My (Long Overdue) Review of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

Posted on March 11, 2013

One of the most popular blog posts I have ever written was my response to Amy Chua’s essay in the Wall Street Journal, which was a teaser for her upcoming book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  You can read my post yourself, but I shared that in my personal experience as a product of the “Tiger Mother” methodology, there are some dire consequences that go unnoticed until children grow into adulthood.  While I was pretty even-handed in my approach (at least in my own eyes, which probably means very little), I do admit that I have always felt a little uncomfortable with my piece because I had written it prior to reading Ms. Chua’s book.  My response was based solely on the excerpt that was printed in the WSJ.  And given that the excerpt was designed to drum up interest in her soon-to-be-released book, that’s not really fair.  So I do apologize, and feel badly for that.

But after two years, I have finally gotten around to finishing her book and would like to rectify my previous error by posting some additional thoughts, this time based on a fuller reading of her memoir.  And here’s what I think now:

I stand by everything that I said earlier.

The methodology of parenting that she describes in the book produces highly skilled and effective children, but does not take into account the other ways in which children need to develop: emotionally, spiritually, holistically.  You can really mess up a kid if you raise them like this.  I could tell that even from the reading of the WSJ article, and it was quite clear in the book as well.  I stand by every word of my previous commentary.

Now, many people said to me that Ms. Chua experienced a revelation of sorts by the end of the book, that this style of parenting was not quite fitted to all personality types and cultures.  And it’s true, she does begin to experience some kind of nascent epiphany in the last chapters, after her younger daughter begins to really rebel against her upbringing.  But I would hardly call it a turnaround.  She spends 90% of the book strongly lauding this style of parenting, with examples from China and world history, and ends only with what I would call a begrudging acceptance that that this methodology may not be foolproof.  I mean, look at the title of the book itself, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” – unless she’s being ironic, I would say that she still puts a good deal of stock into this idea.  By the end of the book, she seemed to be on the brink of a major insight, but not yet fully aware of it.

In fact, it seemed as if the book was rushed, at least chronologically.  Pivotal shifts are/were going on in her relationship with her daughters at that very time, and rather than see what insights these shifts would eventually yield, or else spend a few years processing her decisions and their consequences, she went and published a book.  So there is no clear resolution by the end, as if she had learned a clear lesson one way or the other.  In my mind, the book ends rather ambivalently, largely because it was written so close to the events themselves.  Her sentiments in the the last chapters of the book reminds me of when I counsel people who have just broken up with their significant other: “I’m totally okay with it really! …but I really hate him right now.  He never paid attention to me, and his habits annoyed me, and I couldn’t stand his mother…”  A lot of questions, justifications, and vacillations, but precious little clarity or closure.

But I would add something to what I had written before, an observation that I had made not just in the reading of this book, but in observing parents at large.  In her book, she constantly makes references to the Chinese style of parenting, which she terms “Tiger Mother”.  In this style of parenting, you push your kids hard to develop skills, they experience success, which in turn positively reinforces their skills and abilities, and uplifts the child.  She sees it as a virtuous circle, where through a mothers’ painful and pain-inducing initial investment, her children are able to become everything that they possibly can be.  I’ll admit that I find this idea quite compelling, and am tempted to imitate this parenting style.

Until I make a simple realization: this is not China.

I don’t say this in a racist way, like what you would read on the comments boards of Yahoo: “If you want to raise your children like that, go back to China!”  I mean that part of the reason that the Tiger Style of parenting flourishes in China is because China has a very different culture than the United States.  There are deeply engrained Confucian values in China: respect for parents, elders, and teachers.  A much heavier emphasis on pride, family, and shame.  Less emphasis on the individual, more on family and community.  And a schooling system that is almost completely centered around test scores.  And as you might imagine, that methodology of parenting does quite well in that cultural millieu, because it is uniquely fitted to the culture that surrounds it.

But the United States could not be any more culturally different China.   All the hallmarks of Chinese culture that I mentioned in the previous paragraph?  I think you could reverse them and safely describe what it means to be an American: diminished respect for elders, emphasis on self fulfillment and the individual, and a fractured schooling system that doesn’t know what it is supposed to be doing, much less how to gauge that children are doing well.  And when you take these differences into account, I think it’s quite clear that the Tiger Style isn’t going to end up well, because the surrounding culture simply does not fit.  No longer are you working with a methodology that has some fitting contours with the rest of society, but instead, stands out like a Korean family in NE DC (hahaha).  Other parents will not understand, and will look on your refusal to let your children go pee as a form of abuse, which it very well might be.  Teachers will not understand.  Children will not understand.  And neither will the media.  And I thought it strange that she was somehow surprised by the backlash to her book, as if she didn’t understand why it was SO controversial.

And this brings me to my point – yes, sarcastic reader, I have one.  It seems so clear to me that you cannot take what is a uniquely Chinese mentality of parenting (and life in general) and expect it to fit painlessly into the American context.  I think the reason that Ms. Chua saw this as okay is that her approach to parenting seems to be largely ideological.  By her own admission in the book, she sees her self as the bookish sort, not naturally clever, but an extremely hard worker that does her research and takes notes.  As the product of years of higher education and law school, her approach to life is probably academic and ideological.  And from this frame of reference, ideas can be transferred into different context with no problem.  Oh, the Chinese style of parenting has such and such benefits?  Then let’s just implement them here in the United States, with children who are second generation, half-Chinese and half-Caucasian!  That should work flawlessly!  And on paper, this works.  Lawyers do this all the time, taking the legal precedent from one case and applying it to others, no problem.

But it doesn’t take a Ph.D for someone to realize that there are going to be severe problems with this, that you can’t take a good idea from one culture and simply expect it to fit in another, in some kind of paradigmatic palette swap.  Culture, parenting, and children are not variables of an equation that can be swapped in and out with one another, and anyone with practical common sense would realize this.  The problem is this: parents don’t have common sense.

I have written about this before, how parents are becoming more and more ideological and dogmatic in their approach to child-rearing.  We make decisions about how to raise our children based not on the realities of our situation, but largely on ideological convictions – the virtues of breastfeeding, cloth diapering, free range children, tiger mothering, and the like. We argue back and forth for one methodology or the other, using the critical thinking skills that schools and higher academia have taught us.  This is what parenting is like for people who are product of over two decades of schooling – a debate of ideologies.

But in this debate, we often lose sight of the common sense and practical realities of our individual situation.  We hail breastfeeding, but do not acknowledge that some women cannot biologically produce enough milk for their babies.  We laud tiger mothering, not taking into account that Americans don’t even know what the term “tiger” is in reference to.  We talk about letting our children wander the streets more to promote creativity, not realizing that for kids in the inner city, the last thing they need is to wander the streets unsupervised.  In a philosophical sense, we are still so very Platonic, pursuing invisible ideals, pure beliefs that are always right no matter, the context or situation.

Now, I’m not a big believer in post-modernity, nor am I sure what that term even means most of the time.  But I do agree with the post-modern tenet that many things in life are completely relative, more things than we would like to admit.  Tiger mothering is the best form of parenting! …in the right culture, and to the right children.  Homeschooling is awesome!… to the right family, with right financial situation.  The way we tell the difference is not through ideological debate, but through a keen awareness of ourselves, our children, and our context.  The problem is that for so many young parents, our awareness of self and others and situation is severely stunted.  We are masters of debate, dogma, and critical thinking, and absolute morons when it comes to practical reality.  We are intellectually brilliant, but lack common sense, the common sense that should tell us that not all forms of parenting will be appropriate for all families.

So I don’t really see Ms. Chua’s book as unique in any real way, but just another salvo in the dogmatic parenting wars which rage in books and blogs.  And until parents learn to blend ideology with practicality in more equal measure, this salvo will hardly be the last.

Posted in: Opinion