Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Title: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Author: Amy Chua
Pages: 256
Genre: Memoir; Sociology; Culture
Publisher: Penguin Press
Pub. Date: January 11, 2011

Never has a book that I haven't read caused such intense emotions for me -- emotions that necessitated my taking deep, calming breaths every time I thought about it. Although I did see this book in the stores, I didn't pay much heed because the cover didn't draw me in. But then I saw blog posts and articles popping up and I learned what this nugget was about. The Asian style of parenting!! The author refers to it as "Chinese parenting". (I would link but commentaries have been written in all the major periodicals out there, so you'd be fine just googling it). The articles excerpt the book including examples of the author's parenting decisions: no sleepovers, play dates, tv, or video games for her children; calling her children "garbage" and other degrading names; forcing hours and hours and hours of practice time on the piano and violin -- going so far as to forbid bathroom or water breaks until a certain piece was perfected; expecting all around perfection from her children; rejecting birthday cards they made her because the lack of quality reflected the dearth of time spent on making them. Furthermore, in everything written about her, the author, Amy Chua, (who happens to be a Yale law professor), sounds arrogant in her insistence that "Chinese parenting" is far superior to that of "Western parents".

The discussions of this book made my blood boil. I have passionate feelings about parenting which, I'm sure, has a lot to do with how I ended up in the field(s) of work that I did. We already know child abuse is a problem, but many people underestimate the quantity and significance of emotional abuse. And I consider extreme parenting like that to be emotionally abusive in nature. And there is research out there that shows the unhealthy and otherwise negative effects of such extreme parenting. And though many Asians fit into the stereotype of being great, smart, often perfect students, there are also many Asian Americans who seek therapy for the same things that made them that way. And being Asian American myself (technically bi-racial or bi-ethnical, if you will) I have very personal feelings regarding the Eastern attitude toward parenting.

*Whew*. Those feelings were intense. Then I found yet another article about the book in People, and the author talked about how she ultimately had her "comeuppance". So, with my curiosity about that and my thoughts that I should not allow a book I haven't read affect me in such a way, I decided to read the book and see what I felt afterward.

Now, my opinion towards that type of parenting has not changed. But I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed this short and engaging cultural, parenting memoir. I almost feel like I can understand the author slightly more, though I still don't agree with her. Ironically, it's possible that, in the end, I may relate to or appreciate this book more so than some "westerners" who have never been exposed to Asian culture. None of the Eastern belief systems and thought processes were new to me since I do have one Asian parent. (I do think, though, that anyone would be fascinated with this book).

I also wanted to point out that I do agree that there are some flaws in the very western form of parenting. For instance, I believe that in many ways, the typical expectations for children are too low. I'm a proponent of Michelle Rhee's Students First campaign in which she aims to transform our educational system. I wanted to point this out because it's not about an eastern/western thing for me. I have my own opinions in general, though overall I tend to lean towards the western style of parenting.

Anyway, I've rambled enough. Ultimately, I was happy to meet this family and learn more about them. In terms of technicalities, the succinct chapters maintained a quick pace in the book in which enough information and anecdotes were given to keep the reader interested without overdoing the topic. I was surprised that the focus of the book was so heavy on the children's musical "careers". While she hinted that her parenting style rolled over to all topics, the author talks mainly about the issues they had with the girls practice time, performances, etc. On the other hand, this is a largely Asian concept -- the extreme focus on learning "classical" instruments. I played the piano off and on until I was 13-years-old when I insisted to my dissenting mother that I quit playing. However, I think I would have maybe liked to see more of their interactions regarding other areas.

I do think the author was brave to write this book. She was brave in "exposing" herself and her family (which just so happens to be a very non-Asian thing to do). She even mentions the therapeutic nature of writing this book which also is a non-Asian concept. She has hailed a storm of critics who have loudly spoken out against her (me not excluded, though I'm less credentialed or significant than the journalists who have done so...)

There were several times throughout the book when I literally laughed out loud. I loved reading the interactions between her and her daughters. Her younger daughter was the one who, essentially, called her on her ridiculosities (totally made-up by me word) and threw her for a loop when she didn't know how to react to her daughter's disobedience. I related a lot to the older daughter (being the older of two girls myself) in the way she just went along with most of it. But there were moments when she too yelled out in anger towards her mother and I could understand exactly where she was coming from. It was a new and uncomfortable feeling for the author during one specific scene when her fight with her youngest came to a head. The author talked about how before her eyes, she became one of those "western" parents with a disrespectful, bad (paraphrasing) kid. But that made me realize just how much this author didn't know. In what I found a powerful scene, her older daughter, Sophie, who was being yelled at for her stupidity in forgetting again to close the pantry door to keep the dogs out of the food, stands up for herself and points out how great a daughter she truly is. Again, I totally related, and I wanted to swoop in and validate her thoughts and feelings, and then yank the author off with me to see the horrors of the families that I see every day.

Ultimately, I don't know how much the author really learned about parenting. I think this part is sort of subjective to the reader because of the way the ending was written. It's possible that even the author isn't quite sure. I think she may have traveled to a place where she is more open-minded. But sort of in the way that the families on Wife Swap are when they return -- they learn to appreciate a few things from the other side, but only incorporate them rather than change everything. And that's fine. I get that. But I think that underestimating the significance of positive self-esteem and autonomy is a very dangerous thing. The author was very lucky to wind up with such wonderful girls. I do think, though, that it came across that she loves her girls. And while I don't agree with the parenting decisions, she had a purpose she felt was justified for everything she did. I think it could have/should have been done differently, but I did want to differentiate the author from those parents who have zero regard for their children in the first place who call their children names, etc.

So even though I'm not quite sure that the author completely had the "comeuppance" she mentioned in People Magazine, I am glad I read this because my blood stopped boiling. I no longer need to calm myself down. I like this family. And I feel a little hypocritical, but I would love to hear her children's music... they're apparently (and NOT just according to family) the best!

This is not a book I feel was intended to offend. I think the intention was more being straight and answering the question so many have asked of her regarding how her children became so perfect. This is a book about the differences in beliefs and parenting in eastern and western cultures. I think most will be riveted by this book!

**Oh, I wanted to add a disclaimer to something she writes in the book. I am half-Korean. I know many Korean people. Not I nor anyone I have ever met eats dog. My Korean relatives have dogs as pets just like we do here. Please do not perpetuate this stereotype. Some Americans eat rabbit, but I wouldn't generalize that to all Americans and certainly not to someone like myself who has had a rabbit as a very lovable and very loved pet. Ok, disclaimer over.**


Juju at Tales of said...

Wow. I love how this moved you and made you feel so many things. Awesome review.

Suzanne said...

I am impressed that despite your initial reaction to the media attention you were open-minded enough to read it for your self and make up your own mind.

I don't know that this is one I'll ever read, but it does raise some interesting points.

Stephanie said...

What a wonderful, passionate post. I love the fact that despite how upset you were by this book, you chose to read it and went into with an open mind.

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I think the message of this book is interesting, and I'm glad to read an actual review rather than opinions based on the sound bytes. I think it's so easy to speak with prejudice or with generalities about these issues, and I think there are good and bad approaches to parenting. Some of those are cultural and some aren't. I completely agree about emotional abuse. I don't think I'll read this book anytime soon, but perhaps if and when I have children, I will. Thanks for such an honest and personal review!

Zibilee said...

I have been hearing about this book all over the place, and my snap judgments have been a lot like yours. I do want to read this one and see just what it is about, and I thank you for your very through thoughts on it!

softdrink said...

Like you, the thought of this book makes me gnash my teeth. But unlike you, I don't think I'll be reading this one (not a fan of parenting books). It was certainly interesting to get your take on it, though...fabulous review!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I have also had my own opinion on the type of parenting that assumes that the child has the right to do what he/she so wishes. the fear of training the child, that Western concept that gives enough power to the child. what happens is that when they derail they go all the way and there is always a gully between the parents and the children so that a mother cannot approach her daughter or son anymore. Here what have we produced? Now there are more teenage murderers than they used to be. In the heart of London policemen are put on buses just to ensure that teenage murderers and murders are stopped. And all this is attributed to the type of parenting. People are now blaming the political system for Loughner's (??) actions. Some are now asking if his parents ever saw his actions and reactions. And if they did could they have talked him out?

All these types of parenting has its upside and downside and people would benefit and others would not. There is no perfect model that works for everyone. that's why I get scared when people want to impose things on you and say according to research. Research performed on which children in which environment? There is no panacea here.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Your review is one of the most honest and objective ones that I've read, and I'm so happy to read this. I'm interested to read this one considering that children of immigrants can sometimes have a very different experience than those who are second generation - parents who remember the "old country" or the life they had under a very different type of society in which they had no freedoms, or were incredibly poor - they can sometimes feel that the opportunities that are abundant in the Western world should be taken advantage of versus what they may feel as being squandered. I wonder also if the author is more trying to show that she's not exactly right all the time - after, I think that subtitle on the cover says it all! Great review!

Booksnyc said...

Great review! I had initially insisted that would not read this book because I was so incensed by the way the mother seemed to speak to her children - its seem degrading and belittling. But, like you, I have decided I need to read it and judge for myself.

I think @coffee and a book chick makes a good point about immigrant parents - I am a child of immigrants and can relate to having parents who felt they had to be strict in order to ensure we capitalized on everything available to us because they had had so little growing up. Here is a comment I made on another blog about this book:

While I can see the benefits of a less permissive parenting style in terms of TV watching, sleepovers, etc (in fact I had similar restrictions growing up) what I found disturbing about some of Chua's stories from the book was her unyielding criticism of her daughters (the story about the card she tossed back to one daughter stating it was unacceptable comes to mind) - it seems quite harsh and I wonder about its long term impact on her children. As the child of immigrants who also had a singular focus on making their child successful, I can attest to the long term impact the constant drive to achieve and make good on the many sacrifices made on my behalf had on me. Perhaps the support and positive messages Chua provides for her children did not come through as well in this book but a parent's exacting standards in the absence of that support has the potential to negatively impact children in ways that may not be apparent until they are into adulthood.

Will read the book and let you know what I think!

Jennifer said...

I have yet to read this book, and am not sure I want to read it. However, it has come up in my classes as a conversation piece. I'm currently taking an Asian American Studies course and we were talking about how this book and her opinion that Chinese parents make the best parents feeds into the model minority myth. Related is the fact that Asian American women have an extremely high suicide rate. I am half Japanese/Filipino on my dad's side so I have one Asian parent, but I never felt THAT much pressure to excel. My parents in the end wanted me to be self-motivating. I'm sure that this books really inspires some intense debate, which is a good thing. I think all parents need to step back every now and then to examine how they're doing.

Kathmeista said...

Great review! I'm anxiously awaiting this book in the mail as I decided I had to read it rather than just read the hype in the media. Living in Taiwan I see a lot of different parenting, some including the "Chinese" parenting she talks about but mainly not. It seems to be a more elite class thing than a racially based one in my experience... Anyway, really enjoyed reading your review, made me even more keen to read it.

PS- good on you for the disclaimer. I've never met a single Korean (or anyone of any race for that matter) that eats dog.

Jenny said...

Colleen: I can't wait to see what you think of the book!!!

Jennifer: your classes sound so interesting!!! And you're right about he suicide rate... I had posted about that on someone else's blog when I first started hearing about this book. Never ever being able to live up to any expectations is very damaging, especially when the expectations are ridiculous!

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