Friday, 17 February 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Book Review and Giveaway

Amy Chua's memoir was an international bestseller when first published a year ago, and caused a storm of controversy. The book, a description of her approach to raising her two American children the 'Chinese way', touched personal, cultural and political nerves, with many branding her parenting as abusive and extreme. In the midst of the storm, others noted that nerves get touched for good reason, and that perhaps the Western world wouldn't be in total decline - unlike China - if we all had a Tiger Mother to urge us on.

It's not surprising that Chua's book pushed buttons, for her descriptions of the methods she used to drill, coach and shape her children into musical prodigies and academic achievers are at times jaw dropping. Right from the first page she tells of how her two girls were not allowed to attend sleepovers or playdates, be in the school play or get a grade lower than A, but, as the book goes on, she confesses stories which have now become notorious: threatening to shut her three year old out in the freezing cold for refusing to play the piano in the way she was asked, telling her six year old she would burn all her stuffed animals if she didn't play the piano perfectly, calling her children 'garbage', and, when they were seven and four, rejecting the birthday cards that they had made for her on the grounds that they were simply not good enough.

You'd think that a parent like me - a touchy-feely Westerner who is largely opposed to punishing children, especially her own - would despise a parent like Chua. And I wanted to, believe me, I wanted to hate her, and absolutely shred her book in this review. But then, as I read, two things began to happen. First of all, I realised that Chua had her tongue in her cheek slightly, and was setting out to spark debate and prove a point. Secondly, I really started to like her. Her simple, clear storytelling belies her fierce intelligence: don't think for a moment that Chua, a Yale Professor of Law, hasn't considered carefully all of this issues the book raises plus a few more. Her anecdotal style interspersed with the odd bit of observation had me turning the pages, but most of all, her book made me feel uncomfortable, it challenged me, shaking up my assumptions and forcing me to unpick and reconsider some of my more dearly held values and beliefs. This is not a parenting manual, and Chua never tries to assert that her way is the best or only way. But by offering us this starkly contrasting view point, she does what all good writers should - she makes us question, she makes us think.

What is the role of a parent? Do we wish to be our children's friend, their ally, taking their thoughts and feelings seriously and allowing them to make their own decisions, take their own choices, make their own mistakes? Do we shower them with praise and let them know that we love them, no matter how small their achievements? And are we sensitive to their feelings, always considering their emotional experience above all else and striving to protect and strengthen their mental health? Chua thinks not. She has no desire whatsoever to be liked by her children, and seems to control their lives down to the smallest detail. She doesn't believe in telling them they have done a 'good job' unless they have achieved something really exceptional, assuming that if they do not excel it is not because they have reached their limit, but simply that they did not work hard enough. And she doesn't subscribe at all to the Western view that children's feelings should be protected, rather she assumes that they are, 'strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.'

To our child-centred Western ears, this seems like a harsh approach, with no consideration for the child's experience (let alone a hundred years or more of developmental psychology). But Chua assures us that, by initially forcing our children to apply themselves to a task, we create what she calls a 'virtuous circle'. Initially, our child will resist, complain and generally be made unhappy by our actions. But, if we ignore their feelings and push through this phase, something wonderful will happen - they will begin to excel. With excellence comes praise, admiration, confidence, and even fun. As Chua puts it, '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.'. We might think we are being kind to our children by allowing them to steer the ship along side of us. But could it be that, if we behave more as their equals than their masters, we are actually failing them, cheating them of the chance to reach the absolute limits of their potential?

Chua's description of what she refers to as 'generational decline' struck a particular chord with me. She describes what she feels is certainly a pattern among Chinese immigrants to the States in the last fifty years. The immigrant generation, (like her own parents) are hard-working, and often work their way up from nothing to become successful and respected professionals. They pour everything they do and earn into their children's education and future. The next generation will be high achieving, and find themselves even higher up the work and money ladder than their parents. However, their children, born into a life of wealth and privelige their forbears could only have dreamed of, will often be disobedient, ignore career advice, and be 'headed straight for decline'. This is Chua's greatest fear for her children, and the outcome she hopes her strict parenting methods will guard against.

There are strong echoes of my own history in this cautionary tale. On both sides of my family, my grandparents had the bare minimum of education and lived much of their early lives in poverty. On my mothers side, my grandmother's family 'came over on the boat' from Ireland to the slums of Liverpool, and my grandfather was one of twelve children. My paternal grandparents emigrated from the UK to Canada in the 1920's, and lived through the Depression, when they would move house in secret every week to avoid paying the rent.

On both sides of the family, there was a hugely strong work ethic, and both my mother and father were taught by their parents to 'graft', 'work your way up' and 'better yourself'. Having left school with barely any qualifications, they were jointly determined for a better life for me, and felt that the key to this was a private education. Through a seemingly endless combination of business ventures and by-the-hour jobs, they put me through a fee-paying school where I did well academically, going on to be the first person in my family's history to attend University.

I felt my heart sink slightly as I read Chua's words about generational decline. I thought of my own life now; in spite of my Ivy League degree and hugely expensive education, I've never really 'got on in life' the way my parents and grandparents would probably have liked, working as a hot-shot lawyer or high-flying executive, and earning the big salary with matching house and car that life denied to them. Instead I've lived it up, partied, dipped in and out of a few careers and now given up the only really serious one - therapy - to be a full time stay at home mother. And now that it is my turn to parent, my focus is entirely based around my own children growing up happy, mentally healthy and well adjusted. They are still very small, but nevertheless I have given barely a moments concern to their education, their careers or their financial futures. I have told myself that none of this matters, and that to be kind, considerate, happy and creative are the only things that really count in life. Is this the right way to be, or am I doing my hard grafting parents and grandparents a great disservice here, squandering the opportunities they desperately craved for themselves and bought for me with the sweat of their brow? And am I letting my children down too, instilling in them a rose-tinted view of the world that might find them, somewhere down the line, a jolly nice person that everybody likes, living in a cheap flat without qualifications or prospects?

What really matters in life? And what does it mean to be a 'successful person'? Chua's excellent book forces us to consider this, although she herself makes no claim to have the answers, asking in the closing paragraph, 'Given that life is so short and fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?'. No matter what our zodiacal sign, cultural background or parenting philosophy, if we love our children deeply and want the best for them we need to ask ourselves this question. Like Chua, we need to answer with humour, be brutally honest, and perhaps even risk making ourselves unpopular. We may subscribe to a very different world view to the Tiger Mother, but her book reminds us that, whatever we decide, our values and beliefs will shape our children's future, and that of generations to come.


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is published by Bloomsbury and is available in paperback from all good booksellers.


I was not paid to write this review and all views expressed are entirely my own.


The draw to win a free copy is now closed.
To pick the winners, I used a random number generator from www.random.org.
The winners are -

  • Will Spooner
  • Aletta
  • Catherine T
  • Maureen DeLongis
  • Maddy from Developing Doulas

Please contact me with your address and the publisher will send you a copy.

Thank you to all of you who entered, and who joined in this fascinating discussion!

.

48 comments:

  1. Do you want your children to be successful at any cost? It depends what success grants. If it's escaping poverty or worse, then perhaps it's crucial. If it simply means earning more or achieving more than the 'average' in a privileged western society, then you have to start looking at the cost. Be in no doubt that the single minded pursuit of pseudo-academic (or athletic or aesthetic) goals carries a cost, notably loss of autonomy. What does it mean to live life to it's fullest? I'd like to give my kids the tools to figure that out for themselves.

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    1. Yes, and a huge loss of creativity and initiative perhaps from such methods.
      Like everything, I guess we are all on a spectrum. What the book did for me is contemplate where on that spectrum I am, and where I want to be, and whether those two places are the same. x

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  2. I am conflicted...I also felt the pang at the term generational decline. I too feel I have disappointed my 'ancestors's' wishes for me. But how much of this is healthy ambition to be happily employed, accommodated and coupled, or is it 'Affluenza' which has been a source of misery for me? I think there has to be a middle ground. Fiona

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    1. I agree... and ambition can bring misery if it is never realised. x

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  3. Just thought about it again and I wondered if there is not a class element to this as well? For Amy Chua, A Yale Professor of Law, the sort of excellence she wanted for her children and more importantly could direct them towards, is a world away from the sort of future my parents would have envisioned for me. My parents desperately wanted me to go to University and paid private school fees at great sacrifice to themselves in order to facillitate this. However that is where their drive ended. My University peers who are now in brilliant careers and excelling all had parents who had the sort of contacts and knowledge to push their children that little bit further. I am not blaming my parents for my lack of success but I am also acknowledging that as far as they were concerned becoming a teacher or a nurse was the extent of their ambitions for me, and perhaps if I worked a little harder, a doctor or a lawyer would have been wonderful. Like them I had no idea what to actually do once I was in the hallowed halls of my University. I remember Mum sending me off to the Public Service exams (Australian equivalent of the Civil Service)because if teaching didn't work out then the public service was a good steady career with lots of benefits. Meanwhile my peers were doing an internship at Daddy's law firm or being sent on an exchange trip to develop their foreign language skills.

    So yes I am not 'successful' but to my parents I have done a world better than them. Also I am sure millions of Chinese peasant parents are not pushing their children to play violin!! lol! So to me it seems that comparing working class or even middle class Western parents with upper class Chinese parents is like comparing apples and oranges.

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    1. I think that's a really good point... I had a similar experience, not only did my parents have none of the contacts or experience, but also they were not modelling for me the life that they wanted me to have... I have become more like them, pretty nomadic in my choices, which goes to show how powerful modelling can be, showing rather than telling etc. I expect my kids will be pretty nomadic too, unless I suddenly start wearing a suit and taking myself seriously! x

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  4. Sounds like a fascinating and thought-provoking read

    @cherylp59

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    1. Yes, it was. It's always good to read something that you disagree with, it helps you find out more about what you DO believe! x

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  5. The generational decline thing really struck a cord with me too, my grandfather was a Lithuanian peasant, my father was a successful politician and I have absolutely none of the drive that either of them showed. I wonder at 37 is it too late to Amy Chua myself?

    At the same time though I can't ever imagine telling a child of my acquaintance that something they made for me was not good enough. I am not a parent so maybe I don't have to worry about that side of things, but I do want my numerous god children to enjoy their childhoods as long as possible. If I were a parent I would want to try and walk the fine line between my children understanding how much I loved and supported them in all the things they did and knowing that I was not their friend, I was the person who was going to protect them from their own stupidity on occasion but would hopefully give them enough space to make a few mistakes of their own.

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    1. Ha ha Aletta, I like the idea of Chuaing yourself! At times reading the book I found myself feeling jealous of her drive - how did she fit all that she did into a day and still find time to be a parent?!
      But you are right, a horrible idea to tell a child that something is not good enough. Cruel.
      But as I said, a bit of tongue in cheek in the narrative made me wonder if she really did these things, or was just trying to get a rise? (which she certainly did!)
      x

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  6. I haven't read this book, and to be honest, I hadn't even heard of it before. But, what you have described above sounds like emotional abuse to me.

    From personal experience, I do not believe that pushing your children, not accepting below A grades, insisting that academic subjects be chosen over and above others will mean that your child ends up successful.

    Criticism of my 'arty' skills - music, art etc has left me with a huge block, that I struggle to overcome. I find it difficult to do these things, either for myself, or with my children, as I was constantly told I was no good at them. It saddens me to think how much enjoyment I miss out on because of this.

    I dropped out of college twice after school, despite leaving with 10 GCSEs, 8 of which were grade A or A*. I dropped out because I felt pushed to do it, so instead I left college at 16, moved in with a boyfriend, and lived on either temping in factories, or the dole. It was only when I had the space to finally be myself, that I went back on an evening course, gained 1 A level, 1 AS level, and started studying with the OU. I am doing this to broaden my own horizons, not to end up as whatever the Western World and Capitalism deems a success.

    In the meantime, I am a Mother. Perhaps I am not hugely 'successful' at this, but it is the first time that I have felt worthwhile. Perhaps too many women feel they cannot just be a mother, because this is not valued in our world. I think it's a shame. For the record, I neither praise or criticise my children's efforts. It is not my place to judge for them whether what they have done is 'good enough' - it just is.

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  7. I agree panda bear that some of the stories sound emotionally abusive although of course there are many many worse tales than this one on that front. And throughout the book I did get a feeling of very passionate love for her children from Chua, and lots of warmth and connection.
    I think you raise a great point that society and family can influence our feelings about whether or not we are successful, and this in turn can limit us from trying to 'broaden our horizons', which is a shame. It sounds like you're doing amazing things to break this cycle.
    Re: praise - I think that specific praise is good for children, but I know that the world is divided on this one too!
    x

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    1. Esther Peacock12 June 2012 09:08

      Loved your review, mule (love all your stuff!) which I picked up a couple of months ago preparing for a Book Club meeting. And as someone else said - women with parenting views such as yours (and mine) maybe need to take their courage in their hands to read it. But even if we thought we would be critical of it, how can we criticise without readding it first? So I also took the plunge.... Having now read the book (exactly the same reaction as you, except for perhaps having a little more sympathy with Chua's stand, as I am possibly a little more strict with my children than you? - I am British, not American!) am now re-reading your review with even more interest. The book made for great discussion at our Book Club! Speaking of which, can I recommend another book which makes you think, which was a great success with our members - "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls. Maybe you know it already, but if not, gird your loins - it is a story of emotional abuse of children by their parents for sure, but what I found amazing is the continuing relationship between the daughter (who wrote the book) and her mother, and the love so obviously present between the family members even during the chaotic period of their upbringing. Like Chua's book, it is a story that makes it even more difficult for us to draw a clear distinction between a right and a wrong way to raise children (although no-one would dream of taking The Glass Castle as a parenting manual!) but also like Chua's book, if you read it carefully and with an open mind, you can look beyond the events and see the effect of love.

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    2. Thanks Esther!
      Actually I am British too!
      I haven't read the Glass Castle but will check it out. Thank you!
      And thanks again for such an interesting comment x

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  8. Knowing your general feelings on parenting I think it was very brave of you to not only read this book but also be honest in your feelings about it. That's far more useful to a reader of the review than if you had just shot it down for all the obvious reasons.

    So would I read it based on your review? Yes I would.

    Will I agree with it - Hmmm, most likely not but then I am a rather open minded Home Ed natural lass who spends her life pouring love and support into her children.

    Will I take anything from it? I guess I will have to wait and see!

    Thank you for taking the time to share with your followers,

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    1. Thank you Jenski.
      Of course I doubt many would agree with this book's methods but that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading - if we only read books by people we agreed with that would be rather odd and a bit narrow I think!
      x

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  9. I'm desperate for a copy of 'Battle Hymn'...
    Saw the author on Oprah and immediately loathed her from the intro, but as the interview progressed I began to desperately want to take parenting classes with her! I'm moving away from 'traditional' discipline with my 4.5year old ds and 2.5year old dd, and finding it really difficult to quantify and maintain my newfound focus on parenting as the 'small details' seem to conflict with my inate style and 'immediate reactions mode'.
    Reading about different parenting styles definitely helps me form a broader perspective on my role! I'm dying to read the one about the American woman raising her daughters in France too!
    I've just picked up a copy of 'Growing up Global' on sale (books are *ridiculously* priced here) and can't wait to get into it!
    Tamsyn Elaine Allison

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    1. It is definitely interesting to read about this very extreme approach! I doubt many of us would want to copy it but that doesn't mean we can't learn more about ourselves from the book. x

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  10. I'd love to read this book, even though I consider myself more of a pussy cat than a tiger!
    Lottie Armstrong

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    1. Yes Lottie, I've decided I must be a Labrador! x

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  11. Have heard quite a bit about this book; sounds intriguing and would love to read it! Especially interested to read it as a balance to my general attachment parenty style. Catherine T

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    1. It is definitely a long way from AP Catherine, but it is interesting to read some of the loving moments in the book, including a couple of refs to co-sleeping! x

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  12. The point about 'generational decline' is really interesting. It sounds really interesting, but fear i may be far too emotional and hormonal to read it!!
    Anna Appleby

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    1. Well hopefully it will just make you think and perhaps laugh a bit Anna, I don't think it's meant to be moving! (but you never know with hormones!) x

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  13. Interesting - would love to read it. Have been searching for new material..thanks xx
    Amanda Taylor

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  14. Since I heard about the tiger mother I was fascinated and horrified at the same time. I'd like to read it.
    Keely Blackwell.

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    1. Great Keely...hope you are lucky! It is indeed both fascinating and horrifying...and lots more in-between! x

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  15. What a great review!
    I have read a few articles about Amy Chua from various camps, and what strikes me most is that she is genuinely doing what she feels is best for her children based on her experience and role-models. Isn't that what most of us do? I wouldn't like to follow her methods however, I am an instinctively 'touchy-feely' mother (definitely not modelled on my parents!) but I would dearly like to know how to instil some of that drive, and the drive that I had as a child (where did it go?!) into my modern western children? I was aware as a child of the 70's that if you wanted to do well at something you had to practise, but are there just too many distractions, too many toys, is everything just too easy and achievable in our children's world?
    This is something in particular that has upset me about recent trends in education - one place where children in the past could expect to be encouraged to excel and rewarded if they did, until soft politics entered the fray and no-one could be allowed to fail, producing a generation with no real skills apart from their incredible level of self-belief. I hope and believe that things are starting to move away from this, but I think we still have a long way to go.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Lys... it is a very thought provoking read. Like you I wouldn't dream of adopting her methods but I do what the best for my children and I think it's naive to assume that academic success is not needed. Maybe we are all a bit afraid to push children these days... we might not want to go as far as Chua but she does at least refresh our memory of the definitions of 'drive' and 'ambition'! x

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  16. I am really keen to read this book! I read various reviews of it which sounded really interesting. I think several of the reviewers didn't get the irony of her tale (at least, I hope so, otherwise it is surely just a story of unmitigated cruelty). But surely the point that seems to be missed is that not everyone can excel. By definition, some children will work hard and excel, others will work hard, be the best they can, and perhaps only achieve average things. What then? Beat them?! I have my fingers crossed I might win the book and find out more...

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    1. You are right Rachel that there is a bit of irony in the book that does get missed and she also implies sometimes that 'this is how so and so remembered it', so perhaps there is exaggeration or distortion? As far as the question of 'what if they don't succeed?', goes, for Chua that is just not a possibility, and she would just feel that they had not tried hard enough and drill them even more!

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  17. This book sounds very interesting. I did very well at school, but have really 'done nothing' with the grades I achieved. Your comments on generational decline, and questions about your children's future - happiness vs direction are interesting ones to consider for myself and my little girl too.

    natalie_bond85 {at} hotmail {dot} com

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    1. Thanks Natalie. I do hope you get lucky in the draw, it is indeed a thought provoking and worthwhile read! x

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  18. From reading many articles and reviews about this book I was intrigued to know more about the story and whether it was a good read. However, I felt let down as most press articles failed to go beyond the surface and examine the true, deeper ideology and message of the book. Thank you for a fresh, insightful review. Harsha

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  19. I heard so much about this book and formed my opinion without actually reading it, which is so unfair. Recently, the views on it have been a bit softer. Now I'd really like to read it. @AdeleJK

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  20. I would like to read this.
    Maddy from Developing Doulas

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  21. Hoping to win a copy...
    Maureen DeLongis

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  22. I would like to enter.
    Shari Lynn

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  23. Want this book!
    Corey Sanders Cullum.

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  24. OK Corey, hope you are lucky x

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  25. I would love to win this book!
    Cathy Oliveira Pritchard

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  26. I'd like to be in the draw please.
    Libby Denman.

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