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Making sense of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’

The first line of my introductory Generation J.D. blog post plays right into a debate sparked by Amy Chua’s New York Times Bestseller, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

“Coming from a home with your typical overbearing Korean parents, I was given several limited career options when I was heading into high school,” I wrote. While that statement specifically addressed my choice in profession, you could really insert strict instructions about anything and everything in my life.

Spanning the last half of January, the Wall Street Journal and NPR released a series of articles and interviews covering Chua’s memoir about her experiences in Chinese parenting. Amy Chua is actually Professor Chua to students at Yale, where she teaches Contracts and International Business Transactions.
There is no denying her impressive background. She is an accomplished author with two bestselling non-fiction books. Her CV is littered with a clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit), an associate position at a top-tier law firm, and various stints in academia at highly ranked law schools.

Chua credits her “extremely strict, but extremely loving” (her words, not mine) parents for her success, and believed in the Eastern child-rearing technique so much that she used it on her own two daughters. She forbade her daughters to participate in “Western indulgences” such as sleepovers, playdates, extracurricular activities at school, and TV or video games. She forced them to learn only the piano or violin, and made them practice several hours a day.

Unfortunately, many of the synopses provided by the Wall Street Journal and NPR leave Chua demonized into a militant psychopath.  While there were experiences she relayed that made me shudder, a complete opinion can only be made after reading the entire book.

For example, there was one instance in which Chua battled with her youngest daughter in another forced piano session. After threats of picking apart the 7-year old’s dollhouse piece by piece for every mistake made, and writhing around with her daughter as the child kicked and screamed in opposition to practicing, Chua and her husband Jed argued about Chua’s “insulting” technique. The dialogue ended with a sarcastic comment by Chua.

“Oh no, not this,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “Everyone is special in their own way … even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.”

Eventually, later that evening, her daughter ended up conquering the very difficult piano piece, and Chua credits her persistence (as satanic as it may come off) for Lulu’s success. However, the dialogue leaves me wondering … what’s wrong with making your kids pancakes and taking them to baseball games?

While the overall success of Chua and her two daughters, Sophia (piano prodigy) and Louisa (talented violinist), is apparent, Chua admitted later that she retreated from her Eastern ways when Lulu was 13 years old due to her complete act of rebellion against the violin. Does this mean that her adoption of the Chinese parenting style ultimately failed?

Or, does this equate to a victory for American culture? I don’t think it means either — I think it merely denotes yet another example of how most things are not black or white. Parenting, along with many other important tasks in life, is muddled with “grey” matter. There should not be a choice between Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern, or whatever direction a parent takes in raising their children.

Chua claims that Chinese parents are only hard on their children because they believe they can achieve the perfection they demand. Chua’s book describes this as one of three major differences between Chinese and Western parents’ perspectives. However, I am pretty confident that it is not only the Chinese parents out there who believe their kids can accomplish whatever they want in life.

My own father grew up mocking American parents’ sensitivity to their children’s self-esteem. He reiterated on numerous occasions the idea that children’s feelings don’t matter — only what they achieve matters.

A popular Asian-American blog, Disgrasian, tackles several issues in its review of Chua’s book. The most important question, in my mind, that the blogger addresses is WHY Chua felt that she had to utilize the same Chinese parenting style as her first-generation immigrant parents.

My first-generation parents used this method because that’s all they knew growing up, and felt that it was necessary for them to push us in this manner. In their minds, whether we liked it or not, we were still minorities (albeit Americans) growing up in a largely Caucasian world. We couldn’t be as good as the majority — we had to be better — so that there were fewer reasons to discriminate against us.

Now that I am older, I can look beyond the suffocating regulations present in my childhood, and understand the reasons behind my parents’ approach. However, as a Korean-American woman who grew up under this type of regime, I never look back on my childhood with fond memories. I don’t believe my brother does, either.

More importantly, this country is a different place than it was 30 years ago, as it will be 30 years from now. With all these factors in mind, I really cannot think of one good reason to raise my children in the same stifling manner as my childhood reflects. I want to provide my kids with opportunities to find something they love, but also teach them that success requires blood, sweat, and tears.

It seems that with most things, a well-balanced approach is the most successful. Parenting should be no different.

3 comments

  1. Reading Chua’s book, I had difficulty understanding why her daughters had no choice of musical instrument to play. I wondered why she waited until her youngest threw a glass in anger at a restaurant to change her parenting style. If playing an instrument was important, why did she not give them a choice of instrument to play or music piece to learn?

    My daughter wanted piano lessons at 7. Excited at first, she soon lost interest. She wanted to play The Carpenters. Not the classics. I got a teacher who would teach her. She will never be at Carnegie but she still plays to relax.

    Writing a memoir when her daughters are barely out of high school is brave. There is now interest in seeing just how successful they turn out. Will her eldest get into a “good” college?

    Like it or not, her daughters now have the burden of proving their mother right in how she chose to raise them, or of demonstrating that her methods did not do them any lasting harm.

    It must be no picnic being Amy Chua’s daughters.

    thegoodchinesemother.wordpress.com

  2. I couldn’t agree more. As an African-American, of course, the issues of being a minority and the requirements it imposes to be successful hits home. I have two sets of children and was very strict with the first set. Embarrassingly, unbeknown to me, they were very unhappy for most of their childhood. From listening and learning from them the second set is enjoying a happier one and I am enjoying them, more, as well. They are all successful. I am still strict (by all of their standards) but am now classified as a “Zen” mom (by an internet mom classification questionnaire) which I attribute to a careful balance of expectations, encouragement, consideration and cooperative compromise.