February 2011

Heather Clitheroe

scarlet woman of self-help

Paper Tiger: Amy Chua's “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

Amy Chua's new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has been receiving a lot of press lately. The self-described missive on Chinese parenting has been reviewed, discussed, and debated soundly in the last month, complete with sarcastic tweets and mashup pictures circulated by email. David Brooks, in his New York Times review, called the book a  “courageous and thought-provoking read.”

A few weeks ago, a YouTube clip of a reality show surfaced: a child, sent through beauty pageants by her mother, screaming hysterically while having her eyebrows waxed. The mother unabashedly exclaims that she would have just ripped the wax off herself, rather than resort to the candy bribe the salon employee offers up. And amidst the angry tweets and MSNBC stories, I thought again about Chua's book.

And so I read it.

My first impression? Amy Chua, based on her descriptions of herself, is a mean mom. My second impression? Hiding behind the stereotype of “Chinese mother” is just that: a farcical attempt at claiming superiority while avoiding the soccer mom label. And the third impression: the parenting style Chua describes is not so different from the mothers that send their prepubescent daughters to have their eyebrows waxed.

You've probably heard, by now, the things that go on in Chua's book. She yells at her daughters. She tells one daughter that she's garbage. She won't let the kids go to sleepovers. She forces hours upon hours of violin and piano practice upon them. She buys a dog and is horrified to think that it might not be the smartest breed. Oh, but it's okay -- apparently the dog is hard to train because it's so darn intelligent, which is a theme that repeats itself over and over again throughout the book.

"Western parents," Chua writes, "try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

To develop that confidence, it seems, the mother must be near-brutal in her enforcement of work habits, in devising and executing math drills, and in mandating music practice in hotel rooms while on family vacations. It seems to work, for a while, too: her daughters achieve the recognition Chua craves, winning music competitions and playing flawless musical recitals. They do well at school. Chua is criticized by a friend for her parenting style, and remarks that it's all in the context. "It's a Chinese immigrant thing," she says.

"But you're not a Chinese immigrant," replies another.

And it's true. This is where the criticisms of Chua -- and, yes, the acclaim -- in the media seem to falter. Chua maintains a sharp dialogue on the many, many differences between so-called “Western” parenting and the Chinese parenting. She chooses to sharply contrast the two, setting herself up as the immigrant Chinese mother. But she is not -- and so I find it odd that she chooses to reinforce the sense of difference between her and all the other “Western” mothers. As a first generation American -- the daughter of immigrant parents - she is raising second generation children, and so it calls into question whether the kind of relentless, driving force applied in her parenting is even appropriate, given the change in locale and culture. Does Chinese parenting, then, work outside of China, where parents may have more than one children? Does it work when those around the children are not subjected to the same rigor?

And yes, it starts to crumble. A daughter rebels in a dramatic fashion. She is allowed to give up the violin. And in this, we are meant to see that Chua's adapts to the needs of her daughters, easing up the restrictions so that she doesn't lose them entirely. To her credit, it seems that she has not.

But is it that she doesn't want to lose them, though, or that she cannot herself accept the possibility of failure?

It's hard to know for certain. She loves her children; it's not for me to decide how much or at all, though by writing this book, she has invited that speculation.

This is less of an advice book and more of a memoir -- though it seems evident that Chua believes entirely in her methods, and has spoken in the media about her belief that she would, more or less, do it the same way if she had to do it over again. Because no matter what you think about Chua's parenting style, it's clear that Chua doesn't care what you think. She's right. She knows what to do. She knows what is best. That is who she is in her memoir, in her own words.

And so she writes convincingly about pushing her daughters, about subjecting them to the kind of routine and scrutiny that I would expect soldiers to endure in basic training. The thing about basic training, though, is that it eventually ends. It lasts a few months, and then you're done. If you live in Chua's household, it's eighteen years, at least, before you're truly free. I have no idea what you're destined for after emerging from that regime. Great things? Perhaps. We can only hope so, the way we hope that children growing up in harsh conditions will still flourish and do well. And though Chua's daughters are not exposed to physical violence, and grow up in relative affluence, I cannot help but wonder if there is an element of trauma to the way they have been trained. And yes, if they have been raised in the manner that Chua describes, they have been trained.

In the end, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother seems to be more of a paper tiger: for the book is also filled with a sense of guilt and cringing fear just under the surface. Perhaps that was my own reading of it; Chua's choice to move back from the “Tiger mother” approach and to adopt a slightly more relaxed stance suggests that she does, at some level and at some point, fear that it's all just too much.

I wonder if we'll see a memoir from  one of Chua's daughters in twenty years or so. I wonder, too, how Chua's daughters will raise their families. And I wonder what kind of grandmother Chua will be.

More of a pussycat than a tiger by then, I think. I hope so.