Monday, July 25, 2011

Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir about one determined, workaholic mother with a clear and, at least by modern day American standards, controversial method for parenting. Chua is shamelessly boastful about her two daughters' accomplishments and her prominent role in pushing for their success. This should immediately puts Chua in disfavor with many, such as those who put "My kid beat up your honor student" bumper stickers on their cars. (Ah, American anti-intellectualism! I've never seen a bumper sticker lashing out at those who celebrate athletic achievement.) Chua's daughters' successes, and the explanation of how they were achieved through endless hours of rigidly enforced study and practice, undoubtedly make many parents feel inadequate. Right off, Chua aims to prove that hard work produces results.

This is not to say that Chua believes or means to claim that her methods are ultimately superior. She wants to believe that Tiger Mothers are the best mothers, that's for sure. But she cannot help but also share with the reader, in sometimes humiliating detail, the stories of her lost battles, particularly with her younger daughter Lulu. Chua mocks herself with a rather dry wit that I suspect many of her critics do not get, but which seems quite apparent in passages such as this:

"After all those excruciating hours preparing for the Julliard audition, and then the food poisoning and the rejection letter, you'd think that I would have given Lulu a break. I probably should have. But that was two years ago, when I was much younger, and I didn't."

Chua is ruthless in her attacks on many aspects of "Western parenting" (a term she admittedly uses loosely, and which mainly refers to a rather hands-off approach to parenting that concerns itself primarily with maintaining high self-esteem in children.) This hardly means that she is uncritical of "Chinese parenting" (another term she says she uses very loosely, and which refers to an extremely controlling approach focused on measurable achievement such as high grades and prestigious awards.) Chua insists that "Chinese mothers" will settle for nothing less than their children being number one. This is obviously not possible in settings where there is more than one Chinese mother. Much of Chua's hyperbole is shaped by her being a Chinese-American woman, married to a white, Jewish man, living in America. Where she lives, she is alone in her Tiger Mother approach. She had good reason to believe her children could achieve the level of comparative success in school and in music that they did. However, proud she is of how she raises her daughters, she admits:

"The Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn't tolerate that possibility. The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That's how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated."

Chua may call herself a "Chinese mother", but in reality she is more a product of competing cultural influences. This is no more clearly shown as by the relentless self-consciousness with which she identifies as a "Chinese mother". Real Chinese mothers (in other words, those who are embedded in that particular culture and society) are unlikely to think much about their identity as such. Why would they if they live in a place where they experience no resistance to their traditional way of doing things? Values such as upholding family honor, displaying utmost respect for authorities, emphasizing competition among children, and viewing childhood as a time for rigorous preparation for adulthood are simply taken for granted. Chua takes none of these for granted. Instead, she feels a deep desire to defend these not-very-Western ways of thinking, and even when her methods fail, she remains convinced of the traditional Chinese values behind them. This is likely to at least slightly disturb anyone who does not share Chua's values. I must admit that while I was profoundly moved by some scenes in the book, and at times felt I could relate, there were other times that I felt quite distant and cringed just because I don't think that way. But I refuse to condemn Chua for having different values from my own; that would go against my own value of pluralism. Also, another very Western value (that I happen to hold) is the idea that individuals should be true to themselves. When it comes down to it, that is what Amy Chua has done in her parenting approach.

Perhaps the reason I don't mind (and often even relish) how superior Chua feels about her method of parenting is because it's a refreshing change. I'm tired of how judgmental and self-righteous many modern, American parents can be about their approach to child-rearing, which puts so much emphasis on happiness and socialization, and so little on measurable achievement and the acquisition of knowledge. I have heard many, fellow parents express concern over whether their children will feel "normal" and "like they belong", and none express a concern that their children will be mediocre when they could be extraordinary.

I find it telling that the highly cherished quality of happiness, unlike academic skills, is particularly difficult to measure. Depending on a person's idea of happiness, he or she might give quite a range of answers to the question "How happy are you?"
And while some experts have found evidence of how happy Americans are, others report that we are trending toward unhappiness. Amy Chua ponders the question of it in her book, and comes to the conclusion that Western kids do not grow up any happier than Asian kids, and I tend to agree with her. The old cliche that money can't buy happiness is often repeated, however, some studies correlate greater income with greater overall satisfaction with life. And from my totally subjective point of view, I get an awesome feeling when I'm working hard on something, and I gain a deep sense of satisfaction from hard-won accomplishments. On the other hand, the areas of my life where I feel depressed are often connected with times when I feel I gave up or never tried for fear of failure.

For Chua, failure is never a consideration. You work your ass off and achieve. And when that's not enough to reach the goal, you work even harder until it is. Setbacks comes, but you don't let them destroy your confidence. It is an incredibly empowering mentality. It never occurs to Chua that her daughters do not have enough natural ability to get A's in every subject. Westerners, on the other hand, regularly come to conclusions such as "He/She is just not good at math" despite the fact that math is a subject where anyone can improve a great deal if they put enough time and effort into it. It doesn't mean that anyone can become a Pulitzer Prize winning mathematician, but certainly most children could get A's in public school math classes if they put the necessary effort into it.

I am reminded of my own experiences with math in school. In junior high I struggled with the subject, getting mostly C's on tests, and eventually was sent to "the van" for one-on-one tutoring. It felt humiliating to be sent to the van until I took my next test and earned an A. I felt an incredible surge of confidence and pride. Three years later as a junior in high school, I struggled again, and this time sought additional instruction from my math teacher after school. Again, my C's turned into A's. Having learned this lesson, in college math I put extra time and effort into homework and again saw a tutor outside of class, and again I achieved A's. It saddens me to think that many children probably never learn this lesson - that the secret to academic success is hours of study - because no one ever pushes them (and they never push themselves) hard enough to realize their potential. Instead, many people go around thinking that being smart is something people are born with.

Some have criticized Chua and parents like her have no meaningful appreciation for knowledge, no love of life, and are at their core motivated by a desire for riches. I notice that this criticism always comes from people who are themselves financially stable. While greed for its own sake is certainly a vice, the achievement of sufficient and stable means is what allows people enough freedom for political activism, art appreciation, hobbies, charity, and many other activities that can greatly enrich a person's experience of life. It might sound noble to say, "I don't care about money, I just want to be happy." But I notice that it is mostly middle class teenagers and college students who express such sentiments. People in their 30's or older, particularly those saddled with a mortgage, car payments, rising energy and food costs, health insurance and co-pays, student loans, and kids (or a desire to have kids but not the means to support them) tend to care a lot about money since they realize that not having enough definitely impedes on one's happiness.

There are two more criticisms of Chua's book that I tend to dismiss. The first is that she is exploiting stereotypes in order to sell a book. No doubt, the marketing of Chua's book emphasized the sensational and aimed to stir up controversy. How much of this is Chua's personal marketing strategy and how much is the publisher's is anyone's guess. To those with a more refined sensibility, these tactics and rhetoric come off as crass, even grotesque. However, that sort of marketing works. Those bloggers and columnists who have criticized Chua for such tactics have contributed to that system by giving her book even more exposure, and they have hypocritically benefited from that system by adding their own voice and name to the controversy. Sufficed to say, marketing is a dirty game, but it is one that anyone trying to sell anything must participate in. Are we really going to waste words criticizing Chua for being good at it?

The other criticism I dismiss is that her parenting approach is rooted in selfishness. The idea is that her only real motivation is bragging rights over her daughter's accomplishments. What a mean thing to assume about any parent! Chua herself deals with such accusations in the book, and with sharper wit than I can. To quote her:

"To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the question 'Who are you really doing this for?' should be asked of Western parents too. Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, 'Sure Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.' Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, 'As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It's the hardest thing in the world, but I'm doing my best to hold back.' Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me."

The fact is, there is no right way to parent. Different kids, within the same family, respond better or worse to radically different approaches, and it is impossible to predict what will be successful or disastrous with any given child. No parents, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how willing to sacrifice themselves, can avoid screwing their kids up, at least a little. I think a lot of modern parents agonize over this realization and the pressures of having to choose a single parenting approach. Many decide to take a very hands-off approach. And indeed, this approach works well for many children. But not all. Chua, quite consciously, chose the opposite approach of the total control-freak. It seems clear from her daughter Sophia's blog that her kids both love her and benefited from many aspects of such an upbringing. I'm sure she screwed them up some, but I doubt any more than the average kid.

There are those who view Chua as a hero and who take her book to be a parenting guidebook. I don't think those readers are paying close enough attention. The list on the back cover with the heading "How To Be A Tiger Mother" is a marketing hook. (Duh.) Chua makes it clear both in the book and in more lengthy interviews about the book that the "cruelty" toward her daughters described all took place and was understood within the highly personalized context of her immediate family. Chua trusted that her underlining love and respect would be assumed by her daughters. (Incidentally, she also describes frequently telling them she loves them and is so hard on them because she believes in their abilities. And when they make big achievements, she gives them praise.) Chua describes screaming, vicious arguments with Lulu, and then how minutes later they'd be cuddling and laughingly reenacting their fights to mock their own intensity. Not to give too much away, but when Lulu is in the early stages of adolescence, this pattern of fighting and easily making up starts to break down, and it is here and only here when Chua begins to pull back on her Tiger Mother approach. After getting to know Chua and her family in the earlier parts of the book, I found this narrative climax and its resolution both relieving and heart-breaking. In the end, it is clear that Chua has a strong bond with both of her daughters, and that she is not actually willing to drive them to hate her in any true or long-term sense.

I cringe at the idea of anyone reading this book as a guidebook and trying to superficially implement Chua's parenting methods. I suspect that being a Tiger Mother can only be successful when it is internalized through experience, and of course coupled with obvious feelings of love and respect for one's children.

Forget the controversy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir, a personal story, not a manifesto. One more voice in the ever-evolving discussion of how to raise children.

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