Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother | Review & Notes

Posted on July 12, 2012


Amy Chua. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Penguin Press, 2011. (237 pages), Colbert Report, Time magazine Q&A,

— VIA —

This was a fantastic read. Chua has been criticized, mainly over the title of the Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” but this criticism, and especially that article title is unwarranted. This video from PBS provides further explanation:

The Battle Hymn is not a critical evaluative comparison of “Western” and “Chinese” parenting (recognizing that Chua defines those terms loosely), per se, but is rather more like an exercise in cultural awareness. While Chua makes opinionated and conclusive statements about parenting styles and results, it is set within the context of their family’s misadventures, lessons learned and perceptions along the way.

I agree with her; this is not a parenting book, nor is it designed to be one. This is a memoir, and a candid, honest, tense, satirical, and unresolved one at that. It is filled with humanity, diversity (religious, and obviously ethnic), humor, frustration, astonishment, and suffering. And while it is not a parenting book, it is a story you can empathize with, learn from, be challenged from, and perhaps provide a bit of therapy along the way…for any parent.

Below are the three “tiger” quotes and my underlines from the book, a few select excerpts of insights.

Part One: The Tiger, the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect.

I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take. (8)

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. (29)

I know now that parental favoritism is bad and poisonous. But in defense of the Chinese, I have two points. First, parental favoritism can be found in all cultures. …Second, I don’t believe that all parental comparisons are invidious. (43)

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty — lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. …I’ve thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets. (51)

First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. (51) …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. (52) …Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (52-53)

Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it’s probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (53) Jed actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent. (53)

Third, Chinese parents believe that the know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. (53) …Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It’s just an entirely different parenting model. (54)

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t. | There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their parent, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that. (63)

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away. (63)

Part Two: Tigers are always tense and like to be in a hurry. They are very confident, perhaps too confident sometimes. They like being obeyed and not the other way around. Suitable careers for Tigers include advertising agent, office manager, travel agent, actor, writer, pilot, flight attendant, musician, comedian, and chauffeur.

Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. 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. | But here’s the thing. 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 that Western parenting does a better job with happiness. It’s amazing how many older Western parents I’ve met who’ve said, shaking their heads sadly, “As a parent you just can’t win. No matter what you do, your kids will grow up resenting you.”

By contrast, I can’t tell you how many Asian kids I’ve met who, while acknowledging how oppressively strict and brutally demanding their parents were, happily describe themselves as devoted to their parents and unbelievably grateful to them, seemingly without trace of bitterness or resentment. | I’m not really sure why this is. Maybe it’s brainwashing. or maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome. But here’s one thing I’m sure of: Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones. (101)

There is no rest for the Chinese mother, no time to recharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mud springs in California. (130)

The Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn’t tolerate that possibility. The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That’s how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated. (146)

Here’s a question I often get: “But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for — your daughters” — and here always the cocked head, the knowing tone — “or yourself?” I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self). But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one.

My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t. “Do you know how many years you’ve taken off my life?” I’m constantly asking my girls. “You’re both lucky that I have enormous longevity as indicated by my thick good-luck earlobes.”

To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the qustion “Who are you really doing this for?” should be asked of Western parents too. Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, “Sure Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.” Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It’s the hardest thing int he world, but I’m doing my best to hold back.” Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me. (148)

For my part, I felt that something had come loose, like the unmooring of an anchor. I’d lost some control over Lulu. No Chinese daughter would ever act the way Lulu did. No Chinese mother would ever have allowed it to happen. (153)

Part Three: Tigers are capable of great love, but they become too intense about it. They are also territorial and possessive. Solitude is often the price Tigers pay for their position of authority.

Chinese parenting is nothing like dog raising. In fact it’s kind of the opposite. For one thing, dog raising is social. When you meet other dog owners, you have lots to talk about. By contrast, Chinese parenting is incredibly lonely — at least if you’re trying to do it in the West, where you’re on your own. You have to go up against an entire value system — rooted in the Enlightenment, individual autonomy, child development theory, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and there’s no one you can talk to honestly, not even people you like and deeply respect. (160-161)

There’s another huge difference between dog raising and Chinese parenting. Dog raising is easy. It requires patience, love, and possibly an initial investment of training time. By contrast, Chinese parenting is one of the most difficult things I can think of. You have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy. Just the opposite, Chinese parenting — at least i you’re trying to do it in America, where all odds are against you — is a never-ending uphill battle, requiring a 24-7 time commitment, resilience, and guile. You have to be able to swallow pride and change tactics at any moment. And you have to be creative. (161-162)

Chinese parenting in the West is an inherently closet practice. If it comes out that you push your kids against their will, or want them to do better than other kids, or god forbid ban sleepovers, other parents will heap opprobrium on you, and your children will pay the price. As a result, immigrant parents learn to conceal things. They learn to look jovial in public and pat their kids on the back and say things like, “Good try, buddy!” and “Go team spirit!” No one wants to be a pariah. (172)

This might be a good time to raise an important point about Chinese parenting and birth order. Or maybe just birth order. …There are lots of exceptions of course, but this pattern — model first kids, rebellious second — is definitely one I’ve noticed in many families, especially immigrant families. (192)

What my father’s story illustrates is something I suppose I never wanted to think about. When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed. For my own father it hadn’t. He barely spoke to his mother and never thought about her except in anger. By the end of her life, my father’s family was almost dead to him. | I couldn’t lose Lulu. nothing was more important. So I did the most Western thing imaginable: I gave her the choice. I told her that she could quit the violin if she wanted and do what she liked instead, which at the time was to play tennis. (212)

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