Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother certainly merits a book review.  Chua’s Wall Street Journal article (promoting the book) is still the most popular even after a week of publication.   As is often the case, it’s popular because it’s making so many people so dang mad. 

I bought the book last night and finished it within 24 hours. I could not put it down.   While I knew that the Chinese have a reputation for hard work, academic achievement, and family commitment, I didn’t know how they achieved these goals. 

Chua opened my eyes into how all of this is accomplished.   (This assumes that Chua’s method is truly the Chinese model.  I suspect she’s more extreme.)  The book is mostly the story of her family, namely, the way she has chosen to raise her two daughters.  She did not allow play dates, sleepovers, or television when they were young. She decided for each of her daughters what instrument they would play, and made them practice (with her often at their side) for up to six hours a day. Sometimes she pulled them out of class (P.E. time and recess) to practice for upcoming competitions. Her daughters’ desires were entirely irrelevant. When her daughters did not comply, she would berate them, load them with guilt, and threaten them.

But the story is riveting because you see just how passionate this family is, and how their lives become music. She goes into detail about how she prepares them for competitions (staying up late into the night), finds the best teachers for them, and buys the best violins for her daughter, Lulu.  No expense is ever spared for these two girls. Both girls are incredibly gifted and do love their music, although they don’t always appreciate their mother. The opportunities that open up to these girls are jaw dropping.  Carnegie Hall and Julliard teachers at such a young age?  You can’t help but wonder if the ends justify the means.

But the most fascinating part of the story is when her strong willed Lulu finally rebels.  Who could blame her?  She can’t hang out with friends, go to the mall, choose other extra-curricular activities–you know, do things that teenagers do. When Ms. Chua refuses to take her to the hair salon because she’s not falling into line, Lulu cuts her own hair over her ears.    Things escalate and the end of the book leaves you feeling like things still aren’t quite resolved.  

I do have to applaud Chua for her unflinching honesty.  At the end of the book, she seems unsure of herself.  There is no tight resolution of the book, and you realize that it is because she hasn’t finished raising her daughters.   She finally lets Lulu drop the violin,  but Chua seems uncertain herself about whether this was the right choice.  

It leads you to wonder where these stringent values come.  Are they not only Chinese values, but also communist values?  When she stressed the importance of forcing kids to play because the parents know what’s best for their short-sighted children, and when she mentions that most of her daughter’s intenational competitors come from China, Russia, and Eastern Europe, I couldn’t help but wonder.

Or perhaps it’s just that we Americans have had it to easy for too long.   I recently read a life history of one of our ancestors.  This was how little Andrew passed his childhood

Age 7:  Emigrated to America.  Got so sick on the boat, that the captain thought he was dead, and wanted to throw him overboard.  Parents intervened. 

Age 7:  Crossed the plains in miserable weather.  Saw his sick little two year old brother die within miles of their destination.

Age 8:  Sent to work in a molasses mill.  Three of his fingers crushed in a heavy cast iron rollers.   Finger is amputated without pain reliever.  After a long time, the doctor discovers the finger is decaying, and has to amputate again. 

Age 11:  With the help of a hired nine year old boy and two oxen, plows five acres and plants wheat.  Grasshoppers eat all the wheat.  (Dad works at railroad).

Rest of childhood includes:  grain threshing, crop irrigating (in cold weather without boots), cutting timber during winter (getting wet to the waist many times), and getting sick a lot.  No opportunity for schooling. 

The history of China during the 20th century is also downright miserable, and I’m sure many Chinese adults (still living)  had childhoods similar to Andrew’s.   Perhaps this work ethic is really just a latent survival instinct.   A delightful childhood might be a luxury that we just take for granted.   

Still, it makes one worry a little about the future.  Are Chinese children going to dominate our over-fed, video-game addicted, lazy kids?   My hope is no, because  freedom is the value that has made this country so great. Freedom fosters creativity, leadership, problem solving, and entrepreneuriship, skills that Americans still seem to be quite adept at.   But freedom is a delicate value that can be wasted, and we American seem quite adept at wasting things too. 

The truth of the matter is, while I’ve been a little hard on Chua myself, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been one of the most influential “parenting books”  I’ve ever read.  Never mind that it is a memoir.   I’m practicing piano with my son now, and I’ve spent hours pouring over spelling bee words with them. 

Which begs another question.   Many of my balanced and respected parenting books sit quietly on my shelf, while Chua’s book is getting me to look up words like “xanthic”  and “duodenum.”   What motivates us anyway?   And will the more reasonable parent also be forgotten more quickly by her children, while the uncompromsing and forceful parent is always in the mind of her child (for better or for worse)?    The next Asian book we’d love to read would tell us jus how committed these Asain kids are  to their parents.     

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