Friday, April 15, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: An experiment in Chinese parenting

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I first heard about this book back in January when it lit up the blogosphere after an excerpt in the Washington Post titled "Why Chinese mothers are superior." As you can imagine, mothers came out of the woodwork, fiercely attacking her and defending their own parenting approaches. As much as I can understand their perspective, I also find it amusing when people attack each other's parenting styles. What they didn't quite understand about the book was that Chua meant it to be a parody of this parenting style. The front of the book says: "This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old."

Chua, who arrived in the U.S. as a very young child, was raised here by her immigrant parents, and she was convinced that her daughters would be far more successful (and happy) if she made all the choices for them. For example, they were never allowed to do the following things:
  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a playdate
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other tan the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin
Chua, a Yale law professor and writer married to a Jewish law professor, makes a bargain with her husband. They would raise the kids in the Jewish faith if she could apply Chinese parenting principles. Honestly, the man must be a saint. I don't know how he put up with it. She is far stricter, demanding, and (in my opinion) cruel than her parents were with her.

Her two long-suffering daughters could not have gotten much enjoyment out of their childhoods. They were too busy studying, learning Chinese, and practicing violin or piano. She hires a Chinese tutor for them (even though Chua herself does not speak Chinese). She comes across as a complete snob, telling her kids that other children (who are able to go to slumber parties or do not have to practice 4 to 5 hours a day) come from bad families. Anything less than the top performance is not acceptable. She rejects birthday cards her daughters make for her and tells them to do them over again.

A friend who lives in Maryland tells me that half of the kids in her children's school live like this. Their parents constantly pressure the schools to accelerate the curriculum well beyond the usual grade levels.

It's hard to tell, at times, whether Chua is making fun of herself or if she really believes what she did is right. For example, she calls her daughter "garbage" when Sophia acts disrespectfully toward her. When she mentions this conversation later at a dinner party, the other adults ostracize her. One guest breaks down in tears and has to leave early. So she must have known, on some level, the kind of reaction this book would get. Chua says that this approach worked "great" with her daughter. She speaks with admiration of the Chinese (or other) cultural more of insulting their children--for example, saying to an overweight child, "Hey fatty--lose some weight." In 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."

She goes on to recount ONE anecdote of hearing a "western" father toasting his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent," and the daughter later telling Chua that it made her "feel like garbage." I do not know anyone who would feel like garbage upon being told they were beautiful and incredibly competent. Chua likes to spout one-off anecdotes to defend her actions. Another one is the fact that her husband had been asked if he wanted to play the violin as a child, and he said no...and now he always regrets it. Hence, it's okay to FORCE your child to play the violin.

Each time Chua forces her daughters (often the younger, more defiant one, Lulu) to do something unreasonable, and hours of angry fights ensue, the daughters eventually cave in to Chua's ridiculous demands. She considers these triumphs as her rightful due as a mother, and feels justified in her methods.

Chua perhaps unintentionally pits Asian parenting styles against "western" parenting styles. She consistently puts down the latter. She writes "There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests." I find this comment pretty hilarious, because this is the best-known book about Asian mothers, and it does just that!

She truly believes that only she knows what would make her children happy--in the case of Lulu, "I wanted her to be the best violinist in the state--and that was for starters. I knew that was the only way Lulu could be happy."

I think Chua is a little bit crazy, actually. In the midst of her incredibly high-stress life (teaching law, writing books, going on lecture tours, on top of screaming and shouting at her daughters to practice all hours of the day), she decides to get a puppy. She chooses a Samoyed, and then begins to focus her competitive energy on her dog! As if one unruly puppy wasn't enough (she ended up doing all the dog walking and care on top of her other responsibilities), later she decides to get a second one.

During the course of the book's time period, she loses her mother-in-law, a vibrant, independent woman, and comes close to losing her beloved younger sister, Katrin, to leukemia. You would think that these experiences might prompt her to think more about her family's quality of life and her daughters' happiness. It can't have been fun or relaxing to live in a household constantly fraught by fights (usually about practicing the violin, and sometimes the piano). Why doesn't she realize how short her time with her daughters would be (while they were young) and make the most of it? Well, she says it herself: "The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life. It's not one of my strengths...I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence (her mother-in-law) always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl--she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments." So Florence died without getting to spend a full day with her granddaughters. How sad is that??? Especially because Chua doesn't realize that it is sad.

When their beloved grandmother dies, Chua forces her grief-stricken adolescent daughters to give eulogies. When they protest, Chua demands it and pours on the guilt. She then rejects Sophia's first draft as totally unacceptable and calls her selfish. Both girls come through in the end, but it shocks me to think of how callous and unfeeling she was to demand that they speak at the funeral.

Chua writes about some of the arguments she had with her long-suffering husband, Jed, but for the most part he lingers in the background. In one argument, he accuses her of making crazy overgeneralizations about "westerners" and "Chinese people" and asks her to stop insulting people all the time. "I know you think you do people a huge favor by criticizing them, so that they can improve themselves, but have you ever considered that you just make people feel bad?" When he points out how wrong it is to praise Sophia in front of Lulu, she completely refuses to see his point, claiming that Lulu doesn't "need affirmative action."

The fights continue when she hosts a 50th birthday party for Jed. She demands, again, that Sophia and Lulu give speeches, and Lulu refuses. It is the first of many battles Chua loses, and she accuses Lulu of dishonoring the family. After Lulu hacks off all her hair after Chua tells her they don't have time for her to get a haircut, you'd think she might consider backing off...but no.

The simmering hostility begins bubbling and finally explodes when the family travels to Russia. Chua tries to force Lulu to sample caviar and calls her a juvenile delinquent and a barbarian when she refuses. Lulu throws a temper tantrum in the middle of the restaurant and tells her mother she hates her, her life, and her family. Chua tells her she's a terrible daughter. Finally, Chua realizes she must change.

She allows Lulu to give up the violin and take up tennis. But it's clear at the end of the book that she doesn't have any regrets and feels good about the way she has raised her daughters. That's why I'm not sure it's a parody. Everyone around her--her husband, daughters, parents-in-law, and even her own strict Chinese parents--tell her to chill out and back off, that she's going too far, but she refuses until Lulu ultimately explodes. She's extremely lucky that she didn't alienate her children forever.

Even though Chua and her husband are law professors, I wondered how they could afford their extravagant lifestyle. Full-time Chinese tutors (at least in early childhood), expensive piano and violin lessons, trips all around the world, constant dining out, and when Sophia performs at Carnegie Hall, a truly extravagant reception to which Sophia's entire class is bussed into the City?

In summary, this book was compulsively readable and a welcome break after The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which took me weeks to finish. I admire Chua's honesty--she does expose herself to heaps of criticism. But I truly feel sorry for Chua's daughters and husband. She admits that her family is not the type who has intimate conversations about their feelings. She believes that her daughters are happy and well adjusted, but how would she know what they really feel about her? (After I wrote this review, a Facebook friend sent me this link to a letter written by Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, which defends her mother and says how much she loves her. Chua apparently has received death threats, so I understand why she wanted to defend her mom.)

Yes, she realizes she couldn't win, continuing the way she was going, but her closing pages smack of the kind of person who realizes, deep down, that she was right all along.

Here's a very serious PBS interview with Amy Chua:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

And a very silly interview on Steven Colbert (in which he constantly talks over her, but you see her lighter side):


  1. I have been curious about this book. Reading your review, I now know that I probably would have thrown the book across the room in frustration at the mother. The side note about her daughter's letter of defense made me think that abused kids often still love their abusive parents, too. As a soon-to-be parent myself, I have to think that there's a happy medium somewhere? Discipline and activity, yes; but also room for play, creativity, and doing nothing.

  2. Yes, you are right about that. I absolutely agree that there's a happy medium. Many parents tend to be far too lax in teaching principles of respect and self-control and tend to indulge their children far too much, but on the other hand I also believe it's important to create a loving, highly supportive environment without lots of yelling! :)

    Good luck with parenthood. It's a fun ride!

  3. My book group just picked this for our next read. I'm anxious to read it because she sounds truly over the top and overbearing as a parent.

  4. Yay, Lizzi--can't wait to hear what you think.