Monday, April 18, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother / by Amy Chua

"This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” (cover)

The daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants, Amy Chua's childhood was instilled with the virtue of hard work, the value of academic excellence and the efficacy of superior performance achieved through strict attention-to-detail and time-intensive practice. It paid off. She excelled in school enough to get into Harvard where she also excelled, graduating magna cum laude in Economics and again cum laude from Harvard Law School. Currently she's a Yale professor and has a resume which includes a former professorship at Duke and an executive editor position for the Harvard Law Review.

Not without controversy, her parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, contrasting the Chinese way of child-rearing and the Western/American approach, probes, among other things, the reason why Asian children do better in school than Americans. Chua states, more than once, that her station and success in life is owed to the strict, uncompromising ideology which her parents adhered to during her upbringing; subsequently, she muses that it's no coincidence that Asian children do better in school than their Western counterparts. Americans are too concerned with self-worth and positive feedback, a system depriving children of the persistence needed to strive toward success. This westernized way of rewarding marginal achievements and too readily accepting failure  a viewpoint inevitably slanted toward sentimentality and self-esteem building, can't compete with the Chinese method more associated with punishing ignorance and extracting perfection, often through seemingly cruel and excoriating maneuvers. Additionally, by placing emphasis on a child's success in things like sports or drama, American parents are actually discouraging hard work in other more academically-oriented areas. 

But this book's not really about grades or test scores. Nor is it a hard-edged, this-is-the-right-way-to-do-things diatribe stressing personal preference or cultural difference. With candid exposition and good dose of familiar humor, it's more about Chua's interaction with her two daughters, how over the years she's imputed to them the same rigid structure her own childhood entailed and how the results have played out. No birthday parties, no sleepovers, no sports, no TV, no portable media devices, no being in school plays, no complaining about not being able to do/have said things, etc. pretty much grasps the gist of the way things work in the Chua's household. Failure to make not only good grades, but perfect grades, can and will result in removal and/or destruction of stuffed animals, dolls or toys. The same goes for not getting a musical solo piece exactly right within a condensed time window. Chua's narrative, strict stipulations and all, isn't as tyrannical as it may seem. Nor is the book a direct challenge to other, less aggressive parenting methods. In Chua's family, as in all cultures and generations, there are conflicts inherent in every parent-child relationship, problems which often have no solution, and stubborness at both ends which tends to escalate tension. There's also love, joy and genuinely heartfelt moments between mother and daughter(s), something making this book a worthwhile read. (B CHUA)

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