Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

I wasn't sure when I'd get this book from the library. I was probably number 386 on a list of 400 library patrons who'd put this book on hold.  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the much talked about memoir by Amy Chua in which she chronicles how she raised her daughters according to the "Chinese model" which is the opposite of the deeply flawed Western model.  

I think the most interesting thing about this book is that Chua was born and raised in the U.S.A.  From the outset that means that she doesn't have firsthand knowledge of what the Chinese model is.  Nor does she have intimate experience with what it yields or where it comes from.  She does have some evidence, at least, in the person of her father and her youngest daughter that the Chinese model which she holds as the pinnacle of good parenting, didn't and doesn't always work.  Yet, she nobly forges ahead to demonstrate how Chinese parenting is superior to Western parenting.

Chua is careful to note that Chinese parenting is really just the type of parenting that is extremely hands on and controlling--authoritarian.  Children do what their parents say and that's the end of that.  Parents set the goal and children achieve them.  There's no negotiation.  No choice.  And, apparently, no fun.  Chua, it seems, systematically thwarts her children's chances at having a fun childhood inserting piano and violin practices during vacation and long into the night.  For her, fun seems to be a luxury her children can't afford and don't deserve.  

It was almost painful to read some parts of this book.  I think the most heart-breaking scene for me is when Chua is chiding her elder daughter Sophia about some rice that the dogs got a hold of and scattered all over.  Sophia, who usually quietly and calmly puts up with her mother's controlling and over-driven personality blows up (finally) and tells her mother not to take her anger over her little sister Lulu's rebellion on her.  Why?  Because being 13 is tough.  Sophia says she knows this firsthand.  Chua has no clue whatsoever that her daughter found being 13 tough and at this point, the girl is 16.  I mean . . . it really struck a serious chord with me and sent a pang of pain through my body.  So focused on the goal, the dream, the vision that you ignore the persons who are sacrificing to make your vision reality.  I know about that.

At the same time, I get it.  The stereotypical Western parent is lax and does let their kids do whatever they want to do and quit when they get ready.  They don't push their children enough and they let their children run the show.  But I think that the pendulum shouldn't swing too far in either direction:  it shouldn't be control and manipulation and threats to get the desired behavior.  Just as it shouldn't be giving in all the time and having no defined limits for kids to get the desired behavior.  Each of these scenarios sends children mixed messages about if they are loved because the love that's bestowed is conditional upon the behavior.  And as Chua showed in her book, the Chinese model doesn't always work although, depending on personality, it can (potentially--Chua's daughters are not yet grown at the time the book was published).

I will say I admire Chua's gangster though.  I can't think of anything I want my kids to do so badly that I would drive 2 hours to and fro every Sunday to practice or sit for 5-6 hours at a time to do. I mean, I have to give her her props.  She studied the music right along with her children and really put in a lot of effort and energy, physically and emotionally to force her kids to play the piano and violin not just well but excellently.  And I believe in excellence but I'm not sure if I'm willing to pay the price, namely a tense and cold family life where everyone is on eggshells.  Chua was.  It's all about priorities.

So the big question is did Chua raise daughters the way she did for their sake or for herself?  For a long time in the book, Chua had me convinced it was for the good of the girls but as the story progressed, I had to change my tune.  She kept manipulating and controlling even after she saw it was just no good for her second daughter.  Their success at piano and violin she felt was a direct reflection on how good of a mother she was.  Nowhere in there did she seem all that concerned about her daughters' well being.  Forget happiness for a moment.  What about health?  

Chua chalks it all up to being true to the Chinese model.  But the Chinese model exists because it is a different society.  A society where very few can make it--only the very best.  The only way parents can give their children a leg up in life is if they make them to be at the top no matter what.  A look at immigrant parents reveals that they were in a very risky and precarious situation where it was sink or swim.  So they had to work doggedly to make it.  Nobody was giving them a hand up.  The odds were stacked against them.  They simply translated that mind state and work ethic to raising their children.  It was necessary for survival and making it in a new land.  Chua has already made it here and admits to it. Her life is quite solidly middle class so it's not a survival issue here.  Had her daughters never been concert pianists or violinists, they still would have had an excellent chance of leading successful lives.  Plain and simple, it's an ego issue for Chua.  An ego trip (I have to point this out) that would not have even been possibly if Chua was not solidly upper middle class.  She was tossing out numbers for gowns and teachers and talking about family vacation and such . . . these are things that Chinese parents/newly immigrated parents would not be able to do.  They simply would hope that they would set it up so that if their grandchildren would like to, they could.  (But I understand Chua not wanting the grandchildren to jack up the upward progression with mediocrity and a lackadaisical attitude.) 

I get that children will want to give up when something gets challenging.  But, especially in raising Z1, I know that if I show a bit of disappointment when he is ready to give up, he will suck it up and try.  That is how important it is to him to please me.  And at 5 years old, it's very easy for me to manipulate this deep desire to get him to do things.  I mean, the things I want him to do I believe are for his own good but I don't know, I want to bring my children to do things not to please authority but for that things merit.  I think about trying to teach Z1 to count  money and how I kept hitting a wall.  A few months later, he got really interested because he wanted to start buying things.  Teaching money became really simple and he's really gotten the concept.  I know this probably won't apply to everything but I think it probably applies to the majority of things.  The problem is I am not patient enough to wait.  And I need to control these things too, so it can happen when I think it should not when it's the "right" time.

So I struggle with my own inner Tiger Mom.  Raising two Black boys in this world, I'm 100% sure I want them to excel academically and I definitely want them to master an instrument.  They don't have to become concert violinist or pianists but I want them to really excel at an instrument.  I know that part of that has to be talent but honestly, I believe you can make up for lack of talent with hard work.  And so I do push my kids to work hard.  I push them when they say they can't (and I know they can), I challenge them and I insist they can't give up.  I believe in them with my whole heart and so I push them. I do agree that it's challenging to know when to back off but I want to think that my common sense and my gut will tell me when I really need to let it go.   It's something I meditate on a lot.  I also realize that much of my drive and work-ethic is derived from my own parents Nigerian parenting which is similar in flavor and execution to Chinese parenting.  Mediocre never, ever cuts it.  

Anyway, I get the sense that Chua has  a lot of inner demons she's struggling with herself and so I can't be too critical. If children are your karma, or rather, a way to work out your karma, Chua did and is doing a hell of a job for better or worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my folks r from the carribean but i was raised in that "chinese model" strict,cold, walking on eggshels, do as they say not as they do, daily music lessons i hated, whippings for voicing my opnion. it effected me. im a grown ass women and the stain of that sort of parenting still effects me.

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