by Questing Beast
by Julia Kraus
I began reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother with more trepidation than real interest. Published in early 2011 by Amy Chua, the eponymous mother of the title, the book is a terrifyingly non-fictional account of Chua’s experiences raising her American daughters in the traditional Chinese manner. The book garnered reams of shocked press, some boldly complementary, others tearfully indignant that such a woman be allowed to continue in existence.
To clarify, the “traditional Chinese manner” of which Chua speaks is summed up nicely within the first two pages:
Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than piano or violin, and not play the piano or violin.
I read the first few chapters with the pounding heart I usually reserve for job interviews and airline takeoffs. I was certain that the very next word…the very next page…the very next chapter would spiral into horrific descriptions of psychological abuse. This was the woman, after all, who—in an oft-quoted passage–made her kicking, thrashing, screaming younger daughter sit at the piano all afternoon, through dinner, and into the night without so much as a potty break, playing the same difficult piece over and over and over until it was perfect.
In point of fact, the first few chapters are disarming in their reflective, self-deprecating tone. Chua makes it abundantly clear that the rest of the book is not to be considered an instruction manual, only a memoir. The reviews make it sound like a shocking, extended, in-your-face brag, when it is clearly not. In fact, the most important chapter, ignored by every review I’ve read, is not about Chua’s daughters at all, but details her own family experience. This chapter, a short family history, provides a lens through which her ongoing parental battles can be viewed. She speaks of her parents and their extraordinary work ethic, the strict ways of her “Chinese patriarch” father (“Every evening when my father came home from work, I took off his shoes and socks and brought him his slippers,” Chua remembers); the expectations placed on her as a child that remained with her all of her life. The whole chapter is imbued with a cultural and familial pride, and sets the stage for her own parenthood as she tries to honor what she herself has been given.
“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones,” she says baldly. “But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
The episode in which Louisa has to sit at the piano bench for hours and hours is written in a way that typifies the entire book, which is perhaps why so many reviewers quote it. Perfectly straightforward and completely unapologetic, Chua relates how she threatens Louisa’s possessions, withholds her meals, and calls her “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.” At this point, Chua’s husband takes her aside and tells her to back off. “You just don’t believe in her,” Chua replies. Chua uses this exchange to point out the differences between “Chinese” and “Western” parenting. “Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem,” she says, “but as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.”
This, in the end, is what Chua wants for her daughters. She sees their grandparents, her parents, and how driven they were to succeed. She refuses to let her children, born into middle-class luxury, give up the drive they inherited in exchange for the laissez-faire of the entitlement generation. And so, for better or for worse, she pushes and pushes and pushes.
There are dozens of similar episodes in the book, most of which I find even more shocking than this. (The family is able to take vacations to many places around the world, but instead of enjoying the Parthenon, the Louvre, or the Coliseum with her family, Chua makes her daughters stay in the hotel and practice their instruments. Yikes.) But the self-deprecation that sets the tone from the outset continues throughout. While she remains unapologetic, nowhere does she say, “and this was the best way to do it, so you should all be taking notes, readers.” In fact, when her methods ultimately fail, she reports it in just as unrelenting a manner as she reports her successes. She does not downplay or sugarcoat, does not attempt to erase or explain away her own blame. “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones,” she says baldly. “But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
It is perhaps difficult to grasp how rare such a book is, a book about parenting that does not have an agenda, a book about anything unafraid to chronicle both success and utter failure with equanimity. As a woman and someone in the child care business, I am bombarded with you-musts. You must breast-feed, you must bottle-train, you must have this matching nursery setup, you must co-sleep, you must not ever shame your toddler, you must potty-train by three, you must not press your child to potty-train, you must enroll your child in enrichment classes. You must you must you must, or everything will go wrong. I do not like Chua and I do not take her parenting as my model, but she does not say I should. She gives her motives, describes the actions and consequences that arise from those motives, and recounts how she failed. That we might all be so unflinching.