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

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When I ordered this book on flipkart, I knew nothing about it… Yes, I had come across the highly discussed article on WSJ – Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. The article was so explosive, it touched the raw nerve of every westerner I knew. Even then, I had no idea this book was related to that article. I ended up buying it because it was highly recommended by a friend, and I am glad I did… If the article was this explosive, imagine what the entire book would be like!!

Basically the book is a memoir of a first generation Chinese immigrant lady, who is highly accomplished (Harvard et al), married to an American, has 2 daughters and 2 dogs and some pretty strong opinions on Chinese style of parenting. In reference to the book, by Chinese parenting, she refers to parenting style of being extremely strict with children, training them with a hard stick, making sure they turn out successful. This kind of parenting style is mostly associated with Asian women, Chinese, Indian, Korean, etc…

You know you are dealing with a Chinese parent when you can NEVER

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a playdate
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other than the piano or violin (Replace this with Classical music/Bharatnatyam in the case of Indian kids)
  • Not play the piano or violin.

Amy Chua starts the book by claiming that Chinese parenting style is a fool proof way of producing supremely intelligent and talented kids through sheer dilligence. Lack of talent is simply not an option. The approach to failure is very different. Here is an example from the book:

For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child “stupid,” “worthless” or “a disgrace.” Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials.

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese 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.

There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.

The book is a fun read because I could relate to some of the things being said and done in the book. As an Indian, growing up in a middle class family, my sister and I:

  • were not allowed to have sleepovers
  • had only 2 career options growing up: Engineering/Medicine
  • had to excel in exams (I once got less than 70% in Maths, my dad sat with me every day for the next 3 months till I topped the class)
  • had to take up a hobby (I took up Singing, my sister took up Bharatnatyam (We both loved it and were never forced but always encouraged to develop hobbies). Also, every extracurricular was ok, as long as the grades did not drop!)
  • were allowed a half an hour of television time daily, Sundays were special and we were allowed to watch 1 movie (this privilege was based on upcoming exams, summer vacation, etc)

Kids and their marks were a constant topic of discussion between all the neighbouring aunties. A child doing well ensured that his/her mom walked about with a proud smug look on her face. Parents would compare and the comparisons would never end.

This may seem like I had a deprived childhood. Au Contraire, I had a blast growing up! My parents were closely involved in every school activity/test/exam, which made even exams seem like fun. All the restrictions never seemed like one coz if we were not allowed to watch tv for more than a half an hour, it meant our parents did the same! You can not expect kids to study while parents watch tv, do you? In fact, I was encouraged and prodded all my life to work beyond my capability… I was pretty average growing up, but I would push the envelope and give everything more than my 100%, and then leave the rest to God. I owe this attitude completely to my parents! We were never allowed to give excuses for below-par performances – Bad teacher, tough syllabus, tough exam, nothing! If we dint do well, it was because we did not work hard enough!

I am not saying I am in favor of Chinese parenting (Amy Chua did go too far a couple of times), but I do not fully approve of Western Parenting as well (If you tell a 5-year old, you can do what you want… he would want to play only video games and waste time!). I guess the formula lies somewhere in the middle. Both styles of parenting are effective based on the personality of the child and the timing!

Overall, a fun read! I recommend this book to all the mothers :)

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11 responses »

  1. ohhh she has dealt with that as well… Read this: “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese 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”
    :)

  2. I could totally understand where you were coming from….its very right that everything in moderation is the path of success :D
    Very well written review Nova :D

  3. I read this book some time back too.. It had me questioning a lot of what I do with my daughter. I started wondering if my approach is too softy-softy. If I were challenging my daughter enough. The conclusion I came to is that our parenting has to change based on the child we are trying to parent. Just as Amy had to alter it for her younger daughter.. And that what works for one might not work for another. But it definitely is a good book, in the sense that it gives you a perspective. And it made me introspect a lot.

    Really liked the review, Nova.

    • Thanks Smitha :) It is a tough call and I am sure all parents face pangs of anxiety on parenting methods… At the end of the day, different children have to be dealt with differently…

  4. I actually thought some of her parenting methods were bordering on child abuse. She portrays her kids as being ok but I’m willing to bet they would end up with mental health issues. I took it to be a book about how not to parent a child. I’m not saying a person needs to go to the other extreme and let the child be the authority but there is a middle way of parenting (authoritative parenting) where you value the child not for their marks and academics and skills on the violin or piano but rather for who they are as people. For Amy Chua, her children appear to be a means to getting credit of how great a parent she is. They appear to be objects rather than individuals. The book also showed me to be grateful to my parents who I had thought of as harsh but who were no where near as crazy as Amy Chua given that they let me give up Bharatnatyam after I tried it for a year and they let me continue playing cricket and football with friends as it made me happy…

    • By the time the book ends, Amy Chua has learnt her lesson the hard way… Again, what you are saying about the mental health of the child is probably true in the case of her second daughter lulu. However, her authoritative regime seems to have only helped her first child Sophia. These things work for some, while go on a 180 deg rebound for some… it is about knowing the personality type of your child!

      Child abuse is a concept I do not understand completely… At what point do you say that the way parents are treating their children is abuse? Those who have grown up in India would vouch for the fact that parents beating up their children is a common thing in India and has worked with a lot of children… All of my friends were subject to beatings at home when they did not put in their 100%… None of them have mental health issues… At the same time, I know children who led a completely sheltered life and still have mental issues…

      I guess the key is to find what will work for your children and also for parents to know when to call it quits.

      Thanks for letting me know your opinion :)

  5. In the end as my sister says “You will find hundreds of sites, books, all famous and proven useful to thousands, and with conflicting advice and philosophies. Plus the whole world is an expert, as every one says I have brought up my baby, haven’t I? The best parenting techniques are the ones that work for you, your family and the baby, leaving you sane and baby happy and secure.” :)

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