Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Well, I finally read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the “controversial” 2009 memoir by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor married to another Yale Law professor, who raised two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), the “Chinese way.” (Chua’s husband, for what it’s worth, is Jewish.) Unless you’ve been living on Pluto, you know Chua got a lot of flack for her tough-love, no-nonsense, achievement-above-all-else approach to parenting, embracing tactics that included threatening to burn Sophia’s stuffed animals if the next run-through at the piano wasn’t perfect; crumpling up birthday cards she deemed insufficiently thoughtful, tossing them in her daughters’ faces and demanding they try again; refusing to let either girl attend a sleepover or a playdate; demanding perfect grades “in every subject except gym and drama”; and calling Sophia “garbage,” the way Chua’s own father once reprimanded his daughter in their native Hokkien Chinese. “But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that,” Chua is quick to assure her more liberal-minded (read: Western) readers.  

Chua makes no apologies for what, at first glance, seem to be indefensible maternal crimes, but what all the criticism heaped upon her (and there was a lot of it) doesn’t tell you is that Chua knows she sounds crazy. The book is less a manual for “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” (as the title of the famous excerpt in The Wall Street Journal put it) than a winkingly comic, highly self-aware tale of how a mother, who truly wants the best for her children, learns to loosen up and let her daughters figure things out for themselves. It’s actually quite a touching story.

Obviously, I’m extremely late to the weighing-in-on-the-Tiger-Mom game; she’s already passé. Still, though, I’m going to defend Chua, not least because her book is good. She has a fairly good sense of comic timing, a talent for contextualizing her parenting choices within her own child-of-Chinese-immigrants experience and an ultimately compassionate voice that convinces the reader that she demands the best from her daughters because she’s certain they’re able to achieve it. As my mom always used to say, after I’d accuse her of applying undue pressure or “expecting too much” from me, “it’s better than the alternative.”

That’s the thing about Chua: Say what you will about how she raised her kids, but she’s having the last laugh—her daughters are successful according to most every measure one can devise. Sophia played piano at Carnegie Hall at age fourteen, is now a freshman at Harvard and is, at least judging by the defense of her mother she penned for the New York Post, well-adjusted, sociable, thoughtful and, most importantly, thoroughly appreciative of the sacrifices her parents made on her behalf and the choices they helped provide. Lulu, the “rebellious” one, is now able to laugh at Chua’s more out-there strictures and concedes that she learned a lot from her mother, and vice versa. Both defy the common and annoying stereotype that extremely-high-achieving Asians (or half-Asians, in this case) simply must be virtual automatons; and anyway, I’ve heard too many of my peers make excuses for their own mediocre achievements by touting their so-called “social skills,” which they assume they must have developed in lieu of academic chits. (The quest for self-validation, I believe, guides most of human behavior, and yes, it goes without saying that I’m not exempt. Nor, for that matter, is Chua.) In truth, and while I’m not able to prove this empirically, I doubt there’s any correlation between achievement and sociability. And say what you will about calling your child stupid if she gets Bs or fat if she gains ten pounds, but the parents who tiptoe around the subjects don’t seem to raise kids who are any smarter, thinner or happier. Chua notes: “I once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her ‘beautiful and incredibly competent.’ She later told me that made her feel like garbage.”

So the point is, nobody’s cornered the market on successful parenting, and Chua will be the first to admit she made plenty of mistakes. But Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is her story, and it has a happy ending. (It probably wouldn’t have become a book if it didn’t.) The book will probably only appeal to either a certain set of high achievers bent on raising children equally accomplished (if not more so) or BoBos who enjoy evaluating other people’s parenting decisions from high horses, but it’s an entertaining read. And I commend Chua for opening her private life to so much scrutiny; the backlash couldn’t have been easy.

Bottom line: Read the book for fun, but don’t take it too seriously. Except for the parts about the value of playing a musical instrument, because I find myself really wishing I’d stuck with the piano.

Also see: Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times; Susan Dominus’s take in the Times‘s Sunday Book Review; a pretty representative excerpt; Diane Johnson’s piece in the New York Review of Books; and the New Republic‘s analysis of how “Chinese” being a “Chinese mother” really is.

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