Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (makes me look like a total slacker)

History of China

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Amy Chua’s somewhat controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was our July book club read.  We chose it hoping that it would spark some good conversation – and it did!

Chua,  a law professor, has written a memoir about raising her two daughters in the style of a “Chinese mother.”  The book, and exerpts published in the New Yorker (I believe) raised a lot of hackles when it first came to light, due to Chua’s description of her “Chinese Mother” parenting tactics – for example, according to Chua children of Chinese mothers  must play piano or violin.  They also must be the best in their class at all subjects except P.E. and Art, and may never have play dates or sleepovers.

The backbone of the story is Chua’s ongoing battle with Lulu, the younger of her two daughters.  Chua decides, of her own initiative, that Lulu will learn to play violin (her elder daughter, Sophia, plays piano – eventually, at Carnegie Hall.)

Chua’s stringent parenting style provides a counterpoint to the way that a lot of the people I know (myself included) raise their kids.  With the prevalence of ‘helicopter parenting’ and the general tendency to over parent and over indulge kids today, Chua’s attitude is refreshing.  She expects her children to do well, and they do.  She accepts no excuses.  She is hard on them, and it pays off.  Discussing Sophia’s piano lessons, Chua explains:

Most of the other students at the school had liberal Western parents, who were weak-willed and indulgent when it came to practicing. I remember a girl named Aubrey, who was required to practice one minute per day for every year of her age. She was seven. Other kids got paid for practicing, with giant ice cream sundaes or big Lego kits. And many were excused from practicing altogether on lesson days.

With me at her side, Sophia practiced at least ninety minutes every day, including weekends. On lesson days, we practiced twice as long. I made Sophia memorize everything, even if it wasn’t required, and I never paid her a penny.

According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:

1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.

2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality!

3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM! In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, they were highly effective.

Chua, Amy (2011). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (pp. 27-28). The Penguin Press. Kindle Edition.

That said, often I wondered whether Chua was ‘in’ on the joke – I mean, come on.  Some of her pronouncements are just over the top.  There are many hints of humor, as when she is nagging her (long suffering, sweet Jewish husband):

One evening, after another shouting match with the girls over music, I had an argument with Jed. While he’s always supported me in every way, he was worried that I was pushing too hard and that there was too much tension and no breathing space in the house. In return, I accused him of being selfish and thinking only of himself. “All you think about is writing your own books and your own future,” I attacked. “What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever even think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?”

Chua, Amy (2011). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (p. 83). The Penguin Press. Kindle Edition.

This is particularly funny when you realize that Coco is the dog.

At its core, this book isn’t really about Chua’s parenting decisions – it’s about her.  I came away alternately being angry with her (can’t she just let her kids relax?) and feeling sorry for her (what is wrong with this lady that she can’t just chill out and enjoy her family, without pushing them all the time.)  I also feel like maybe I should make my husband read it, so he can see that, in actuality, I am quite chill.

This is an entertaining book, and a nice quick read.  I definitely recommend it.

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