    @Jenna - Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comment :) There are kids who are tough to raise and then there are kids who have been pushed to the brink by their parents. What I really meant to say but I think wasn't as clear as I'd hoped is that a) the Chua way clearly wasn't working on making the kid respect her if her daughter talked to her like that and b) I'd be devastated (if I were in the mothering shoes) to know I had failed to raise a kid who respected me - public screaming and smashing glasses and all.

    I agree with your cautionary note about expecting more but not making them feel inadequate. I grew up feeling that nothing I did was ever good enough so I absolutely won't do that to my own kids. It's al about finding that elusive balance between pushing too hard and not enough. And it'll be different for every single kid.

    @Kim - Thank you very much!! I'm really glad I did read it because she really isn't as awful as the media made her out to be. I'm unsure as to her exact motives for writing this memoir but she put it al out there and that takes courage.

    @Cord - Thank you for the comment and link.

  6. 'rejected handmade birthday cards' um wow. You've got to wonder what kind of mental scars are under the success of her first daughter though don't you?

  7. @Jodie - I agree, it sounds terrible, but....just to give a fair idea of the handmade card rejection: the card in question was basically made in 20 seconds and looked like it (scrappy paper, scribbled). Her point was since she spends so much time and effort to make their birthdays special, they should spend a little more time and effort for her - not hours but something worthwhile. Which I think is a fair point, to be honest and why the book needs to be read because out of context it really does sound like she's a witch. Thanks for the comment :)

  8. You've read it! I know a lot of people that are talking about this one but I didn't know anyone who had actually read it. You've made some great points--I've been wondering about some of them. Like whether she may have reached the conclusion that one style of parenting doesn't work for all children. It does kind of make me wish that I'd pushed my kids a bit more.

  9. @Lisa - I think she does reach that conclusion but reluctantly. She's a enormously stubborn and single minded woman but she was, as the subtitle of the book suggests, humbled by her 13 year old daughter. She had a hard time admitting it but she realised that she wasn't right all of the time.

    As for pushing your kids - that's the major talking point for me. I don't have kids yet but would love to so I'm in that phase of developing my own theories of what kind of mother I want to be but will no doubt have to adjust when said little people actually arrive! I think that pushing them beyond what they want to do is good as it helps them to achieve more but definitely not to the extremes that Tiger Mom does. I honestly don't think many people would have the energy to push as hard as she did!!

  10. Haha... yes, Lulu's memoirs will be VERY interesting if she ever writes them. I enjoyed your review as well. I wish more people would read the book so the conversation can grow! It's such a conversation to be had, because (as you said) this isn't a parenting manual -- so everyone who had parents (which is everyone) can weigh in.

    I do think she borders on abusive (not feeding her daughter until she gets something perfect would be something that a mandatory reporter would have to report to child services -- even if it is only because westerners are weak;) , but like you said... I think with a different temperament (someone who knows when to back away) this could be a very successful way of parenting.

    Thanks for the review, and the conversation!

  11. @ Wallace - Thanks for the comment! It's really good to know other people are reading this and not just jumping on the "WOW, she's terrible" bandwagon.

    She definitely does border on the abusive on several occasions but (and I'm going to go out on a limb here) I doubt that she's the only parent who has ever done something that Child Services would have something to say about. Parenting is an insanely difficult job and we're all human. Whether we fail our kids due to blind stubborn ambition, anger, or lack of knowledge doesn't really matter if the effect is the same. The point is that these events are usually isolated moments of lapse, not an ongoing pattern of intentional abuse. Her worst moments come when she's trying to bend Lulu's will to her way and frankly I think Lulu wins most of the encounters.

    The thing I admire the most, coming from personal experience, is that she realised that her mothering was failing her second daughter. It took her a while longer than you'd hope it might have, but she does get it. But she realises and modifies her approach and doesn't just carry on for the sake of pride or being right. She didn't completely drive her daughter away... I hope.

  12. This is a great, evenhanded review!
    I was very personally bothered by Amy Chua's book, even though I enjoyed her sense of humor and I had to give her credit for knowing when to back down (even if that point only came when her daughter nearly had what sounded like a nervous breakdown, what with the hair-cutting, rebelliousness, depression and final glass-smashing public meltdown). I felt like she was flogging cultural stereotypes to sell her book by clinging so intensely to the Western/Chinese dichotomy. From her previous books and academic work, it doesn't seem like Chua is unfamiliar with tackling complex ideas, so I have to wonder if she was really that cynical about exploiting stereotypes to market her memoir or if her writing just does a very good and honest job of capturing a stubborn, obsessive personality. Of course, this brings up all kinds of questions about the very nature of memoir writing and unreliable narrators :-).
    The good thing is that even though Chua labeled critics of her books as "obtuse," it definitely engendered some really good discussions about how individual parenting choices conflict or mesh with different cultures. I agree that parents should drive their kids to achieve their full potential, but Chua definitely showed me how not to do that!

  13. Catherine - Thanks! I think it's a point for debate as to whether Chua is exploiting stereotypes or sales or if she's really just that obsessive and stubborn. Personally I think it's the latter but that's just my opinion. Good point about unreliable narrators, too... I just figured since she put some of her most ugly sides out there that she was being honest but who knows...? Eep that's a scary thought!

  14. Excellent review! I agree with your points. I almost felt like she exaggerated some of her awfulness for the sake of bad publicity, which really strikes me as odd.

    And I'm you: I want to read Lulu's take!

  15. @Flower Patch Farmgirl - Thanks! I've added a link to your review at the bottom of my post. I so can't wait to see if Lulu writes a book!!