As a mother and a writer, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on Amy Chua's highly controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I stayed up much too late reading it last night, and although sleep beckoned, I could not put the book down until I finished the last page.
I had read reviews of the book prior to buying it, and I followed Chua's interviews as she reacted to the public's reaction to the book. Chua appeared to backpedal a bit, claiming that the tone of the book was "tongue in cheek" and that she learned to modify her parenting style when it backfired with her younger daughter, Lulu.
So, I started reading the book with that knowledge, which helped me stick with it. However, if Chua had indeed been writing tongue in cheek, it was lost in translation. To me, the book read as a matter-of-fact retelling of the way she raised her daughters.
Initially, I was so put off by Chua's repeated statements that "Chinese mothers were better than Western mothers because . . . " that I was unable to see the value in what she was trying to offer. I put the book down and thought about it.
In Amy Chua's mind, Chinese parents are better than Western mothers because they push their children relentlessly to be high-achieving students and musicians.
If your measure of a superior parent is one whose child is invited to play Carnegie Hall at age fourteen (the invitation to play being the goal, regardless of the process of achieving said goal), then Amy Chua is a better mom.
But what if you use a different standard to define a successful parent? What if you measure success by moving through your days with a minimum of shouting or fighting? What if you measure success by the number of friends a child has? Amy Chua mocked Western parents for being overly concerned with their children's sense of self-esteem and their involvement in school plays, play dates and recreational activities. Many people value these things.
The fact is, different cultures bring different things to the table, and that includes parenting styles and definitions of success. I decided to resume reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but in my mind, I substituted the word "different" for the word "better."
When I read it as "Chinese parents are different than Western parents because . . ." I found that I was able to read what she had to say with a more open mind.
I could see the merits of some of Chua's points. Her kids have achieved phenomenal success in the piano and the violin, in large part due to Chua's utter devotion to their practice schedules. But in my opinion, the process to achieving those results was too costly. I am a Western parent who is satisfied if my daughter practices for thirty minutes.
No, I do not bribe Katie with presents if she practices, as Chua claimed so many Western parents do, but neither do I force her to sit on the piano bench until a piece is perfect. Why? Because my approach is different.
Chua described how she made her daughter practice a musical piece for hours, and would not allow the child to eat, drink, or use the toilet until the piece was perfect. In the end, her daughter achieved musical perfection, and that was all that mattered. Chua's approach is different than mine.
I always find it dangerous when people equate different with better. Sweeping statements of superiority, such as those in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, only serve to sow the seeds of resentment and anger.
I worry about the unintended externalities of the book. If Chua had written the same book without such harsh judgments of
Western parents, perhaps people would talk about her less critically. I hope there isn't a generation of Asian children who are taunted about their musical or academic achievements by American children who have heard their parents discussing Amy Chua in a negative tone.
I did admire how Chua was able to provide a frank, unflinching description of herself as a mother. It takes courage to tell a story like hers. I did not admire how she disregarded her daughters' expressions of distress at her ruthlessness. I could not relate when she recounted how she rejected homemade birthday cards from her four-year-old and seven-year-old daughters as inferior, because that is so different from how I would react.
I was left wondering what Chua's goal was in writing the book. Was she trying to convert Western parents to the "superior" Chinese method of parenting? Probably not, or she would have taken more care not to offend her audience.
Was she simply telling her story, and looking for a pat on the back at how successful her daughters are? Possibly, but then there is the whole situation with her younger daughter, Lulu. Unlike compliant older daughter, Sophia, strong-minded Lulu rebelled against her mother, and in the end, Chua relented. Lulu shows that the Chinese model only works with the right type of child.
Maybe Chua was trying to tout her superior parenting, yet also show the limitations of applying a single approach to different kids. If that was the takeaway, I definitely can appreciate it, and I applaud Chua's ability, however late in the game, to recognize Lulu's deteriorating mental state and take steps to improve things.
Or was Chua trying to sell her book? Because the one thing I can say that she is clearly superior at is selling her story. After reading all the hoopla about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, I did something unusual for me. I went out and bought the new hardcover book, instead of waiting for it to come out in paperback.
If Chua wrote such a polarizing, controversial, somewhat shocking book in order to get people to buy it, then she has achieved success. And she is laughing all the way to the bank.
Who knows? It was a good read, and it is certainly causing a national dialogue, which is another measure of success for a book.
But I would not want to be one of her children, and I am relieved that she is not the one that adopted Katie. A different parenting approach is required for a kid like Katie.