I was asked to read and review Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother before its release date of January 11th. When I said yes, I had no idea I would be opening the cover of one of the most controversial books among U.S. parents in a long time. I tried to skip the news reports and media furry that surfaced, wanting to read with open eyes and a fresh mind. This proved to be difficult. Everywhere I turned people were talking about "tiger mothers" - from the playground, to the PTAs, to the sidetracked collegiate department-head meetings. Some news reports were contemplative, others over the top and exaggerated. Friends said, "Oh, I don't think it fits with peaceful parenting... It'll be interesting to hear what you think." And so, with a bit of excitement and determination to see for myself what Chua's lessons were all about, I started in on her words:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
- 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 actives
- get any grade less than an A
- not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin
The more I read, the more I related - both to Chua and her daughters. You see, my own mother was a "tiger" of sorts. While she did not take it as far as Chua (we did have the occasional sleepover for once a year birthday parties, we were in junior high and high school musicals, and we all played instruments other than the piano or violin), there are many similarities between the expectations my mother had for us, those that Chua has for her daughters, and those her parents had for her. To be quite honest, in many ways, I agree: accepting nothing less than excellence, more often than not, leads to excellence.
Note here, that "Chinese Mothers" don't always come from China (and they are often not mothers but fathers as well). Chua writes, "I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers..."
My own mother is of English and African blood, born in the Midwest heartland of the United States. She parented us in the style that her military ("tiger mother") father before her had set as an example. Anything less than the best was unacceptable in our home. A few tears filled my eyes as Chua relayed the story of her own father attending an awards assembly. Chua received second place, and her father was furious. "Never, ever disgrace me like that again," he told her. As an early high school student my parents were invited to an awards assembly where I would be given an award. My mom discovered ahead of time that I was, in fact, not at the top of the pecking order. I'd be given the equivalent of a silver medal. She refused to attend the ceremony. Even now, 20 years later, that one still stings just a bit. But a part of me also wonders if it was things like this that shaped me into who I am today, and Chua into who she is. Both successful in our own regard and doing what we love. Chua is sure to emphasize that tiger mothering is not the same as being a monster - everything that is done is built on a foundation of love and compassion and high expectations - this is how parents raise children who succeed and are then happy with themselves and with life.
I'm going to skip the in-detail retelling of the most commonly reported (and exaggerated) aspects of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (those that bring the most hate mail into Chua's inbox). For example, calling her daughter, Sophia, "garbage" (something she says she does regret, and wishes she could change) and forcing her 7-year-old, Lulu, to practice "Little White Donkey" on the piano for hours on end "right through dinner and into the night" without breaks for the bathroom or even a drink of water until Lulu finally mastered it with a, "Mommy, look - it's easy!" and continued to play the piece over and over on her own...
Thinking of my own children, one tiger mother moment that got to me the first time I read it (empathizing more with the children than the Chinese Mother at the time) was the card that Lulu made for Chua on her birthday. Seeing that it was "a piece of paper folded crookedly in half, with a big happy face on the front," Chua gave the card back to Lulu and told her she did not want it. "I want a better one - one that you've put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia, and this one can't go in there." I imagined my youngest son handing me his colored cards full of love and I cannot fathom rejecting one. Wouldn't it be special all the same - in its own sweet way? And maybe this is where Chua has more tiger in her than I do. "Everyone is special in their special own way. Even losers are special in their own special way," she tells her husband in one discussion. Ouch. And yet... in life, there are winners, and there are losers, and you can't be both. For a Chinese Mother, making sure that your children are winners is love.
The Chinese Mother expects her children to only attend the most elite university programs. In this way, three of the four of my siblings and I failed our tiger mom. We all hold multiple advanced graduate degrees and doctorates, yet our schools were, for the most part, not top ranked. One brother attended the best academy for oral surgery - but me, well, I sit here today writing and working most of my hours from home, and investing in the mothering of my own children - putting a career on the back burner for now and much to the chagrin of family members who frequently ask, "So when are you going to start using your degrees again?"
I've oft been known to say that in the West, our "mothering doesn't matter" to society or those around us (although in my heart of hearts I believe it matters more than anything). Through Chua's book, I can see now in a new light how Chinese mothering matters a great deal - and how Asian culture may just hold these tiger moms in higher regard for the successes they bring out in their children. After all, there is no way to deny a mother's influence (or love?) when she invests hours upon hours of her time in you each and every day of your upbringing. Being a Chinese Mother is not easy. It takes a great amount of devotion and dedication - persistence, patience, and pushing. Certainly, it is much easier to sit on the couch and let your children watch Wonder Pets, or drop them at day care while you run to the gym, or enroll them in afternoon soccer so you can meet and chat with friends. Chinese Mothers are anything but lazy or selfish. Chua cites studies that show Chinese parents spend approximately ten times longer every day than U.S. parents, investing in their children's academic practice and endeavors. To the Chinese Mother, this is love.
And I understand where Chua is coming from... I expect my own children to succeed. I know they are capable of getting all 'A's if they work diligently, and I expect nothing less. To me, college is not even an option - in fact, graduate school is not an option - it is fully expected for any child of mine. As it was for my mother's children. And while I fall short in my own tiger mothering (I don't drill my children for hours a day), I do align in my own self-reflection with Chua's report that Chinese mothers "believe their children can be 'the best' students, that academic achievement reflects successful parenting, and that if children did not excel at school then there was 'a problem' [at home]."
However, I am likely investing a bit too much concern for immediate happiness into my own mothering than a good tiger mom would. How often do we in the U.S. hear a parent say, "I just want him to be happy!" And, "Her happiness is all that matters." Chua writes, "Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness." She admits though, "This has always worried me. When I see the piano- and violin-induced calluses on my daughters' fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I'm sometimes seized with doubt." The fear of failure, and the need to be successful, is just too powerful to give up practice-practice-practice for immediate and fleeting happiness. But does the laissez-faire manner of Western parenting really lead to happiness? Does the Chinese way of parenting lead to unhappiness? "When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart - all the grown sons and daughters who can't stand to be around their parents or don't even talk to them - I have a hard time believing Western parenting does a better job with happiness." Chua notes that her intense focus on her daughters' success is the vehicle to help them find genuine fulfillment in their life's work (as she did) which then leads to happiness.
I look around, and again, I relate. My siblings and I are all ubber happy in successful paths because our mother pushed us so hard, set the bar so high, and expected nothing less than the very best. At the same time, I look at friends and family whose parents did not challenge, push, drill and hold very high expectations, with even higher involvement on behalf of the parents, and they are often ho-humming their way through life without any real passions, drives, feelings of success, motivation, or self-determining "happiness." An example of this can be seen in the high school my husband attended. It is a laboratory school in the Midwest where the overall manner of teaching is quite "live and let live." Students often select their own curriculum and are encouraged in their creativity, but not so much in hard sciences, learning, and being challenged. I've mixed feelings about this. Because while self-expression is sorely needed, and the arts absolutely play an important roll in our lives, being completely laissez-faire in education has led to year after year of valedictorians from this high school failing out of college. What does this say about the school's ability to prepare kids for real world experiences and expectations? What does it say about the school's "love" for their students? Through her book, Chua seems to suggest this is the antithesis of love for our children and good parenting (or good schooling).
Program for International Student Assessment Test Patterns
For all the attacks that have been sent Chua's way, she does have a point. China (in great part because of its very involved parenting and pushing kids academically) is doing better than most of the West in terms of schooling and those areas we'd typically define as "success." Results for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released this past December and we saw the stark contrast between Shanghai (far ranked #1), Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea versus the U.K., U.S., France and Spain that were all middle-of-the-road. Education experts analyzing the outcomes simply explained that Chinese students work harder, with more focus, and for longer hours than Western students do. And it is their parents making sure the work gets done. For mothers like Chua, it is Western parents doing a great disservice to their own children, and their futures in the world, to neglect their academic success and studies in this way.
She points out in her January 11th Today show interview that just as so many Westerners look down on the Chinese Mother way of doing things, Asian parents don't exactly hold Western ways of parenting in high regard. "To be perfectly honest," says Chua, "I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of Western parenting, [including] how much time Westerners allow their kids to waste - hours on Facebook and computer games - and in some ways, how poorly they prepare them for the future. It's a tough world out there."
Reading Chua's description of the differentiation between American "sports" parents who often think they are being strict and getting ubiquitously wrapped up in their child's athletic events, versus the Chinese Mother, I thought that I was reading my own mom's rule book. In fact, these were each points I clearly knew my mom played by - and those I experienced repeatedly growing up - my tiger mother's rules to a T. Chua writes,
Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (3) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.Believe it or not, amidst the hate mail for her open and griping tail of her Chinese mothering style, Chua has received her fair share of gratitude. Often, it comes from adults who finally grasp the love that resonated through the actions of their own "Tiger Mother" growing up. She tells TIME, "People have said that after reading my book they finally understand their parents and why they did what they did. One man wrote that he sent his mother flowers and a note of thanks, and she called him up, weeping." Others have written to Chua "to say that they wished their parents had pushed them when they were younger, that they think they could have done more with their lives."
Amy Chua with her daughters, Lulu and Sophia, and husband, Jed Rubenfeld.
Chua's daughters (now in their teens, Sophia heading to college this fall) seem to already reiterate this appreciation for their mother's Chinese way. They are happy to be successful even at this young age - having been the best of the best already, with promising futures ahead. They each plan to mother their own children in the same fashion (with the occasional sleepover tossed in). After discussing this at length with my siblings, we all agree that if anything is certain, our mother's drive for our achievement spurred us into the locations in life that we are at today. It is her love for us that compels her (even today) to expect nothing less than the best. We are deeply and sincerely grateful for this gift she gave us, even if there were bumps and bruises along the way.
In the end, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is an honest, often humorous, always raw, look at one Chinese Mother and her self-reflection of what worked, what didn't work, what she's proud of, what she believes in, and what she'd likely do differently if she had it to do-over. This is her memoir - a sorting through of past experiences, and a tale of how one 13 year old's rebellion taught this tiger mom a lesson in the end. Through her words (while not meant to be a parenting manual) we become more informed about the differences between raising children the Chinese way versus the Western way. And we may just be forced into some uncomfortable realizations that none of us are perfect, on either side of the globe. Maybe we all have a bit to learn from each other - for the sake of our kids.
In the film, Mulan, set in China, the main character, Fa Mulan, overcomes many a challenge on her quest to both protect and please her father. At the end of the story, Mulan returns to her family's home with both the Emperor's crest and the villain's sword - powerful symbols of her great achievements. She is surely greatest in the land. She bows and presents them to her father, needing his approval for her excellence. He was the "tiger mother" in her life. Her father takes the crest and the sword, tosses them to the ground, and sweeps his daughter off her feet into a giant hug that goes on forever. She, after all, means much more to him than all the successes in the world.
Maybe this is what it boils down to: how do you define success? Achievement? Happiness? Because, depending on your answer, you may or may not want to interject a little more tiger mother into your parenting.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother can be found here. She is also author of Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Chua's Wall Street Journal article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," which includes excerpts from her book, can be read online here.