Sunday, February 27, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua

Back before Calvin even arrived, when I was gearing up to be his Mama, I found myself intrigued by the stereotype that Asian kids are "so smart".

I didn't want to be the one to break it to you, but adoption will do this to a person. It'll loop a slippery length of rope around you and reel you into a brand-new pot of things to stew over. You'll be immune to resist the pull. I dare you to try.

I hadn't even locked eyes with my almond-eyed boy and there I was, flipping my pillow over and over, hoping that the cool side would carry my worries away on a crystalline exhale. Would people have unfair expectations for my boy? Would he feel the weight? Would he shrug it right off? Would we play into the whole darn thing?

The reality is, many of us have this perception of Asian children. Fair or unfounded - that's not really the point. The point for me has always been, what is the seed from which this stereotype germinated in the first place? Where did it come from? Who started the rumor?

I know enough about the world to know that smart people hail from here and from there and from everywhere in between. I was never comfortable with the idea that Asians are simply smarter.

It should be clear by now why Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, appealed to me. This memoir recounts her upbringing and the manner in which she set out to raise her two daughters.

She takes great pains in recounting the Chinese approach to mothering - filled with vinegar, lit by kerosene, mean as a snake.

OK, so those aren't her words, and she might even dispute them, but the point is, she really, really wants the reader to know just how awful she was. Two chapters in, I was muttering, "I get it! Enough!" But I sure didn't put the book down.

I understand her main premise: Chinese mothers (and fathers) simply expect more from their children than do Western parents. Mediocrity is not an option. Don't waste our time being "pretty good" at something - anything.

If a Chinese child gets a B - which would never happen - there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them....That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.
I'm a big, big believer in setting the bar up in the clouds. I have seen many children flounder under the shy curse of low expectations. I can look back on my own successes and see someone pushing me from behind. I can look back at my failures, my mediocrity, and I'm there alone, bored to tears, praying for piano lessons to just drive off a cliff, already.

I think it's possible that if I had been pushed in every area of my life, I may have been more successful. And the same goes for you.

As it turns out, I just wasn't meant to be a piano virtuoso. I quit after a year, and I can't remember a single note. I tried it, gave up, and moved on to things I was passionate about, things I was really, really good at.

But my Big question is a little one: How are we defining success?

Does performing at Carnegie Hall trump family relationships laced with encouragement, support and - gasp! - fun? Does success feel different when you arrived kicking and screaming, slung like a sack of potatoes across your mother's back, exhausted and angry? Do you ever learn to carve your own groove? Do you learn to know what makes your own heart beat faster? Doesn't a grade-school Summer spent on a nylon lounge-chair with a stack of library books and a bowlful of cherries have its merits?

I also wonder about her propensity for pigeon-holing Western families and children as weak and broken. Chua clearly views the world in which she lives - the world she chose to marry into - through a lens of superiority. Her Western world - or the one in which she stands - is upper-class, highly-educated, refined to the nines. It's Upper East-side. And that's fine, but that's not "The Western World". I want to know more about the role faith does or doesn't play in her life. I want to embark in an all-out sociological case study.

But dinner's in the oven, so that will have to wait.

Amy Chua wrote her book candidly, and she was brave to do so. I have to believe that she understood the firestorm that would ensue. It was a fascinating, well-written read, with a quick-clipping pace and true glimpses of vulnerability and growth stirred into the self-indulgences.

The book is already selling in droves. Restated - it's a smash success. At least in the way that some define success.

Read the book. Tell me what you think.


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  2. Ooooh, thanks. I was looking for a new book to download with my credits. I'll go check if they have it!

    And, I think success is such a clouded notion, in this culture and others. I hope that as a mother and a (home) educator, I'm always aware that success will be a beautifully different picture for every one of my kids, and myself. A world full of lawyers (and pianists?) might make a lot of mamas proud, but it sure would be a dull one if we didn't each strive to our own version of "success".

  3. Does performing at Carnegie Hall trump family relationships laced with encouragement, support and - gasp! - fun?


    Does success feel different when you arrived kicking and screaming, slung like a sack of potatoes across your mother's back, exhausted and angry?


    Doesn't a grade-school Summer spent on a nylon lounge-chair with a stack of library books and a bowlful of cherries have its merits?

    Hell yeah. (only because I don't feel like I can say the f word on your blog)

    I read her Wash Post (?) article and was upset and interested. She pretty much approaches parenting like my polar opposite might. I imagine you were SO intrigued with Calvin in your life. I think view like this and the candid way in which they are presented is really important. I love it's a smash success. At least in the way that some define success.

    We all get to pick our definition right?

  4. I saw her interviewed on a news program. She wanted all to know she was Tough with a capital T and she didn't care. I like reading your take on the book. Interesting stuff.

  5. Like you, I felt like screaming, "I get it, already!", but I do have a few thoughts to offer from a former public school teacher perspective...

    My Chinese-American students were a joy to the sense that they completed assignments...went above and beyond assignments, were well-mannered as well as well-behaved, etc.

    This is not to say that my non-Chinese-American students were a drudgery! They brought spunk, laughter/liveliness, assertiveness to class discussions...which was delightful.

    But, I distinctly remember two things at the end of the year...

    1) The Chinese mothers of my students always said "thank you" for teaching their children (and supplied me with some awesome egg rolls!), and

    2) during the end-of-year talent shows, I was always moved to tears by their mother/daughter mother/son piano/violin duets.

    Quite the exception from the booty-shaking to Shania Twain's "Man, I feel like a woman" rendition put on by their fellow THIRD grade classmates.


    Just sayin' I enjoyed teaching both kiddos as they all bring worth and value to the public ed classroom.

  6. My husband knows a few people who were raised like that, and a consequence to always having someone riding you instead of you motivating yourself is when your parents aren't around (like in a job) then it's much harder for you to motivate yourself. You're used to someone else driving and pushing you. This doesn't happen to everyone of course, but it does happen to a fair share.

  7. I think you nailed it. It all depends on how you measure success, and I think our FIRST job is to build character, and mold our young breed into model citizens. If that takes militant action, well, I guess it's for a worthy cause, but militant action seems a tad counterproductive in the quest for moral beings.

  8. I said "mold our young breed" because I was channeling mary poppins. You know, the song the father sings about the sort of nanny he wants? That gets in my head when I think about Amy Chua.

  9. I love that you read this book! About a month ago I was in a mexican restaurant getting dinner and started reading the newspaper on the counter (this is not a regular thing...reading the paper ;). Anyhow, I started reading this article by Amy Chua and was fuming afterwards. But was really surprised by the topic because I own one of her books from my college days in polisci classes. Then a few weeks later she came to Seattle and I listened to an interview of her by our local talk radio guys. I kinda fell in love with her after actually hearing her talk and getting a better understanding of what the book is about. And honestly, by the end of the interview (and article) I had to admit...we do allow our kids to skimp by. Have you seen Waiting for Superman?

    Sorry if none of this makes sense. We drove from Seattle to San Jose today and Im ready for bed ;)

  10. I read the book and LOVED it. I wrote about it (briefly), too.(

    My thoughts: she's poking fun at herself AND culture, both hers and ours. It's a comedy.

    I am a tiger mom, just not over piano (though I have cracked down a little more since reading her book)---things I chose to roar over are just as inane, perhaps, like working quickly (crack, crack, goes the whip). We all have our crazy streaks.

    I think she makes a VERY valid point: that many North Americans are afraid to push their kids, to make decisions for them, to get them to work HARD. I find myself getting sucked into that stinkin' mindset despite my best intentions, and Amy's book was a great wake-up call. SIT ON THOSE KIDS (which means also sitting on myself---ouch) AND WHIP THOSE KIDS INTO SHAPE.

    My definition of success is very different from Amy's, but that I HAVE a definition for success is the key.

    My definition involves most of the following traits: honesty, hardworking, open-mindedness, self-discipline, kindness, politeness, etc. It does not matter the vehicle I use to teach this, be it the piano, multiplication facts, or dish-washing. The fact is, true enjoyment, fun, and relaxation can not happen without hardcore discipline. Raising kids is no walk in the park.

  11. Ok, I've always believed that over the top intelligent people are often lacking in common sense. I also tend to believe that common sense trumps "book smarts". Amy Chua comes across has a highly intelligent woman, but she obviously has issues...and no common sense. Having said that, I absolutely believe the Western culture is full of lazy parents and American children can be better than what they are. Chua's way of getting there is absurd and dare I say abusive? My type A 7 year old daughter is hard enough on herself without me berating her for every tiny misstep. In the end, when my girls are out in "the real world" (heaven help me, not MTVs version!) success will be knowing that their dad and I were both involved every step of the way with homework, sports, and whatever else their interests may be. Involved parenting makes the difference, not what Amy Chua has done. I'm not sure there is a suitable word for what she has done!

    Wow, this book subject really struck and nerve with me!

  12. Her views on success appear to be very worldly...VERY different than my views of success and what I want from my children. Sure, I'd like them to make good grades, do their best in what they do, and be disciplined...but, to me, those are secondary characteristics that come from my primary goal in leading them to "success"fully knowing Christ. He has a plan for them that is so much greater than one I could scheme up, and I feel my role in being their mama is to show them who He is, help them see His love and His grace. It is then they can have success in life because they, hopefully, will choose Him, follow Him, and as a result, be their best in the path He's chosen. Now, that's success.

  13. Interesting. My husband recently started working with someone originally from China and we invited him to dinner. I thought the conversation about his family was interesting. His children were involved in the arts, music and any activity that would challenge their mind. It seems all I see the children involved in where I live (rural Appalachia) is sports and cheerleading. Makes me wonder how we are raising ours. Also, I believe success is raising your children to love Jesus and serve Him. I have a feeling you believe the same way. ;)

  14. I haven't read the book, but I've read plenty ABOUT the book. Does that count? I'll tell you one thing: Her idea of success and mine vary widely. Performance isn't what I'm after; character is. Seems to me that the very idea of writing a book that totally slams your parents and your upbringing is an utter failure. Just one mama's opinion. :)

  15. I agree that she was so brave to have spoken so frankly. I actually took away the opposite. I was raised in a similar household, so reading her book made me feel that I do not push my own children ENOUGH. I lost sleep for several nights afterwards. Very interesting...

  16. My cousin taught in Korea for a number of years. Over and over again the parents would be irate if their child did not get an "A".
    My little Canadian-Korean family left Korea for that very reason. They just did not want their children under all that pressure. My "son" taught in university over there. He said after high school, uni was a walk in the park for the kids.

  17. I love your thoughts on this. I read her article and man, it left me thinking. I agree with everything you've said about it all though, even though I'm sure it is a very interesting read and glimpse into their lives.

  18. I'm still waiting on my copy from the library!

  19. I enjoyed reading your take. I think you're pretty insightful and successful for a Western born girl. ;-)

    I never read the book, but I'm intrigued. I don't like the attitude of the kids I know, including my own children - the entitled attitude. As much as I've tried to teach my kids to work hard and appreciate the blessings in life, I think I've also failed. It's just not working like I want it too.

    I think kids need to play, to rest, to be allowed to fail, but I (and I'm only speaking for me) need to teach a little more push just a bit more. I know I'm softer on my kids than my mother was on me and I'm not sure that's good.

    I guess I should read the book! She seems like an extreme, but I guess not. Parenting to that extreme is a bit absurd to me. I just can't imagine that you could forge good relationships and be that ferocious of a tiger. Maybe I'm wrong.

    Great post though, I'm sharing it!


    :) :) :)

  21. Hey lady. It's been a long time but your post caught my eye. Being Korean this mentality is and was no different in our Korean household. My Mom was and is a very "Americanized" Korean yet still she attempted to raise us with some of those same old sterotypes, the music lessons, the shaming, the monumental freakouts over a slightly less than perfect grade. While I feel this worked on a couple of us, it most certainly did not with some of us (ahem, me). And I'll tell you why. I was a painfully shy little girl (yes, you would never know it as an adult) but using that forceful harsh approach only made me climb further into my shell. On top of that I was terrible at...Math...GASP! That's right. A little Korean girl who didn't quite get the concept of Math was like sacriledge. I had other talents but those basic Math skills were like an Anchor dragging me down to Average land. In my Mom's eyes, one of the seven levels of hell. Anywhoo, and sorry to make this so lengthy but as I became a Mother and my Mother has grown into our Western world and way of thinking she told me a story she remembered of a boy cousin of hers who was the "chosen one" in the family. The one that was pegged in utero to be a Doctor. Poor guy. Anyway, he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer and was probably better suited for a life being a lovely Father, maybe working as an office person or some such thing but the push from his Korean parents and the shame they felt he was bringing on to the family left him feeling so inadequate that he took his own life. This tragedy from this odd way of being, of pushing of expectations to "keep up with the jones'" I haven't read this book and probably won't because I lived it. I believe I heard one of the girls rebelled. Well, that was me. Once I came out of my shy stage I was a force to be reckoned with. Just enough American blood flowing through my body to challenge the establishment. Whew. That was a crazy rant. Can you tell I'm a bit hot over this book? I just pray it doesn't send the wrong message. Each of our little kids are born with there own gifts, no matter what color there skin, and we need to guide them and encourage them to not worry about what they lack but what they are good at. Just my long, lengthy, scary opinion.:) Hope all is good on the Flower Patch Farm.

  22. An interesting stat that some fail to recognize is according to a 2007 report from the National People's Congress, at least 30 million people suffer from depression, and there are 23 suicides for every 100,000 persons. Suicide is the main cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34.
    So 'success' has it's price. When obtained using this method, it's usually one's soul and happiness.

    Great post.

    Your Friend,

  23. I think that all of us have stereotypes imprinted on us - we just need to see them for what they are and not act on them, just like you worried about doing when adopting your son. And I agree, the real question this book raises is "how do you define success?" I'm so glad you reviewed this one for the tour - I've really enjoyed seeing all the varied opinions in the comment section!

  24. I definitely have mixed feelings about this...not sure its good in all aspects, and definitely not for all children-but appreciate the review for sure! your writing owns me. ;)

  25. Sounds like an interesting book. May have to check into it. After teaching school for several years, though, I learned quickly that all children were not created equally in the scholastic world. Not even hundreds of worksheets can help some of them.

    If you're big on adoption (which I believe you are) and you like bags, you may want to check out the giveaway on my blog this week. It ends on Wednesday....

    Blessings to you. I must get busy.

  26. I've been hearing about this book a lot lately, and it just rubs me the wrong way. For example: I'm a westerner, as are my parents, and they expected me to get all A's. I wish authors like this would stop stereotyping.

  27. "Doesn't a grade-school Summer spent on a nylon lounge-chair with a stack of library books and a bowlful of cherries have its merits?"

    That right there is my life. It didn't lead to Carnegie Hall, but it's been a fun ride.

  28. Defining success is very much up to the values of the individual family; however, achieving success in almost anything depends on common traits such as resiliency, determination, self-esteem and work ethic.

    I don't think many (including Ms. Chua herself) would argue for a full scale adoption of Ms. Chua's parenting style, but it is worthwhile to reflect on what positive elements there may be.

  29. I haven't read the book, so I won't comment on what's in it. However, I will say that one of the hardest parenting lessons I ever learned came from setting the bar high. I don't know where my up to the heavens expectations came from, but there they were, and there I was pushing, pushing, pushing. Not only was a B not acceptable, but a 95 wasn't acceptable if she was capable of a 100.

    She did great in school until the 5th or 6th grade when it all went downhill. I tried working with her, working with the teachers, grounding, and incentives (aka bribery - don't judge). I finally threw in the towel and told her I knew she was capable and asked her what it was going to take.

    She said she had no reason to try harder because no matter what she did, it was never good enough for me. KA-POW!!! She sent me straight to the moon, Alice.

    Lessons learned: Ask the questions: "Did you try your best? Are you happy with/proud of it? Why?" Celebrate success (no matter how small)! Talk about challenges - determine if it's a how-to or a want-to problem. Give 'em the tools they need and a solid foundation, then step back and watch what they build.

    Once I was able to get out of her way she was able to take off. She fell and failed and learned those hard lessons (and so did I). But, she also succeeded and learned how amazing it felt to do it on her own because she wanted it.

    Gotta love a happy ending: she got a great scholarship to her top choice college and just finished her first semester with a 4.0. Her expectations for herself are higher than mine could ever be. Now, I'm the one telling her to stop pushing herself so hard - who woulda thunk it?!

    Sorry for the long comment - this post just reminded me of that powerful lesson.

  30. Oh boy-I saw her on the Jon Stewart show a few weeks back. Of course, guests don't get to say much, but she did seem like an interesting sort. And she, like most moms, acknowledged that she's learned some things along the way.

    I think that motherhood, like many things, is a "choose your battles" type of scenario. Most moms choose based on their value systems. Yours, and many of your commenters' here, happen to be a little more in sync with my own than that tiger lady's, but to each their own, I suppose.

    I would like to pick her daughters' brains in ten years, though...

  31. omgoodness...we homeschool our kids, and in the homeschool world, there are so many "types" of mothers. I have to constantly remind myself what works for me and for my kids and for our relationships.

    I will have to pick up this book.....we have a chinese family at the classical school that we attend on Fridays, and she would definitely fit the "tiger mother" mold only she does have strong faith, so the relationships are there.

    She believes in NO funny business....she has WILDLY HIGH expectations of her 4 daughters....

    I find myself comparing myself to her often...not from an insecure place but from a curious place.

    I wonder what her daughters will say in ten or fifteen years about their childhood. I wonder if they'll do the same as her when they become mothers or if they'll go the other direction....

    We get our school work done...we read a lot...we memorize a lot...but we also take time for fun and we're okay when fun organically happens even if it's "not in the schedule."

    interesting. very interesting!

  32. I haven't read the book (yet), but I get her frustration with Western mediocrity. As a homeschooler, my own goals are very high for my kids, but that will never trump first serving God, second being happy.

    For me, it's about work ethic. Americans don't work hard anymore (gross generalization - let me explain). I have taught in several home school co-ops, I have directed home school plays and taught home school choir. These are kids whose parents felt so frustrated with the public school's lack of work ethic that they came home - yet what I see is an American dynamic that has infiltrated even the home school.

    Wherever you are, in school or at home, it's about learning to work past the point where it gets tough or even a little painful. We just don't - as a country we're sending all the jobs overseas and wondering why our economy flounders.

    Best quote ever? Tom Hanks in "A League of Their Own"... "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would be doing it. The hard is what makes it great."

    And from my point of view, knowing that it was hard and that you did it sure does feel great.

  33. One reason Chinese mothers might be a little more stressed out is that THEY DONT EDUCATE THE MASSES. We do. So if their child is not making the grade, they might not be allowed to continue school. I get tired of hearing about how our schools compare to other country's schools when the systems are completely different. HOwever, I do find the different types of mothering extremely interesting and I'll definitely have to read more of this book! Jennifer

  34. Don't ask me how I deleted my comment?? Operator error. Errr....

  35. Just one comment, from someone who hasn't read the book, but who has read others about China, and some of their truths are not pretty. Their teen suicide rates are VERY high.

    I am not one who goes for raising softies, to be sure, but life is about the journey, too. I like children to have unique experiences.

    If another culture were to look at American TV (ie; Toddlers & Tiaras and some of the other inane reality shows!) they would have reason to think we are dumb and lazy, but I think the mainstream Americans in the heartland are raising some good, successful, and imaginative kids. That counts for something, too.

  36. This is one of the best reviews I have seen of this book - nice job!

    I saw the author on Charlie Rose earlier this week and he challenged her on an interesting point - that constant drilling and driving children to success hampers innovation and creativity. She really couldn't answer why she thought her parenting style didn't do that and even acknowledged that she, herself, was not very innovative and that it my have come from her own upbringing which focused on total acceptance of authority and an inability to question things as part of the learning process.

  37. Great review! I read the original article and got so annoyed I knew I'd have to read the book to see if I was justifiably angry or just being manipulated by hype. My review of the book is here:

    One of your points really resonated with me: What about the summers with a stack of library books and a bowl of cherries? Yes! What about them! I wonder how many books these girls got to read for fun? For the sake of being well-read? I know in the book they were spouting back quotes and words that made them sound well-read but I wonder. And this highlighted your key point: can success at anything come when you're force fed it? Would I love reading so much if my own mother hadn't allowed me to read whatever I liked? Sure, some guided literary recommendations would have been a helpful addition to my diet of Sweet Valley High and teen horrors but I got there in the end. Education is a life-long goal not a race to a finish line whilst being flogged. When I have kids I know I will set the bar high for them but not in such a way that makes them smash glasses and scream at me in a public restaurant in Russia!!

  38. I just finished the book this afternoon and, like many other commenters, have mixed feelings about mediocrity and success. Strangely, the question that loomed largest in my mind was...What about the DAD? Was he afraid of his wife? What was his role in parenting? Writing checks for expensive lessons, to be sure. I'm very curious to hear his take on how the girls were raised...and to peek into the daughters lives in about 10 years.