Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

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Okay. I admit it. I fell hook, line, and sinker for Penguin Press’s publicity. I was right there in the thick of things when Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article “went viral,” as they say, discussed far and wide in almost every Internet circle. (That says something, because usually I’m quite clueless when it comes to what’s going on in the hipper corners of the Internet.) But I am who I am, which is someone who believes in going to the source before judging, and who doesn’t have much tolerance for those who complain about an author or a book without having read it, so, even though my instincts were screaming “Child abuser!” my brain was reasoning, “Read the book first and then decide.”

So, now I’ve read the book, and I have to say that the brain won out. Although I don’t agree with everything Chua espouses (but, really, who am I — someone who has never had children — to judge?), I don’t think she’s a child abuser. As a matter of fact, I completely agree with her on some points. For instance, plenty of Western parents are way too permissive, and I think this encourages indecisiveness and even insecurity in their children. I also happen to agree that it’s important to instill in children the confidence that leads them to believe in themselves, not to accept that they are only second-best, to tell your child “You’re better than that. I know you are” and that parents shouldn’t automatically assume that teachers and schools are the ones at fault when their children are failing.

I don’t, however, think it’s as black and white as Chua does. For instance, a child may be failing due to the child, but the child may also be failing due to the school or a bad teacher or a need to learn in a way that’s different.ย  And, of course, sometimes it’s a parent’s fault that a child is failing. I also don’t think it should be up to the parent to decide what a child should pursue in life. We are given talents for a reason, and those are the talents parents ought to identify and encourage their children to develop. Ultimately, I think Chua might agree with me in this, because her younger daughter sort of proves the point for her. Chua has two daughters, and she chooses for them, while they are still preschoolers, what she wants them to become: classical musicians. In a fascinating study of nature v. nurture, one of her daughters becomes a pianist, and the other becomes a violinist. She then spends years and years fighting tooth and nail with them, and yes, they do succeed, but when her youngest daughter, at age thirteen, finally completely rebels, and Chua is forced to let her give up the violin to pursue a true passion — playing tennis — my only thought was, “What if she’d started tennis at age 7? Would we already have seen her on the courts at Wimbledon?” Because the daughter does succeed at tennis.

I say all this, because I know what I was like as a child. Contrary to Chua’s belief that (as she seems to think all Western parents do) if children are left up to their own devices, choosing to do what they want to do, they will do nothing but spend all their time on Facebook, I had a passion as a child (and I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t have at least one passion, although I’ve met many who have either had them drummed out of them or who were not encouraged to pursue them and gave them up). Back in those days, people didn’t fear Facebook; they feared television. My passion was writing. I loved to write, and I would happily forgo television in order to do so.ย  (I also chose to read, of course, but that’s not a talent.) I wrote a novel at the age of 12. I chose to write, even though my friends didn’t. Every one of my siblings also chose to pursue passions (my oldest sister wrote, too; my other sister played the piano and danced; my brother’s passions were cooking and playing guitar).

My parents encouraged us, of course. They loved what I wrote, but they didn’t push me. If they had, would I have become a successful, Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist by now? What if they’d had a little more Amy Chua in them, supervising my writing and making sure I practiced it much more than I did? What if they’dย  gotten me into creative writing programs? Had pushed me a little more, instead of just letting it be a hobby? My guess is that they would have had to fight me some, but that they wouldn’t have had to fight me the way Chua did her kids, because I already had a love of writing; it was something that came easily to me. What I needed was to develop the disciplineย  a writer needs that I still find I’m lacking, as I always seem to put writing last instead of first. Perhaps my parents could have instilled that in me.

Maybe the answer to parenting isn’t Chinese v. Western, all or nothing. Maybe the real answer is a combination of the two. Find out where your child’s talents lie (Western) but then push her (Chinese) in pursuing those talents to the point of excellence.

Argue or disagree with Amy Chua’s philosophies (and I certainly did), I found the book gripping. Chua has a sense of humor that endeared me to her — and that hasn’t come out in all the publicity. She also proved herself to be someone who is self-reflective, someone willing to question herself. Even if she sometimes couldn’t see what was self-evident (for instance, some of her own extraordinary insecurities that one could only chalk up to the parenting techniques she described, which of course, had been the wayย  her own Chinese parents had raised her, insecurities that caused her to fail miserably at her first job interview at Yale. Or her struggles in law school, because she had been raised on an educational model that was mostly all about rote memorization and just being told what to do), I could tell she was trying.

Ultimately, I came away from the book fond of Chua and fond of her family. Really, what it all boils down to, and whether she likes it or not, has nothing to do with labels like “Chinese” or “Western.” She is a mother who loves her children, and she’s doing the best she can with what she knows and with what she’s experienced to help them succeed in life.ย  Even if I feel she sometimes falls short if she wants her “Chinese” children to succeed in a “Western” environment, I’d still call what’s she’s doing just plain old “human parenting.”