Jenn's Reviews > Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
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Jun 01, 12

bookshelves: read-2012, from-the-library, non-fiction
Read in May, 2012

The final chapter of this book is a perfect summation of the book itself. In fact, so is the front cover, which says the book was supposed to be about the triumph of Chinese parenting over Western parenting but ended up being a very different story. As ambiguous as that statement is, it's an accurate picture of the book's own ambiguity.

The "story" here is well known: Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale and first-generation Chinese-American, decided to raise her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, the way she had been raised, the "Chinese way" (with the support of her Jewish-American husband). The Chinese method that Chua describes includes a strict regimen of making certain the girls excel in everything they try -- and limiting the things they try outside of school to Mandarin Chinese lessons and, for Sophia, piano, and for Lulu, violin. Both girls are forbidden from attending playdates, hanging out at the mall, playing computers games, going to sleepovers, and nearly all time-consuming outside of school social activities.

Most of Chua's extreme behavior has already been discussed elsewhere: she criticized her daughters vehemently and forcefully, sometimes in public, to encourage their learning (calling one "garbage," the other "disgusting," and on and on); she also threatened them with humiliation. The girls were forced to practice their instruments for hours and hours each day, not each week, to the exclusion of many other fun activities and vacations, and the goals set for them were lofty: both were practicing with university-level instructors by the time they hit puberty and expected to keep pace with adult students. (An entire cottage industry of parenting bloggers was born just to critique Chua herself and these methods. I'm more interested in the book).

The results of Chua's efforts in some ways seem undeniable: both girls became exceptional artists with their chosen instruments who were invited to participate in once-in-a-lifetime concerts and work with gifted teachers; both maintained number one student placements in school; both reached their pre-teen and teen years with none of the major social/behavioral problems that parents would dread (drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll).

Yet Chua has decided that some of her efforts led to a failure, and so the book presents it this way: one of her daughters reaches an age, and a mindset, where she rejects her mother's efforts and wants to follow her own path.

To Chua's credit, she does write herself into a completely villainous role here, detailing the ways in which she has observed how this change has made her daughter happy and the ways in which she continues to scheme and undercut and try to take over this happiness. At the end of the book, she includes a rant that she's gone on when discussing how the book should end with her daughters. The rant is both funny and deeply unflattering, and that is, actually, an effective reflection of large swaths of the book. Amy Chua seems very reasonable -- right up until she doesn't, and part of the book's strangeness is that even when she doesn't seem reasonable, her humorous portrayal of herself often makes you think she knows she's unreasonable.

That's why the last chapter is so jarring. The book, though it claims to be the tale of a mother being humbled, seems instead to be a mother pretending she's been humbled in order to tell her side of a story. Chua tries to walk the delicate line between signaling that she knows her methods were extreme and signaling that, hey, these methods work, so they can't be all bad.

I think the book's biggest flaw is its inability to accept that sometimes pros and cons don't cancel each other out completely. There are bad methods that produce good results, and good methods that produce bad ones, and there are infinite mixtures in between. I don't see Chua's ability to consider this, and it's the book's initial promise of an answer -- and its final failure to provide one OR to provide the admission that there isn't an answer -- that is its greatest weakness.
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Reading Progress

05/30/2012 "Don't worry; I'm not reading this to get parenting ideas, I promise."

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