Thursday, September 1, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Rating: 3 Stars
There’s a funny story about the Asian Family’s grading system:
A – average
B – bad
C – crap
D – Don’t bother coming home
At this point, no doubt I’ve ruffled some feathers. Let me explain. This ‘joke’ was told to my sons with great relish and complete seriousness by their Chinese American class-mates.
In her book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’, Amy Chua, American-born offspring of Chinese immigrants, Yale Law school professor, and the mother of two daughters elaborates on the principles of Chinese parenting that frequently results in high-achieving child prodigies. Chua does have some first-hand insights into the situation. Her daughters, Sophia and Lulu (Louisa), are both academically bright and musically gifted – in piano and violin respectively.
There is aptitude, and then there is inborn talent. Even among the talented, there are degrees of innate ability. Those of you who have read ‘Outliers’ will be familiar with one theory as to why some succeed, while others fail to reach their full potential. Those of you who have not read that book will probably have less sympathy for Chua, and her style of extreme parenting. There will likely be many tsks of disapproval at some of her Gestapo techniques, if not shocked outrage. Is Chua’s child-rearing brutal, myopic and regressive, or is it dedicated, single-minded and selfless? I will reserve my opinion on the matter and leave you to form yours. But one has to admit, it takes a brave/thick-skinned mother who will lay bare her parenting methodology to the cynosure of the world.
As can be expected, the book has generated a lot of talk, with Chua being excoriated by some and applauded by others. I would say that she was courting controversy with the subtext to the title which includes the phrase ‘why Chinese parents are better at raising kids’. For those predisposed to dislike her views, the author offers herself as a walking target, not only in the unrepentant tongue-lashings and psychological abuse she heaps on her children, but in her many pungent opinions: denouncing astrology in one sentence but then proudly identifying herself and her daughters with the Chinese zodiac for the full run of the book; her scathing indictment of some white men’s overwhelming preference for Asian women, while importantly adding that her good self was the one and only Chinese woman her white Jewish husband ever dated. You could be offended, or you could choose to be amused by the unintentional humor.
Personally, I found this a highly engaging book, but not one to be taken too seriously. Its interest to the reading public lies not in any parenting solutions that she offers, but in the many legitimate questions that are brought up about what it takes to raise a successful, happy child. Chua’s signal error is in identifying certain core virtues, such as hard work, respect, commitment as ‘Chinese’; then imposing them mercilessly on her daughters. My quibble would be that while she assails her children with these notions, she herself fails to follow certain other virtues that are also traditionally ‘eastern’ – wisdom, patience and restraint.
There’s a vapid generalization about tiger mothers vs. mother bears. While there’s a part of me that would like to chime in and say that it takes a human being to raise another human being, honesty compels me to admit that on several issues, I’m on the side of the tiger; albeit its mild side, not its wild side.
Related Reading:
‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell; Nonfiction
This is my favorite of all Gladwell’s books. Here, he expands the equation between success and hard work more persuasively and less offensively than Chua.
‘My Father’s Paradise’ by Ariel Sabar; Nonfiction
This book appealed to me with its sweet spirit and warm humor. That, and the fact that, despite geographical boundaries, and the differences in language and religion, the values of immigrants from the old world are astonishingly similar.

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