In Praise of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

January 24, 2011 at 11:33 am , by

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Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale and hardworking mother of two teenage daughters (her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also teaches law at Yale and writes suspense novels), has sparked a giant controversy in publishing her memoir-cum-parenting book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (The Penguin Press; $25.95; 2011). The crux of the brouhaha: Which parenting paradigm works better, the traditional American model, which proposes that parents let their children discover what they naturally excel at and then help them achieve success at it while preserving the kids’ all-important “self esteem,” or Chua’s “Asian” model, in which parents push their children to perform tasks that the parents decide are worthwhile with 110 percent of their ability to the exclusion of seemingly self-indulgent activities such as sleepovers and after-school drama clubs? Chua asserts that her Chinese parenting methods work better, and that the United States is on the road to failure because we don’t push our children hard enough, far enough, fast enough. The numbers seem to support her: According to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor, Asian-American high school graduates have the highest college enrollment rate, at 92.2 percent.

But let’s step back for a moment and look at her book not as a parenting guide or manifesto but as an engaging read. Reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a joy, a pleasure and an eye-opener. First, it is so engagingly written you hate to see it end; when you do finally close it you hope that a sequel will arrive—soon. Second, it is provocative. How do mothers anticipate their daughters’ reactions to suggestions, suppositions, successes and failures? How many moves in advance in a game of childrearing chess must a parent think in order to effect an outcome in a child that the parent will find acceptable and the child achievable? What can parents and children do together to foster favorable outcomes? Third, Chua explores the definition of family life today. How does a parent pursue his or her interests, hold down a full-time job and set aside enough time for family? How much time should children be given to play, to interact with other children, to partake in family pursuits? And fourth (but by no means last) and central to Chua’s analysis, she tackles the most fundamental question of all: What is the goal of childrearing? Do parents exist for children or do children exist for parents? (This question runs as a motif throughout Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Chua and Rubenfeld do not agree on its answer.)

It is also important to look at these questions in the context of today’s education debate. First, to what extent do children’s teachers play a role in their upbringing? Chua touches on this question but does not dredge deeply enough for me. Second, what about the one-quarter (a percentage that is still rising) of American kids today who do not belong to a nuclear family? How can they succeed without the total parental commitment Chua’s method entails? And what about these kids’ parents? How are they supposed to help their children excel in situations where they may already be at a disadvantage? What hope do these youngsters have when resources are stretched or nonexistent?

A single book can’t hope to address the myriad social problems America’s children face, but when considering Amy Chua’s sparkling book and her childrearing methodology from a child’s viewpoint, I daresay no youngster would voluntarily forego total parental commitment to his or her well-being and education—even if the child bridles against a particular method (as Chua’s younger daughter eventually did). Who would? What could be better evidence of a mother’s love than knowing that she has such high expectations for you that she will give everything to see you fulfill them? A tiger mother might be tough, but even the most rebellious child is unlikely not to feel at least a grudging appreciation for all that devotion.

17 Responses to “In Praise of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

  1. It all depends on the child! Different parenting techniques work well on certain kids but can be disastrous for others. There is no ” one size fits all” when it comes to parenting.


  2. Dear LM Ogden: You are certainly correct in stating that—there is no one size fits all when it comes to parenting or education, either. Thanks for pointing that out, it is relevant to Ms. Chua’s theses and should not go overlooked. Tom Claire


  3. One size definitely does not fit all. Hving said that, I am so very, very, very glad that I am NOT one of Ms Chua’s children.


  4. Dear KGoddess—Thanks for having written. Before having read Ms. Chua’s book I too would have supposed that no child would want to have been raised by a Tiger Mother, but I read a recent article written by Sophia (the elder daughter) Chua in the New York Post and she sang her mother’s praises. And why not: Owing to her own hard work and determination (and natural gifts) coupled with her parents’ backing Sophia is poised to become a concert pianist and will probably prove a success no matter where life leads her. That’s what I meant when I said that I didn’t suppose any child in looking back would complain about a parent’s complete and utter devotion to her (or his) upbringing. It’s just that during the process it might seem a tad overdone. Witness the younger girl’s “rebellion”: I imagine that one of these days you and I will find ourselves watching Lulu compete in the U.S, Open Tennis Championships and we will not be surprised when she takes first place! Until then, thanks again, more later, ciao, Tom


  5. As long as the local school boards think it is more important to have a winning football team than an outstanding honor society, our schools are doomed. I don’t know where the “entitled” generation came from, but our teenagers today seem to think it is more important to have the right clothes, shoes, etc. than higher grades.
    Although I haven’t read Amy Chuas’ book, I’ve listened to enough interviews. I think most children are curious about things and if you stimulate their curiosity and arouse their creativity, they will succeed. She may have pushed her daughters too far in exposing them to too many things that didn’t interest them. However, I do believe parents must get involved with the education of their children, and I don’t mean by going to the school and berating the teachers for the failure of their children. Education should start at home at a very early age.


  6. Dear Mkrajci—Thank you for having written. You bring up a good point. The flip side of your conclusion restates the adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, since education does start at home at a very early age—children imitate their parents in many respects not least among which is their attitudes toward learning, reading, study, respect for others, etc. That said, perhaps you have put your finger on one of the reasons that Amy Chua’s parenting assertions have sparked such controversy: By inference perhaps she is implying that American parents now are slackers as much as their children are, that complacency begins at home. Maybe that is why she has reportedly received death threats. I imagine that first- and second-generation citizens do look on things a little more earnestly than more established citizens do. Tough questions to raise. Thank you, sincerely. Please do try to find the time to give her book a read—it will not take you long and I would value your additional insights after having read it. Ciao, Tom


  7. I’m not a mother but have been following the controversy over Ms. Chua’s book. One question, where’s Daddy? My goddaughter is Asian American and is thriving with the great parenting of two loving parents, each maintaining a stronghold in their respective cultures (Japan/Texas). She spent a year studying in Japan. I think that made her very happy to be an American. Our culture is not as old and defined as Asian culture. Maybe this is wherein the beauty lies.


  8. The argument sounds too cut and dry to me. Also, expectations come
    into play that are not just cultural, but historical and global. For
    me it is whether your children are happy more than anything else.
    My two cents,

    Scott


  9. Dear Scott: Thank you for having written. I find your note interesting and do not think of it as just your “two cents.” Whether the argument is too cut and dry though would require your reading the book, which I hope you will do. It really is a fun piece and not without insight and humor. And your point about “whether children are happy more than anything” else cuts to the core of Ms. Chua’s thesis: To her a child’s happiness is not the goal; rather, establishing the necessary discipline to instill a high regard for achievement in a child is her aim. I would welcome your take on her ideas if you can find the time to give it a read—it will not take you long. Thanks again for having written, I value your input. Ciao, Tom


  10. Dear Alice Glenn: Thank you for your insight re your goddaughter. You raise a good question: I wonder how Ms. Chua’s daughters would take to spending a lot of time in China? Since they have to take Mandarin lessons (one of their mother’s dictates), presumably they would be able to fit right in linguistically there. However, when they visited apparently they were local curiosities among the native Chinese who saw them—this is a particularly poignant moment in the book. But if they had to stay for an extended period, what would they make of it and how would that affect their relationship to their mother and their homeland (America) on returning? Good question, thanks. Re your other question (“Where’s Daddy?”), he shows up in the book but mostly in the background, plus there is a running motif of the tension between him and her (father and mother) over parenting techniques and expectations for their children. I imagine you would have your questions answered if you get the chance to read this book. If you do, please let me know what else you come across. Ciao, Tom PS: Thanks again for having written!


  11. This is kind of disturbing. I have heard about this book on NPR, of
    course, but didn’t pay much attention to the conversation.
    Here is what I think after reading the excerpt.

    I honestly don’t think people need to be the best in order to be happy
    or fulfilled. In fact, there is a bias here that describes a ‘best’ I
    frankly don’t even agree with. (Not to mention that only one person
    CAN be the best, no matter how you twist the logic.) I’m sure this
    strong headed person would have a come-back to that, but her goals for
    her children, though they may be culturally guided, are her goals. If
    one extrapolates this to its extreme, the world would have a bunch of
    clones.
    Years ago I spent time thinking and reading about Chinese culture
    based on my interest in their socialist model, which I admired.
    Through that personal study I concluded that communism could work in
    China because of the culture which is much less individualistic than
    our Western driven approach. It’s not that simple, but this is again
    what I see in this argument…a cultural difference.
    More to the point, (and I am not going to read this book because I
    simply don’t have the time), from what I can glean I would oppose this
    parenting model with all of my fiber. It runs exactly contrary to how
    I think children should grow up, and I even think we don’t give them
    enough wiggle room as it is. Especially when it comes to our new
    standards of testing, and so on, I think we are finding out that they
    don’t work, don’t improve learning skills, and leave everlasting harm.
    There seems to be little respect for the child as a person.

    Scott


  12. Dear Scott: Thanks for having written and for your insight. I note from what you imply that you do not have a lot of time on your hands, not enough anyway to give Amy Chua’s book a go. Being that busy is a good thing. I don’t have a lot of extra time in my day/week/month either. Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to have time enough as they say to smell the roses—I guess that you and I will have to wait on that.
    I am most interested in your line “Years ago I spent time thinking and reading about Chinese culture …” I wonder which books and authors you read. I have read most of Jonathan Spence’s works (In Search of Modern China and many others) among other authors and find Chinese culture completely fascinating intellectually but having been raised in the Western tradition doubt that I would ever find personal fulfillment therein. I do not mean communistic culture; I mean by Chinese culture a very old and established culture that owing to Mao’s vagaries saw some extreme pressures during the late 20th century, pressures that will eventually work themselves out in the distant future, well after my time, I am sure. But I don’t think that Amy Chua refers to pre-communist or communist China as a yardstick against which to measure her ideas; she is much more in tune with a mind-set that sets an individual inescapably within society, as though no one could consider him- or herself as existing independently thereof. No solipsism or egotism or hedonism would be tolerated in her world view, I am afraid.
    I wish I could understand your point about giving kids more “wiggle room.” It seems to me that they have more than ample wiggle room, so perhaps our definitions differ on that point, since otherwise I appreciate your thought and admire your insight. More later, ciao, Tom



  13. Dear A Mukai—thanks for your input and reference to David Brooks, whose NY Times op-ed piece you reference i did read way back when, what was it, two weeks ago? Three weeks? It seems like a long time. I will reread it when I have time, thanks again, more later, ciao, Tom


  14. Not having read the book yet, but from all that I have
    heard in the media, plus based on discussions I have had with others, I am filled with horror at what I know so far regarding this type of “Tiger” parenting.
    Does the author not tell her
    child at one point that a greeting card the child made for her was
    unacceptable? Are her children driven incessantly to levels of perfection in all
    “outer” disciplines, being punished for an A- grade in school? These are neither parenting nor psychological
    practices I can support.
    Perhaps this is because I am the victim of a lifetime of
    physical and verbal abuse from a mean-spirited and demanding adopted mother,
    from whom I have been estranged for 8 years, and who I can never forgive for
    her constant degrading, insulting, lack of empathy, absence of validation (something I am convinced all humans need)and misunderstanding of
    other’s personal spirits and creative needs.
    Despite the engaging literary qualities, has no one noticed the
    potential for psychological damage to children ruled in such an iron clad
    fashion?
    I am the first to admit that American children today are often extremely soft and
    overly-entitled (my 2 young men are no exception). This is a backlash to the last American
    generation, where we all feared and sometimes hated our rugged post-war folks to some
    extent, and were consequently driven to leave home ASAP and make our own happier, freer
    lives. This fear can be a good thing in some respects, but I get the sense
    that this book values this fear to a ridiculously blind level, placing it on
    a pedestal of superiority….”THE” answer to all our societal problems.

    Despite my sons being substantially less motivated than my husband or I to move out
    or even work nearly as hard, the exchange is that we love one another deeply and share
    our most personal thoughts, warm humor and feelings. We are best friends.
    In the end, I will have their hearts, whatever they become,…and they mine…openly and freely, without fear.
    I do still constantly encourage their success, with kindness in my support, or with reasonable “tough” love when needed, and I accept
    them unconditionally. I never knew this as a child myself, and I know how it feels to be without. It is a hollow pain that will never be
    healed and lends itself to a lifetime battle with those inner voices – Mother’s voice- reminding you how inadequate you are inside. Other similar abuse victims will attest to this as well, once given a
    chance to speak without fear of family repercussion or societal banishment,
    as I am sure is not the case in China or other strict Asian nations.

    I simply do not value financial or employment/skill success as the ultimate
    life goal, rather I value inner love and self-acceptance…which then hopefully leads
    to acceptance of all others, and of all things, good, bad and mediocre. It is how “gray” thinking is born, and the world needs all the “gray” it can get.

    The author herself was no doubt raised the same, and I feel she herself is also
    misunderstanding
    of what she does. She does not “accept” because she was never herself
    “accepted”.
    I have always pitied the super-bright Asian valedictorian kids, the Indian
    spelling bee
    winners, the impeccable Chinese cello-playing 8-year-olds, with their
    just-below-the-surface, obvious terror of failure and family disappointment.
    I am also curious about the suicide rates in the countries where this sort
    of perfection is encouraged. I imagine these “perfect” offspring are living a life without the real
    kaleidoscope of cluttered consequences that accompany a wholly imperfect and
    messy existence….the
    stuff that makes for deep character, colorful language, open artistic
    expression and the very best, uniquely battered and most supremely loveable
    souls.
    For Tiger children, to feel these imperfect things would be the ultimate betrayal of all they know. It would betray mother, the all-knowing, ultimate life-giver.

    I am not surprised that the author’s other relatives feel she is
    exemplary….as this is a part of the black and white nature of an overly
    disciplined society that never dallies in the unvalued likes of emotional
    well-being or balanced mental health. Of course her daughter will praise
    her Tiger mother, she has been conditioned all her life to have ultimate respect
    without rebellion, and has never had a chance to feel the freedom to just
    “F” something up a little. Sad.

    Again, I am speaking mostly out of hearsay, and what I have seen on TV, so I
    am quite ignorant to the novel’s full impact. But as long as it a serious book,
    however, then I can only see it as a retaliatory and defensive expression of age-old, culturally-driven
    disciplines (to me
    abuses), being touted as “good parenting”. If this is the Chinese way and these Tiger mothers have convinced themselves it works,
    then fine, but to come to another culture and accuse others of being bad parents
    is also an issue to which I take offense. It is a vast difference in values to mine, to be sure.
    Perhaps this type of parenting is a
    response to many eras of wars, invasion and tough survival competition, but to me, one who works in the field of Emotional Intelligence as an Aspergers (Autism) Support Coach,
    fear-motivated parenting is just not my idea of any ideal.
    Thanks. Kim


  15. Dear Kim: Thanks for having taken the time to write and for expressing a different viewpoint, one I hinted at in my review of Ms. Chua’s book: Even if her childrearing system were to work for children raised in a stable, upscale nuclear family how would it work for the other 25 percent of kids, those who either come from a single-parent nonnuclear environment or for children who have many siblings for whose families resources may be stretched thin. Thanks too for being so open about your own upbringing and how you have raised your sons. The intergenerational elements you share are interesting. I don’t know what to make of your feelings about the supermotivated spelling bee winners etc., since I naturally agree with you but Ms. Chua’s daughter Sophie evidently thinks she was raised just fine and apparently has no regrets. Her little sister, Lulu, though, the more rebellious one, as described in the book, might present a different aspect of how a child raised by the tiger mother might feel about the technique. I must agree with you that “fear-motivated parenting” is not ideal, though I think that that technique (not in the tiger mother aspect) has long been an element of some traditional Western childrearing techniques.
    All that you write makes me want to say one thing, clearly: I am not a child psychologist and I reviewed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because I found it to be a well-written, interesting narrative, one that had me so involved in a family other than my own that I could have kept on reading it or would pick up a sequel were there one. So, perhaps someday you will find the time to give it a read yourself—there is plenty of humor and some of the family stress points discussed I imagine are relatively universal. That said, perhaps you will permit me a bit of wordplay (by way of paraphrasing that old Russian master): Every happy camper is alike; each unhappy camper is unhappy in his or her own way. Maybe Ms. Chua’s book will bring one important item to the forefront of our national education focus: What do we mean by “happiness,” how do we define it and is it attainable for children, and does the definition of happiness change for kids and grown-ups? Or, is the goal of childrearing to raise happy kids to be happy adults? I am not sure that Amy Chua would think so. Thanks again, more later, ciao, Tom


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