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

by Margo Judge on Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 2:56pm

Over the last two weeks, it has been hard to escape the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother. Much discussion centered around the word  'garbage', which Amy Chua called one of her daughters in a heated moment; denying water or breaks during grueling practices, and considering sleepovers stupid and useless. Critics charge that Ms Chou verbally abused her daughters into submission, cared only about her own ambitions for their success, and would stop at nothing to get them there. Others claim she is no different from any other driven, upper middle class parents who put their kids on the fast track in nursery school.

I read this book in a day and a half.  But then I had to read it again. It took time to get inside Ms Chua’s head and figure out what I thought truly motivated her.  I had a sense, in the second read, that Ms. Chua was struggling and in conflict.  The more declarative she became in her criticism of Western values, the more I asked-Why?

To summarize Ms. Chua’s parenting style as rigid, overbearing, and verbally abusive, would be to easily shortchange her as a mother.  She is also insightful, funny, easily forgiving, and yes, loving. To conclude that her daughters were victims of an aggressive Tiger Mother would be to greatly underestimate them. They are also emotionally strong, outgoing, perceptive and yes, self-motivated. Ms Chua clearly adores and is passionately devoted to her daughters. And when, in the end, she is faced with a choice of losing her younger daughter’s love or acquiescing to Lulu’s demand for more autonomy, Ms. Chua chooses love. Having said all that, however, there is much to question about Ms. Chua's assertion of the superiority of Chinese parenting and her supposed selfless motivations for pursuing music for her two daughters.

Both daughters enter the world with extremely bright, and talented genes. Lulu, however, comes to represent Ms. Chua’s deepest fears about the darker influences of Western culture.  She, more so than her older sister, Sophia, does not automatically accept and comply with her mother’s demands.  She is not only strong-willed, but wants to exercise free will. She rebels from day one.  

Ms. Chua and Lulu become worthy foes in the War of Wills. Ms. Chua carries the Chinese banner, and fights tooth and nail to preserve and honor Chinese traditions, as well as safeguard and continue her family’s legacy. She will demand of both daughters nothing less than excellence even if it means denying privileges, exhausting their energies, and or verbally assaulting them into non-stop practice to make perfect and win prizes.

Lulu, a precocious, extremely gifted child carries a Western spirit searching and clawing its way towards freedom.  She will not tread as diplomatically, or go as gently into the night as her older sister, Sophia. She inherits her mother’s temper, holds a deep sense of right and wrong and wants to stand up to travesty and injustice even if perpetrated by the mother she loves, sometimes fears, and often hates.

An epic battle will ensue. ‘All out nuclear warfare doesn’t quite capture it, writes Amy Chua of her relationship with Lulu. The lines are drawn early when Lulu is just three. Her mother threatens to put her toddler outside in the freezing cold (New Haven, Connecticut) after Lulu has a temper tantrum, kicking and screaming and punching.

I was determined to raise an obedient Chinese child…in Chinese culture, it is considered among the highest virtues. (Pg 12)

You cannot stay in the house if you don’t listen to Mommy. Now, are you ready to be a good girl? Or do you want to go outside?

Lulu stepped outside. She faced me, defiant.

Ms. Chua begins to worry since Lulu is not wearing any warm clothes. Lulu has stopped crying so Ms, Chua says-

Okay, good---you’ve decided to behave, you can come in now.

 But Lulu refuses. Don’t be silly, Lulu. I was panicking. It’s freezing. You’re going to get sick. Come in now.

Lulu still refuses And right then and there I saw it all, as clear as day. I had underestimated Lulu, not understood what she was made of. She would sooner freeze to death than give in.

The trumpets have sounded. Man the battle stations!

The battle hymn will become a war cry as the conflict escalates. Lulu starts to go through all the normal growing pains and angst of puberty at the same time that Ms Chua becomes the quintessential, over-bearing, unrelenting, back stage Mom, pushing and cajoling, yelling and threatening both daughters, but especially Lulu, towards greater skills and bigger accomplishments. I had the conviction and the tunnel-vision drive (pg 28)

As her mother obsesses more and more over both daughters’ destinies, and Lulu, becomes more and more prodded and pressured, both mother and daughter advance towards a final dramatic confrontation that has them going for the jugular in a desperate attempt at survival and control.  This is a battle worthy of theater.

Ironically, in the end, they unknowingly set each other free. A mother has been made to let go and trust.  A daughter has been made to find her voice and take responsibility.

There are several points that Amy Chua makes with which I can agree.

  • Our children are much more capable than we often give them credit for.
  • To get good at anything, you have to work hard and children on their own will never want to work, which is why it is important to override their preferences.  This often requires fortitude on the part of parents because a child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning.  Once a child starts to excel at something-whether its math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction.  This builds self-confidence and makes the once not fun activity, fun
  • Never NOT try something out of fear.
  • Be polite and respectful to teachers and parents.

However, we part company when she insists on making blanket and sometimes ridiculous generalizations about Western Parental Philosophy.

  • For example she says:
  • Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.  By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams. (Pg. 5)
  • I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts. (1) Higher dreams for their children and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.  (Pg
  •  In the West, obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system, but in Chinese culture, it is considered amongst the highest virtues. (Pg 12)
  • There are all sorts of psychological disorders in the West that don’t exist in Asia (Pg 98)
  •  When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart---all the grown sons and daughters who can’t stand to be around their parents and don’t even talk to them…. By contrast, I can’t tell you how many Asian kids I’ve met who, while acknowledging how oppressively strict and brutally demanding their parents were, happily describe themselves as devoted to their parents and unbelievably grateful to them, seemingly without a trace of bitterness or resentment. (Pg. 101)
  • Raising kids the Chinese way is much harder than raising them the Western way. There is simply no respite. (Pg. 134)
  • Easing up would have been selling Lulu short. It would have been the easy way out, which I saw as the Western thing to do. (Pg. 144)

I would seriously suggest that Ms. Chua read David Brooks' review  for a different take on her assumptions. I also fault Ms. Chua’s inability to even try becoming more patient, tolerant or understanding. It seems all too easy for her to confess her faults and then choose to do nothing about them.  Sometimes when I know I am wrong and dislike myself, something inside me hardens, and pushes me to go even further. (Pg. 191)  That push is aimed straight at her daughters.

And that brings me to my third point. I do not believe Ms. Chua was 'humbled' by her 13 year old, (As written on the jacket cover). Rather, she signed a tentative peace agreement.  When talking to a friend Ms. Chua laments:

My youngest daughter---the violinist---she doesn’t really play so much any more.  This was like a knife in my heart. She prefers to play tennis instead…What a Western Parent I have become, I thought to myself. What a failure.”Pg 214

When Ms. Chua first explains that in Chinese culture, if a child fails, it is the failure of the parent, I am intrigued.  When she is still saying this after an exhaustive war, and negotiated a truce, I roll my eyes. After all that Lulu has tried to convey to her—that she loves music, that she loves the violin, that she is even grateful that her mother pushed her to practice, but that she hates her mother’s obsessive need to control, and the intensity of having always to be the best, Ms. Chua simply cannot accept that Lulu could love doing something--tennis--she didn’t care if she was great at. And she takes it personally!

Also, What a Western parent I have become, I thought to myself. What a failure. is a rebuke to both Western parents AND to her.  After all that she and her daughters have struggled with, to have gained no greater perspective than to conclude she is a failure for trying to find some middle ground, and equate such failure with Western ways is sad. It shows what inner conflict she still has.

Towards the end of the book, she is still saying to Sophia who is about to play a piano program:  Don’t blow this. Everything turns on your performance.  The justices aren’t coming to New Haven to hear a high school talent show. If you are not over the top perfect we’ll have insulted them. Now, go to the piano and don’t leave it.

And then she adds- I guess there’s a little bit of the Chinese mother left in me.

At this point I want to put her back on a slow boat to China! Or tell her to stop hiding behind cultural norms. This has nothing to do with being Chinese. This is Amy Chua as an individual with enough free will to keep such thoughts to herself. She chooses not to.

Yes, and I get angrier when I read: I’d played tennis as a teenager myself, but always just for fun with my family. Or school friends.  Wait! I thought fun was not in Chinese vocabulary!!! And, you had time to play with your school friends? As an adult, I tried a few tournaments but quickly found that I couldn’t stand the pressure of competition.” Really??!!  All the drama and chaos with adhering to strict and rigid rules for practice, telling her daughters --never quit, never give up, believe and expect that you can do it, all the lecturing about childhood NOT as fun, but as preparation for the future, all the drilling and obsession to compete and excel. the sacrifice in down time—to end up saying she, herself, couldn’t stand the pressure of competition??!!!

Then I have an epiphany. Perhaps that is why she is living so vicariously through her daughters! She is getting to redo her past. She can overcome that inability to handle the pressure, by watching her daughters conquer it. She can compete and excel and win first prize! This Inquiring Mind Wants to Know if that is selfish on her part or a win-win for them both.

Meanwhile, Lulu makes it quite clear that her mother should stay out of her tennis life. Don’t wreck tennis like you did violin. (Pg 220)

Finally, I just shake my head.

Lulu, what we need to do is channel your strength-

Mommy, I get it! But I don’t want you controlling my life.

It’s like banging one’s head against a wall! This woman is absolutely impervious to change! She is the Chinese version of Scarlet O’Hara determined to figure out a way back in! I secretly text message to Lulu’s tennis coach “with questions and strategies, then deleting the messages so Lulu won’t see them” (pg 222)  This is NOT Chinese. (Ms. Chua, listen to Li Na-the Chinese tennis player about to go to the Australian Open Finals-who when asked about her mother and whether she expected her mother to attend the Finals-Li Na laughingly replies that her mother never came-'I have my life, I didn't want to come with you' Amy Chua, on the other hand, is a parent who can't let go of being coach, trainer, supervisor, organizer. She might shudder to think how much she has in common with some Western moms and dads.

Just when I think I will throw the book across the room, there comes a tiny light at the end of the tunnel.

Three pages before the actual ends of the book Amy Chua writes:

I’ve decided to take the hybrid approach…The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western Way after that. Every individual has to find their own path, I added gallantly (pg 226)

At this point I have to laugh. Ms Chua has not made any giant step forward. At eighteen in America, any young person can go off and find his or her own path without permission from Mom or Dad. Does she know that colleges will send her absolutely no information? Is she preparing to bring a whole new meaning to the term helicopter parent!

In the end, Ms Chua remains steadfast in her criticisms of Western Culture.

I refuse to buckle to politically correct Western social norms that are obviously stupid. And not even rooted historically. What are the origins of the Playdate anyway? Do you think our Founding Fathers had Sleepovers?

(I won’t go there!)

I actually think America’s Founding Fathers had Chinese values (Really???)

She cites- Never, ever wasteth time (Ben Franklin);

I am a huge believer in luck, and the harder I work the more I have of it (Thomas Jefferson)

Don’t be a whiner (Alexander Hamilton)

And then she concludes-That is a totally Chinese way of thinking.

Wow! Who knew that the American work ethic, the one that built this country and made it thrive originated in China! Was it sent by carrier pigeon with a label-made in China? (No offense to Ms. Chua, and I have tremendous respect for Chinese culture).

I have tried to understand Ms Chua as a Chinese mother. I share some of her views and empathize with some of her fears. I do not care to pass judgment on her parental style. I wish she had not been so judgmental about Western ways. Her book would have worked just as well, had she illuminated Chinese philosophy and left criticisms of Western  values out the equation. Her issues with her daughters had less to do with Western values and more to do with Ms Chua's personality.  Her daughters will be the judges, not me. Her family dynamic is what's important, and in all fairness, she was willing to make the choice necessary to hold her family together.

But I must respond to Ms. Chua's generalization of Western society. She sounds surprisingly provincial. America, like China is a very big country-But, it is not monolithic or Communist. It is pluralistic and Democratic-digesting a greater diversity of political, social, and religious thought than any other country in the world. Americans make up conservative, moderate, liberal, libertarian, socialist and, in fact communist political views.

We are all over the map in our family structures: The traditional one mommy/one daddy, two mommies/ two daddies, single mom/single dad, no parents/one grandparent,, only child/eight children, adopted twins.

We represent many parenting styles from autocratic to extremely liberal (as you, yourself, claim your husband’s parents were.)

Our religious beliefs span from the devout to the reform, and include Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Baptists to name a few.

We combine such a vast range and combination of ethnicities that it would be impossible to list them all.

And finally, the particular Western way Ms. Chua so easily criticize throughout her book is really a very tiny, upper middle class microcosm of affluent America. Families from rural working class communities have very different norms and priorities from wealthy white-collar urban or suburban families.  Their children might very well NOT be able to take piano or violin lessons or travel all over the world because they have to work part-time to support their schooling and contribute to their families. My housekeeper’s daughter wanted nothing more than to take piano lessons. I offered to give her the money, but she couldn’t afford the time.  I know so many kids who have to work part-time. And I know parents working two jobs to give their children a chance at a better life.

If there were one Western characteristic it would be this: Americans are intrinsically entrepreneurial. Our entire society was founded on the basis of innovation, invention, and individualism. Our deep entrepreneurial roots have determined our collective character, personality and behavior since the very beginnings of this country. It is a messy, restless spirit that sets America apart from almost every other country in the world. But, any American can come from nothing, build something and become someone. The American experience is unique in that way.

Americans are not tied to class, nor do they have an obligation to continue a family legacy. Children are encouraged to go and seek their own way. It is one of the ways generations move forward and up. They follow opportunities. And may I add, it is exactly how Amy Chua and her family moved forward and up

Lastly, I question Ms. Chua's motivation in writing this book.  Was it an opportunity to compare Western parenting with Chinese parenting? Did it give her a way to defend and excuse her behavior?  Save face?  Or, was it, cached in the mother/daughter story, an attempt to come to terms with her own Western choices?

Amy Chua was born in the United States, and while brought up Chinese, applied (without permission from her father) clear across the country to Harvard, and married an Jewish American even though her father said it would be over his dead body.  She was able to make choices and follow her own dreams. Very American. Never once do I sense Ms Chua's desire to return to her roots in China-just a tiny tinge of regret that she did not marry a Chinese man.

So, This Inquiring Mind Wants to Know:  Why, if raising a child the preferred Chinese way in Western culture is such a closet battle, did she ultimately choose to put herself and her children in such a conflicted environment? Why not live in an Asian culture, visit and guest lecture in America?

Why did Amy Chua decide to study in America, marry an American, become a law professor at a prestigious American East Coast Ivy League University, live in an American upper middle class community and write books with titles like-

World On fire-How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.  Or,

Day of Empire. How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance-and Why They Fall?

And finally, why, if this country seems to have offered Ms. Chua such freedom of choice as well as opportunities from which she has so benefited, does it then turn around and pose such a social threat to her daughters? 

I think, in fact, Ms. Chua wants to have her American cake and eat it Chinese style. And that puts her in deep conflict. She was born American, and she chose to live a very independent American lifestyle up until she had children. Raising a child Chinese in Western culture is not her problem. Rationalizing her Americanism while raising a Chinese child, is. I believe she tried to cover up an ambitious, and elitist part of herself by dressing it in Chinese robes.

But children always know when we are dishonest. They are, by far, the world's greatest emotional detectives. They can spot falsehoods, hypocrisy, and double standards in a heartbeat. Lulu knew and she finally called her mother on it.

At the same time, I applaud Ms Chua and her husband for their daughters. Both Sophia and Lulu seem to be exceptional and extraordinary young women. I think they will be just fine.  I will be curious to see how they live their lives and raise their own families.

In conclusion, I will say this: A mother’s bond with her children, if wound tightly enough around her heart, can and will transcend anything.  Ms. Chua made a choice to keep that tightly wound bond and in return she gave and has what matters most.  Love. Let any other conflict rest, and enjoy!