Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother

The first I heard of this book was through the article in the Wall Street Journal about Amy Chua's forthcoming book, which was discussed hot on twitter and on the mommy blogosphere. Quills were bristling and moms were quickly taking up posts on either side of the divide, and some struggled to maintain a median position on the debate. I was then invited to be part of a panel discussion on BBC World's Have Your Say, which included a UK based mom and a BBC producer, a NYC journalist and mom, a professor in American and a Chinese parent, and me, representing the pushy Indian parent. Only, I am not the pushy Indian parent.

But never mind the self pimping, the fact is I was very very keen to read the book. While the precepts in the extract were a little extreme, the fact remained that the book did make me feel a little uncomfortable about just how lax I was with the brat's academics and skills. I needed to pull up my socks and how. So when Penguin kindly sent me in the book, I went through it in a couple of days, reading like I had a gun held to my head. I would take tips I thought, I would take what would work for me and keep the more extreme stuff aside. I swore to myself that I would keep the fact that Chua was a little extreme at the back of my mind, and not get fazed by any stuff I read. But the book was strong. For a parent like me, who has spent all of her seven years of parenting trying to build the
child's self esteem, this comes a complete shocker.

My impressions of the book. Firstly, what comes through very strongly in the entire book is that Chua is trying to live vicariously through her children. Her decision to raise the children the Chinese way,while allowing the kids to follow the Jewish faith seems like a happy compromise on the surface of it, with Amy's husband Jed, struggling to
make sense of Amy's bootcamp method of raising their kids, and playing referee most times. .According to Chua, the Chinese way of raising kids is tough love, love that doesn't hesitate to criticise, love that enforces a regimen so
strict that it allows the children no childhood to run around and just be children. Her daughters, Sophia and Louisa, weren't allowed to have playdates, sleepovers, or anything less than the top grades of their class — and
that they were expected to excel at the instruments Mom chose for them (this is interesting, the children had no choice in the matter), the piano and violin, respectively. Interestingly, while Chua's elder daughter Sophia, was a docile child and went along with her mother's plan for her, her sister Louisa had different plans, and went along
till a point, kicking and screaming, until one day things finally broke and she completely went off the violin and took up, surprise surprise, tennis.

Honestly, the reader sees the rebellion coming, it is surprising that Chua didn't see it staring her in her face. The accounts of how she bludgeons (metaphorically speaking of course) her daughters into hours of music practice, (Interestingly the music seems to be the dominant part of all her child rearing anecdotes) are downright uncomfortable
to read, especially as a parent. While she might have got one daughter into Carnegie Hall, and that definitely is something to be proud about, she's got there through an enforced regimen of hours of practice, no down time, no sport, no school plays, which makes one really feel sorry for the child. Among the many anecdotes in the book, one that really horrified me was the time she rejected her daughter's handmade birthday cards, because it really seemed to me as a reader, that she was basically miffed at her husband not making reservations at a better restaurant. To me, that is sacrilege. I don't know how her daughters turned out, and I'm hoping they are well balanced young ladies right now, but I do know the line between adoring your parents and hating your parents is a thin one, and adolescence is a phase where most kids quickly go onto the other side.

What I did not enjoy about the book particularly was the vigorous manner in which Chua puts down Western parenting, with their focus on building a child's self esteem, giving the child an all round childhood full of experiences with an appropriate focus on sport. She writes "Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently….That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child." While name calling, and even calling the child 'garbage' something that almost got Chua ostracised at a dinner party is definitely unorthodox to say the least, the takeaway I did get from the book is that children need to be pushed beyond the comfortable limits they set themselves, they need to be handled firmly and not be allowed to sink into pleasant mediocrity. The methods each parent might use to achieve this might differ, I might use a blend of no nonsense you have to get this done, along with some gentle encouragement but the base premise does remain the same. One wants to encourage the child to go beyond what they think they can achieve. While Amy Chua's method might have worked for her, with one daughter at least, it is not a route I would follow or even advocate. Childhood prodigies and academic overachievers to the best of my knowledge and reading have not had very happy lives. And I'd rather my son has a happy childhood. And if he has a spark of genius, in any sphere, it will manifest if he has self esteem, and confidence enough.

(Crossposted on

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