Saturday, July 30, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua's 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' (Kindle ebook link, link, my user review on

4 stars
“Your brain is annoying me”
Tiger mother battles her and for her offspring. Both win, sort of.
Engrossing though at times highly-strung first-person account of a mother raising her children - with sweat, tears, all.

Just what exactly was the fuss all about? After reading Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal, which incredibly enough, attracted close to nine thousand comments(!!!), I was expecting some sort of an in-the-face cultural diatribe against the American (or Western) style of parenting, mated to an unalloyed gloating in the superiority of the "Chinese" style of parenting. But that is not it. At all. As the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, the author  is appreciative of the freedoms that America has provided, and has immersed herself in the American experience (she is also married to a Jewish American).  "But most of me feels tremendous gratitude for the freedom and creative opportunity that America has given me."

The book does excoriate the permissive American style of parenting, and those criticisms are not altogether without merit. No one would seriously take offence at someone criticizing the often lax, hands-off nature of parenting, American or otherwise, that nonetheless ends up with children growing up in a weltering pool of mediocrity, snickering at world-class achievements while still secretly envying them. Parents grant children freedom in the name of giving them "space", the children still grow up to resent their parents. But this is also a tale of angst, defeat, and often enough of a tension-filled atmosphere in the house of the Chuas.

This is the story of Amy Chua, professor of Law at Yale University, telling in the first-person, the story of her two children - Sophia and Lulu - and of her attempts at instilling in them values of hard work. No, make that relentless hard work. This is the story of how her two children were trained to become brilliant pianists and violinists; Sophia, the elder, performed at the Carnegie Hall; Lulu, the younger one, was called a "gifted violinist", and the mostly overwrought, highly-strung style of parenting that Amy Chua brought to bear upon her children. All well-meaning, and the love she has for her children cannot be doubted, but a highly-strung environment nonetheless could be found in their house. This is also partly the behind-the-scenes story of her American Jewish husband, who seems to have been a calming influence on the stormy waters that Amy brings to the table, so to say, and to mix metaphors.

Since enough has been written about the book - by the author, reviewers, critics, and more, after some thinking, not a whole lot mind you, I think at least some of the criticism leveled against the author draws not so much from the merits of the book or its story as much as from a resentment, to put it one way, against the author's assertions of parenting superiority over the American style of parenting. Those criticisms tend to ignore the very clear over-the-top style of writing, where it is obvious that the author is exaggerating, and not to be taken seriously. In case the reader forgets that, there are intermittent reminders.

By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could write one hundred Chinese characters. (Jed’s translation: She recognized the words “No Exit,” could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters.)

As a side note, Amy Chua gave up a Wall Street career in law to teach at Yale. Why?
At the all-night drafting sessions with investment bankers, while everyone else was popping veins over the minutiae of some multibillion-dollar deal, I’d find my mind drifting to thoughts of dinner, and I just couldn’t get myself to care about whether the sentence should be prefaced by “To the best of the Company’s knowledge.” Any statement contained in a document incorporated or deemed to be incorporated by reference herein shall be deemed to be modified or superseded for purposes of this Offering Circular to the extent that a statement contained herein, or in any other subsequently filed document that also is incorporated by reference herein, modifies or supersedes such a statement.
The second reason behind the hailstorm of criticisms and judgments against the book and more so against the author would be that the author is what I could call an example of a successful immigrant family that has embraced the American dream of making it big on the back of hard work and perseverance - the same traits that were extolled in America for so long and can be credited for the nation's rise to economic greatness in the twentieth century. As close to a successful experiment in social heterogeneity as may be expected. She is the daughter of an immigrant Chinese family, she herself is a successful academic, a published author, her husband is a successful doctor, and a Jew - so that is a culturally heterogenous family you have there, the children are successful in their endeavors. The elder daughter performed at the Carnegie Hall, no mean feat that.
As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks - drawing a squiggle or waving a stick - 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.
These two reasons, in my opinion, make so many of the Americans criticizing the author feel uncomfortable - because it reminds them that hard work is a sine-qua-non for success in this world. Because the culture of hard work is actually one of the defining traits of the American nation, one that it has been known for in the world. Because somewhere down the line America  chose to abandon the virtue of hard work, the Protestant work ethic, for the more profitable pursuit of prosperity via the easy route - witness the surge in interest in Wall Street and the economic catastrophe in 2008.

To be sure, there is much that most could find wrong in Amy Chua's parenting style. Sure. But I suspect most criticisms do not draw from that pool of indignation. Much of the mud hurled comes from the fire of envy.

And does Amy Chua have the all-knowing smirk-like attitude to her writing? No. Not really. She is quite self-aware actually. Self-deprecating too. But with a tart tongue too. Sample these: "Thank goodness I’m a lucky person, because all my life I’ve made important decisions for the wrong reasons." Or "This took me aback. No one had ever accused me of trying to keep things fun."

And finally, what is it about Amy's brain that so annoyed her daughter Lulu?
“Imagine that you’re a rag doll,” Mr. Shugart would tell Lulu. “Floppy and relaxed, and not a care in the world. You’re so relaxed your arm feels heavy from its own weight.... Let gravity do all the work.... Good, Lulu, good.” “RELAX!” I screamed at home. “Mr. Shugart said RAG DOLL!” I always tried my best to reinforce Mr. Shugart’s points, but things were tough with Lulu, because my very presence made her edgy and irritable. Once, in the middle of a practice session she burst out, “Stop it, Mommy. Just stop it.” “Lulu, I didn’t say anything,” I replied. “I didn't say one word.” “Your brain is annoying me,” Lulu said. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Some final excerpts on the Chinese versus the American style of parenting gleaned from the book:
I’ve thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets. First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem.

In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren't  They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

In Disney movies, the ‘good daughter’ always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom—not running into the ocean.”

Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal

Kindle Excerpt

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.