News Flash - Tiger Mother is Really a Pussycat - Book Review
By Yvette Vignando - 21st January 2011
“Expectations coupled with love was the greatest gift anyone could give me…” said Amy Chua, on a PBS interview about her controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Nothing much to disagree with there … until you read about the author’s expectations and methods used to ensure her daughters met them. With a strong desire to have her daughters Sophia and Lulu excel at classical violin and piano, Amy Chua says she slapped, theatened, berated and belittled them in an effort to have them succeed. In one memorable scene, against her husband's protests, Ms Chua makes her seven year old daughter Lulu practice through dinner and into the night threatening her with no lunch, dinner, Christmas or Hanukah.
“I don’t think Chinese mothers are superior …” says Ms Chua in the PBS interview (above). Now contrast that comment with the well-publicised headline about this book in the Wall Street Journal: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, and you will start to get an idea why this book is the talk of the blogosphere. What followed the WSJ article was a storm of blogposts, comments, articles, tweeting and Facebooking about one Chinese-American mum’s very readable and yet disturbing memoir about her two daughters and her determination to raise them to be a success.
I was tempted not to write about this book and Ms Chua’s descriptions of so-called “Chinese parenting”. I don’t like to follow the crowd and I didn’t want to get caught in the trap of pitching one culture-infused kind of parenting over another. But then I read the book and saw Ms Chua’s brief interview on PBS (above).
News Flash – Tiger Mother is Really a Pussycat
Publicists and booksellers will be gleefully watching as the most inflammatory language in the book is quoted all over the internet. Little attention is given to the end of the book where Ms Chua points out that her radical techniques backfired when it came to one of her daughters. In a heart-wrenching scene set in an outdoor cafe in Russia, the young teenage Lulu rebels after her mother calls her a "barbarian" and "common and low" for refusing to try even one caviar egg; the scene deteriorates rapidly with Lulu shouting "I'm not Chinese! I don't want to be Chinese ...I hate the violin ...". Ultimately the author expains that she was forced to back down from her Tiger mother approach for fear of irreversibly damaging the relationship with her daughter Lulu. Read the back cover where this is referred to.
Ms Chua, the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother, said she wrote this book at a “moment of crisis”, and after one of her daughters had said to her “You don’t love me … You just make me feel bad about myself every second … you’re selfish ... everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself … ”.
Contrary to the WSJ Headline, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not a book about Chinese Mothers being "superior". Placed in the hands of a determined, ambitious parent who does not “dwell on happiness” (Ms Chua's words) so-called Chinese parenting may raise a child prodigy to the heights of success or it may harm a child’s psychological wellbeing and damage the parent-child relationship. Different results might also occur if a “Western” parent takes an extreme and idiosyncratic approach to parenting and does not give much thought to happiness.
I recommend you read this book but if you don’t, I urge you to watch interviews with Ms Chua before you launch into your own battle cries.
A Battle Hymn Could Cause Collateral Damage
Many people won’t read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; they’ll just hear snippets of conversation and read one or two articles. This is a concern. I can’t put this more eloquently than writer Erin Khue Ninh who laments this fact and said of the Wall Street Journal article “(Asian immigrant) parents who already embrace eyes-on-the-prize childrearing will … note Chua's name brands (Harvard! Yale!) along with her children's (Carnegie Hall!), and see all the authority and expertise they need. Seeing their own values and methods so illustriously trumpeted, they can hardly be expected not to bask in the article's own smugness.”
I do worry about this. I’m a mother of three school aged boys. They are all bright and intelligent and interesting, in different ways. I have had conversations where I’ve discussed the trend among immigrant families in Australia to emphasise academic success as the ultimate goal in their parenting approach. These conversations also perpetuate stereotypes so I then self-consciously balance my comments by truthfully saying that this isn’t the case with all immigrant families. I also admit I have concerns about the number of children from many different cultural backgrounds who have their childhoods consumed with after-school coaching and testing, and who are not allowed go to a birthday party because they need to practise the piano or attend a violin lesson. I worry about the selective schools and classes that are filled with amazing and clever and creative children, some of whom are being deprived of the fun and happiness of childhood because of zealous and single-minded ambitions of parents. And I know teachers who worry about this too.
My husband and I have ambitions for our children, we want them to fulfil their personal potential in the sense of leading happy, healthy and meaningful lives filled with relationships they value. We do insist that our children practice their instruments while they are still interested in learning them, and we do expect and encourage them to do their best. We also make plenty of parenting mistakes.
Ms Chua is of course correct about the different approach that many Asian-language speaking cultures take to education and parenting in their countries of origin and their adopted countries, but I’m not convinced that all of her extreme-persuasion techniques are uniquely “Chinese.” I’ve lived in Japan, attended a Japanese school and lived with Japanese families – generally speaking, those families did have a different parenting and education approach to a “western” one, but each of those four families also differed significantly from the other. What concerns me about some of Amy Chua’s book is that in her description of “Chinese parenting” she emphasises a negative stereotype, rather than celebrating the many positives to be found in qualities such as encouraging perseverance, responsibility or respect. And if you add that negative stereotype to the risk expressed by Erin Khue Ninh in the Huffington Post, this Battle Hymn may be spreading more damage than intended.
Is Happiness an Ingredient of a Successful Life?
If you read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, prepare to be surpised by the extreme methods Amy Chua used to ensure she raised her daughters for a successful life. You’ll read that “Sophia and Louisa …were never allowed to not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama” and hear that Ms Chua said to her young daughter practising the piano: “If the next time it’s not perfect, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!” You will also read that 3 year old Lulu who would not play the required notes on the piano was taken out into the freezing cold air and told she could not stay in the house unless she listened to her mum.
You will also be reading a parenting autobiography running on the theme that Ms Chua’s controlling and exacting requirements for her two daughters’ success derive from a Chinese parenting philosophy that believes:
- children are strong enough to withstand strong and even scathing parental criticism
- children owe their parents everything
- parents know what’s best for their children
I felt quite viscerally distressed by the some of the author’s stories, not because I’m a “Western” parent but because I passionately believe that childhood is a precious time for kids and parents and a critical time to develop a child’s social and emotional skills, empathy, collaborative skills, values and decision-making skills. I also think that harsh and critical parenting can contribute to a variety of issues for adults later in life - at work, in their own relationships and in their own psychological wellbeing.
I’m of a different temperament to Ms Chua: she writes “Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me….But here’s one thing I’m sure of: Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones.” I’m not sure that all of those statements are correct or could even be tested given the author’s catch-all definition of “Chinese” versus “Western”. However, I am concerned with my children’s overall happiness both now and in the future. Is that a Western phenomenon? Maybe, yes?
And happiness is of course a relative concept sometimes. For an immigrant who arrives in a country with nothing and has to start again, having basic needs met and a feeling of safety would be a start to a happier life. And many Asian-language speaking migrants arrive in Australia and America in search of these fundamental building blocks of happiness.
There’s much justified criticism of over-emphasis on self-esteem and other less successful aspects of 21st century Western parenting trends. I am right with Ms Chua and others on this. But surely it’s human and not even particularly “western” to be concerned about the happiness and fulfilment that comes from children being allowed to pursue some of their own passions and interests, that comes from having warm relationships between parents and children and from children having time for unstructured play and fun?
Ms Chua writes towards the end of the book: “I’d always told Jed, myself and everyone else that the ultimate proof of the superiority of Chinese parenting is how the children end up feeling about their parents… when Chinese parenting succeeds there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed.” I think this quote is the heart of the book for me. Ms Chua honestly said at the end of her PBS interview that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is “not a how-to book, it’s the opposite.” She said the only thing she cared about in the end was “how my kids feel about me”.
Parenting children is a great responsibility, a privilege and hard work. Being a parent is, most of the time, a source of incredible joy and love (I understand there are times when it is not). I want a warm, loving relationship with my children during their childhood and into adulthood. I don’t need to be their best friend but I want them to feel loved, to feel their strengths nurtured, to feel a sense of happiness in their family life and their internal lives, and I want them to have a life that feels worthwhile and meaningful to them. Yes I want them to be resilient, to persevere and to be given opportunities to reach their potential but I don’t think the “drill sergeant” method is the best way to do this. I am not going to berate my children, undermine their efforts, compare their behaviours in front of each other, slap them for low-quality music practice or threaten to burn their soft toys – does that make me ‘soft’, ‘western’ or ‘inferior’ – I don’t think so.
This book is worth reading because it prompts you to think about your own parenting style and the influences of your family and to think about what you most want for your children and your relationship with them. Don’t read the book to feel good or superior about your own warm and fuzzy parenting style or your funky Asian-Western fusion style of parenting. I do disagree with so much of how Amy Chua sought to raise a successful child but in the end she's not so different to me. She wrote "I couldn't lose Lulu. Nothing was more important." I'm the same, nothing is more important to me in my life than my relationship with my children.