Sunday, March 13, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Where I got the book: from the library.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is Amy Chua's much touted (I could say notorious) memoir of how she raised her two daughters to become academic high achievers and musical prodigies using Chinese methods. Chua states up front that her sweeping assessments of the relative virtues of "Chinese parents" and "Western parents" are just that, very broad opinions, and that Chinese-style parenting can be found in many non-Asian homes, typically where the parents are first-generation immigrants.

Having a kid who spent much of middle school in gifted classes where the Chinese kids outnumbered the rest, I can confirm anecdotally that much of what Chua covers in her book conforms to the normal practices of Chinese parents. An extremely limited social life, "always programs" as one mother proudly told me, Chinese school at the weekend, hours of homework and extra drills were the norm; a grade below an A was unacceptable. My child hid her very first D from me because in her Chinese friends' world, a D meant a total parental meltdown and probably solitary confinement till the age of 25. When my kid grew away from her friends in high school she plunged joyfully into the Western model of underperformance, only to rediscover achievement all by herself in her senior year. She now tells me that I should have been more of a Tiger Mother and that she's going to raise her kids the Chinese way.

But enough about me! I really enjoyed Chua's book. I agreed with quite a few of her criticisms of Western parenting as selfish (she is particularly critical of mothers who neglect their children's education so that they can pursue interests of their own) and lazy (Chinese mothers are willing to invest every spare minute in their children's development, etc.) And she attacks the scary spectacle of self-esteem, which is producing impossible children unable to deal with authority. Believe me, I know. Sorry, me again.

I was interested in Chua's own overachiever, type A+++++ personality; she cheerfully admits to her tendency to spread tension over every family gathering and her inability to enjoy herself. Toward the end of the memoir she does come over as a bit more human, and begins to concede that Chinese parenting does not always work (it was not successful for her father, and only partially worked with her youngest daughter) and that some Western ideas, such as pursuing your own passions rather than your parents', have some sense in them.

Still, when you consider how limited our Western aspirations are for our children (most of us just want them to be happy and to have monstrous self-esteem like my kids SORRY) compared to those of Chinese parents, who see Yale, Harvard, Nobel prizes and Olympic medals in their children's future, you may pause for a moment. The Chinese parents I've met began saving for college when their children were foetuses, and investigating Ivy League institutions when their kids were in 7th grade. So now I don't feel so horrible after all for insisting that we start homework straight after school AND WE SIT AT THE TABLE TILL IT'S DONE (that lasted until high school, when I lost control).

I'm struck by how much this book made me reflect on my own parenting successes and failures, as illustrated by the way I keep interrupting this review with news about me. Battle Hymn was very nicely written, lively, and easy to read. I rather hope that some of Chua's ideas catch on.


gargimehra said...

I have not read the book yet but have read and heard the furious debates raging over this. I found it interesting that when asked to suggest a title for her mother's book, her youngest daughter Lulu came up with this: "The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil." As per this article

Small Kucing said...

I have heard so much abt this book. Hope to lay my hands on it one of these days

moonrat said...

like the others, i've heard so much about this book, but have yet to find a specific reason to pick it up (i suspect it is a more meaningful book for parents, Jane--it was very interesting to hear your reflections, which were pretty balanced compared to some review takes i've seen).

in the meantime:

Jane Steen said...

Haha, Moonrat, it makes a nice change to be called "balanced." I also posted this review on my blog - where it was read by American moms who got riled up about it.

This makes me think that Chua strikes deep into the core of something very fundamental in American education. Now the question is, do we dismiss parents who insist on excellence in their children as nutcases, or do we imitate them so that our kids actually have a chance of getting to top colleges that are rapidly filing up with children brought up Chua's way? (Although discrimination is holding back the numbers in some schools, see

I have the feeling that the next generations of parents could start questioning the self-esteem-raising ethos of American schools. Particularly since, as Chua points out, they are just as likely to feel inferior as any other generation of kids. Comparing yourself to other people is part of growing up.

Froog said...

It seems to me (though I speak with the experience of a teacher, not a parent) that education ought to be about encouraging, not terrorising, and about facilitating, not demanding.

While I wouldn't disagree with the value of parents being a bit more proactive and demanding with their kids, trying to instil a little more discipline about good study habits and so on, I don't think there's any doubt that the sort of extreme regime Chua advocates tends to produce emotionally scarred, disaffected, unmotivated children. At the very best, it usually produces children who are quite technically accomplished, but have no real enthusiasm or motivation for anything (because they've never been allowed to develop that for themselves; and they've never been given the leisure time to explore and experiment and discover what they really care about and have aptitudes for).

Many of Chua's precepts - violin and piano are the only instruments worth studying; only classical music is good, not jazz or rock; art and drama are worthless; any kind of social activity is a waste of time - are so bizarrely misguided, it beggars belief.

I know she's talking mainly about the experience of American Chinese (and other "high-achieving" immigrant communities), but we do see very similar vices among the middle class here in mainland China. Most of the rising middle class here are obsessed with the dream of escaping from China and emigrating to an English-speaking country. The state-run education system here is a bit of a shambles. And the One Child Policy has ensured that most families can concentrate all their efforts and resources on hot-housing a single child (and the child does not have the companionship - or the distraction - of siblings). Most Chinese kids I've met have huge numbers of extra lessons outside of regular school hours (often these are arranged by the schools themselves), and the better off ones usually have teams of private tutors as well; just about every spare moment of their weekends and vacations are taken up with study. It may improve their test scores a little (not by all that much, in most cases, I suspect); but it does nothing to raise their intelligence, their capacity for analytical thought or creative expression, or their level of socialisation. And it is very strongly demotivating.

It's one of the key reasons why I'm sceptical that China can ever attain true 'superpower' status. It has perfected a system that mass produces teenagers who are intellectually mediocre and psychologically damaged.

Jane Steen said...

Interesting comment from the front lines, Froog. It will be fascinating to see how the current generation of hothouse Chinese kids will turn out.

One of the biggest hindrances to China's development as a superpower could be precisely the phenomenon you describe - the flight of the intelligentsia to America. One of the USA's greatest assets is that their people tend to stay put, and for the most part work hard.

Froog said...

Ah, 'hard work'! Don't get me started on that one.

The Chinese are often praised for their willingness to work hard (and I think that's largely true of the diaspora communities); but here in the PRC I just don't see it.

There is no 'work ethic' in the culture here - no concept doing a job well for its own sake, or of finding satisfaction in labour. What there is here is an extraordinary level of acquiescence in unreasonable working hours and practices - but that's not the same as enthusiastically embracing the opportunity to work longer hours (to earn more), or vigorously striving to work better, more quickly, more efficiently. Yes, many Chinese will work a nominal 15-hour day.... but they'll get less done than you or I would in half the time.