January 2, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

First off, I LOVED this book. 

I know Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is deeply polarizing. When the book first came out, the Internet exploded with opinions on it (mostly, as far as I could tell, incredibly negative, much of them in response to this Wall Street Journal article titled (not by Amy Chua) "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

I could tell how strongly people felt about this book just by reading the brief reviews my own friends left on Goodreads.  And then, out of curiosity, I looked at the star ratings for it on Amazon and saw that the breakdown looked like this:

Anyway, I loved it. I would definitely be one of the four or five star reviews - the entire book is fascinating and I would highly recommend it.

Amy Chua is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who worked themselves to the bone to succeed in America and they pushed their children to do so as well. Chua went to Harvard and currently works as a law professor at Yale. Her husband also teaches law there and, as far as I could tell from the book, is pretty brilliant.

It's no surprise that they want their two daughters to succeed. And for Chua, that means music. The older daughter, Sophia, plays the piano. Lulu, the second daughter, is a violinist.  They will be raised the Chinese way - where the parent has ultimate authority and the children submit to that authority. There won't be this Western parenting nonsense about letting your child give up something that is hard the minute they ask. There won't be the option of getting anything less than an A in every subject in school. They don't go to playdates or do extra-curricular activities at school. They never have sleepovers and the violin goes on every vacation (and Chua makes calls before each trip arranging a spot to have Sophia practice piano).

Both daughters are very musically gifted and the hours their mother spends practicing with them really helps them achieve at a high level (at one point in the book, Sophia performs at Carnegie Hall).

But while Sophia is a pretty ideal child, Lulu digs in her heels. She and Chua are enough alike that the conflict between them is intense from the time Lulu is very young and, as she becomes a teenager, it becomes even worse.

It sounds kind of horrible, but I found Chua really likeable. She's trying to raise her children the way she's seen generations of successful people be raised (herself and her siblings included) and around her she sees Western parents whose kids get into drugs, flunk out of school, and eventually want nothing to do with their parents. Of course, raising your child in the Chinese fashion is a whole different ballgame when all your child's friends are being raised by Western parents. 

And you can tell that her behavior toward her children (including a memorable time when her daughters knocked out birthday cards for her in about ten seconds and she tore them up saying she didn't want them if that's all the effort they were going to put into them) is motivated by love. She really wants them to succeed and do the best they can.

Of course, if you read the subtitle on the cover (it says, "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."), you can guess that things aren't going to work out so neatly.

And indeed, Chua beings to see (as her own firmly-Tiger mother tells her) that this method is going to backfire in a big way with Lulu. Does she back down? Let Lulu give up the violin? Or does she power through and risk her daughter hating her forever? (And isn't that, in and of itself, SUCH a Western parent question to be asking?).

At one point, after an enormous blowout on vacation where her daughter smashes a glass at a restaurant, Chua says,
It occurred to me that this must be how Western parents think and why they so often let their kids give up difficult musical instruments. Why torture yourself and your child? What's the point? If your child doesn't like something - hates it - what good is it forcing her to do it?"
So yes, she does start to see the side of Western parents after a while. But she stills balks at some of their views (in as much as she perceives them):
All these Western parents with the same party line about what's good for children and what's not - I'm not sure they're making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They're not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing. They just keep repeating things like 'You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion' when it's obvious that the 'passion' is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time and eating all that disgusting junk food.

The version I read had a sort of epilogue to it, about the media firestorm that accompanied the release of the book and how much she worried that her family was going to be destroyed by the attention she got over this book (and by the death threats she received, the critics calling her the worst mother in the world, etc).  She talked about how people didn't understand that the book is, to a large extent, satire and a way of poking fun at herself. I loved this little epilogue and it made me love Amy Chua and this book even more.

I am very much NOT a Tiger Mother. I want my children to succeed, but I'm not willing to spend my entire life babysitting them in order to make that happen. I don't want to stand over my child and micromanage their music practice for hours on end, day after day. And really, I tend to think that most people, no matter how brilliantly they start out, end up to be quite average adults. I don't care if my child doesn't get into Harvard.

And yet, I could see clearly some of the benefits that her children reaped from her parenting method, extreme though it might have been. They learned how to work hard, how to not give up with something was hard, and

I find myself wondering, actually, about the people who reacted so so strongly to this book. Do they just think she is completely abusive? Or does her parenting style and defense of it rattle their beliefs in their own parenting method? I don't know, but I find the idea of sending someone a death threat over their parenting memoir a little much. Maybe that's just me.

And really, the book is so much more than just "Chinese mothers are better than Western ones." It's about what the role of a mother is, and how you define success, and how different people view you, and how writing reflects reality (and how it distorts it, too). It's just fascinating on so many levels.

I've picked it for my book club next year and I am . . .well, I'm really excited.

Digital copy checked out from my local library


  1. I love the little dots that show up when you scroll over the menu! She did a great job with the design.

    And I wanted to read Tiger Mother, but your review has me thinking I need to get it on our new Kindle ASAP.

  2. It sounds like a very interesting book. And one that gets you thinking in a positive way. I think I would agree with some of Chua's methods and I certainly disagree with some used by many Western parents. I also find that every child is different and you have to factor that into the equation as well. Thanks for the review. I may have to read it now.

  3. I'm so interested in this! I would assume that with this type of parenting the child would end up hardcore resenting their parents, but it doesn't seem so from your review. Thanks for always exposing your readers to great books!

  4. This one ended up making my "Best of 2011 Nonfiction Titles." I, too, loved it. And, even though Chua was a bit over the top, she totally knew she was over the top and was able to poke fun at herself a bit. I don't agree with all her methods by any means, but there is a ring of truth to much of what she says. I'm anxious to hear what your book club thinks.

  5. I love the new look of your site, by the way! Super cool!

    And this is a great review. This book is on my "to read" list and your thoughts make me want to read it even more.

    I was raised by Tiger parents, of sorts. Maybe not the stand-over-your-shoulder type, but the No-less-than-As-are-acceptable, you-must-play-the-piano-no-matter-what type of parents. We had our clashes, sure. And I STILL, to this DAY, feel a constant push to make sure I don't disappoint them. But I respect them immensely, and I have always known that they loved me and wanted the very best for me.

    Of course, it's much easier to look at others who have done the parenting than to do it yourself!

    Anyway, thought provoking post. Can't wait to read the book.

  6. I loved that book too, and Amy Chua. I honestly believed that most of the criticism I read on the internet was from people who didn't read the book. It didn't come across AT ALL the way I thought I would based on the criticisms I had read of it.

  7. I read the Wall Street Journal article and found it fascinating. Maybe I'll get around to this book some time.

    I think my mom was a Tiger Mother in a lot of ways, but she didn't have the follow-through. She had these insane goals for me to be THE BEST KID EVER (academically) and I would get grounded for not getting the awards at the end of the year that my good friend Claire got. But, when it all boiled down to it she wasn't willing to stand over me and make me do my homework as soon as I got home from school or to make me not procrastinate huge projects. (Not to mention that when I did need my parents to get me something from the store for a big project they always acted very put out. Argh.)

    Um. Sorry for the rant against my parents. Also, I'm surprised you, an admitted confrontation hater, chose this fairly controversial book for book club.

  8. I also loved this book. You can imagine that it brought up very interesting conversations at my house because my husband was raised by a Chinese mother and really holds with some of the Tiger-mothering methods. Loved this book.

  9. Love your new look! Very clean looking, Janssen! Now I'll go back and read your review!

  10. I loved the book too. Most who hate her or the book, as far as I can tell never read it.

    It seems however, she made her children the musical talents that they were. They did not turn out that way...and the research it telling if a child is able at music they will perform better academically, math especially. El will be taking gutiar next year. Amy would not approve.

  11. I loved the book too. Most who hate her or the book, as far as I can tell never read it.

    It seems however, she made her children the musical talents that they were. They did not turn out that way...and the research it telling if a child is able at music they will perform better academically, math especially. El will be taking gutiar next year. Amy would not approve.

  12. The new design looks fabulous. I need a friend like Kayla!

  13. I loved this book. I am too cheap to buy books but I bought this one. I rarely have it because I'm always letting someone borrow it. It made my top 5 for 2011.

  14. I did read this book and had a very negative response to both the parenting philosophy of Chua and her supposed humor and self-deprecation. I found her methods cruel and, yes, abusive. Depriving your children of bathroom breaks, water or food for hours to practice an instrument is cruel. I say this as someone who began piano myself at age 3 & was accepted into one of the nation's top performance programs. My parents had very high standards and would not have let me choose to waste 10 hours a day on Facebook or some such nonsense. However, they did not implement Chua's severe methods. Also,Chua's manner towards her husband was very rude. It was disrespectful & a poor model of healthy compromise, of which there appeared to be little on her part. She so regularly and contemptuously stereotypes Americans as lazy, undisciplined slackers -- when her own husband, raised in such a "permissive" 'family, achieved the same level of professional accomplishment as did she -- I was shocked. Many Americans not of Chinese immigrant ancestry instill the values of self-discipline, excellence, and achieving your potential in their children. Many also do so without inflicting emotional and psychological abuse.

  15. I love parenting books- if for no other reason than to challenge my thoughts and feelings! I enjoyed this one, too.
    And lately I've been feeling more pressure than usual to "let kids be kids" and I sort of resent that notion. As if my kids aren't "being kids" when they read and draw and play outside instead of playing video games every day. Ah, well, there's the real rub in being a parent- other people deciding that their way of doing things is what you should be doing! Oh, I really love this topic!!!! ;)

  16. Hmm. I can't say I loved or hated, but it was thought provoking. And I was somewhat disgusted by Chua. My thought being that just because that's how you were raised, doesn't mean it's right. Children need a childhood- it's cruel to deprive them of one, and no one can convince me otherwise.

  17. Yeah, I really disliked this one. I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads. Actually, I'm re-reading my review, and I still feel this way:

    "I'm sure that part of my not liking it stems from recognizing aspects of my childhood and knowing that, were I ever to become a mother, I would tend toward acting like this author. However. I did not enjoy the tone. I couldn't tell if it was like, farcical, satirical, serious, facetious, or what. It came off to me as mostly condescending and mean. I didn't like the blanket "Chinese mothers" and "Westerners" terms; surely there is a middle ground between utter domination and obesity-inducing leniency. Toward the end, I rooted for the younger daughter when she turned on her mother temporarily. Is that horrible of me? So my conclusion is that the book is kind of intentionally provocative, and I hope the author's daughters don't end up needing years of therapy for being portrayed as what I could only picture as trained monkeys."

    I'm kind of surprised that you liked it so much, but maybe it's because you don't have the baggage I do associated with it. I'm really interested to hear how your book club reacts to it. I would never bring it up at mine because I'd have to speak for the author all the time as the Token Asian.

  18. Added to my list, so thank you. :)


  19. We read this book for our book club. It's a good pick. You'll have a really interesting discussion. Amy Chua inspired a whole range of emotions in me. I definitely think she crosses the line a few times, but at others I was cheering her on. I think there are ways to teach your children discipline that are a little less extreme. And I don't think that your child's achievements (or yours even) determine their or your ultimate worth as a person or parent. At times I felt like Chua was just setting herself up for disappointment.

  20. I enjoyed this book a lot. I read it, however, as a coming of age story about Amy Chua herself. All she ever wanted was to write a novel (chpt 7). But instead, under intense parental pressure, she studied math (which she hated and sucked at). She gave that up for law, which held no interest for her. Only after her 13yo daughter dared to rebel, did Amy pick up a pen (okay, a computer) and write a story. Her husband is a successful novelist and I predict that the next thing we'll see from Chua is a novel. Finally, after 40-some years, she able to live her life. Pity she doesn't learn anything from these lessons...but then introspection is not something narcissists excel at.


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