“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua has received great deal of attention both from media and from everyday moms in just a short time since its publication. Readers have expressed everything from admiration to fascination to outrage over this autobiographical expose of a Chinese-American mother employing what she considers “Chinese parenting” in raising her two American daughters. Several of my readers have asked me when I would review it, so I finally gave in and bought it from Amazon. I expected to hate this book… but I didn’t. Here’s why.
There is plenty in Chua’s tale that will upset and anger most American parents, particularly those (like me) oriented towards constructivist education and attachment parenting. But what I found to respect about Chua’s approach is her complete commitment and belief that what she was doing was 100% in her children’s best interests. Whatever one may choose to accuse Chua of (and some extreme views have been expressed in this regard), no one can accuse of her not being a conscious, deliberate parent.
In this vein, I found myself aligning with Chua in her approach, even while simultaneously in fundamental disagreement over many of her choices. Those who practice attachment parenting and positive discipline or advocate developmental education are often seen as extreme or kooky by what we consider “mainstream” parents. Our general approach is seen as lazy or irresponsible, our method of discipline is seen as ineffective, our views on education are seen as too “free” or unstructured.
Those who practice these methods don’t see them this way at all of course and often see ourselves as taking a “harder” path – then (like Chua) accused of acting superior about our choices. I have always felt that those who follow a non-mainstream method realistically have to allow themselves (at least a little bit) to believe their way is the “right way” and allow themselves to feel good about that in order to face down the challenges of their choices. Chua very much expresses these sorts of thoughts and feelings as she invites you into her reasoning and theory to explain her choices, whether you agree with them or not. Ironically, attachment parenting advocates have been among the harshest critics of her book.
Apart from just an exploration of general parenting approaches, Chua shines a light specifically on child musicians. This was a particularly relevant subject for me as my daughter recently took up the flute just after her 8th birthday. Unlike Chua’s, my daughter chose her own instrument based upon her own instinct and interest and seems to be onto something, showing some initial inherent talent.
Like Chua, I expected her to take her choice seriously from the beginning, taking formal weekly lessons and practicing daily from 15 minutes to an hour (occasionally longer). I expect her to show her instrument respect by brushing her teeth before practice, and cleaning it after each use. While her instruction has not been through the Suzuki method of Chua’s piano- and violin-playing daughters, I do sit in on her lessons because she is young and because I have a moderate musical education of my own that can supplement her lessons at home. Like Chua, I usually sit with her and coach her during practices, expecting her to work hard, show improvement and overcome frustration and challenges.
Chua’s daughters, with her as a taskmaster, supplemented by vast amounts of money on lessons, arguably became prodigies on their instruments. I have no such aspirations for my daughter, nor would I employ the methods of Chua to push her in that direction. However, I absolutely recognize that innate talent and motivation coupled with intense practice does indeed produce results. Malcolm Gladwell, in his fascinating book Outliers, has a whole chapter devoted to the reality that practice is the difference between good and great, and that the amount of practice time required to be among the best at any masterable skill, including music, is a staggering 10,000 hours. If the goal is to produce a musical prodigy, Chua’s method is unquestionably one way to do it.
Because music is an inherently competitive field, I see the value in making sure that children understand that practice is the golden ticket. It does children no service to practice a few times a week for a short duration and be taken by surprise when they don’t measure up to other children when it comes time to compete for first chair on their instrument. I also agree with Chua that children (and adults for that matter), will often take the path of least resistance when given the chance and that after an initial interest in something there is often a challenging stage that is worth pushing past for the real rewards. Chua claims that Western parents often let their children give up and move on to something else at this point and that Chinese parents require their children to persist and conquer. I don’t dispute this claim as a general principle and hope to overcome it, but like many do personally reject her particular approach to a solution.
I think the basic lesson of Chua’s book is that there is no “right way” to parent, even within a single family. Chua’s methods “worked” with her first daughter ultimately because it the daughter “agreed” to it. The core of Chua’s tale is what happens when that doesn’t occur. A fundamental challenge of parenting is for the parent to discover who they are as a person and as a parent as they grow in those roles throughout that period of their life, while simultaneously trying to guide a child. The true challenge is doing this while also allowing a child to discover and become who they are. At the times when the journeys come together, there a glorious moments, and Chua has many to claim that very few parents experience. But not all the times of collision have an easy resolution. Chua learned this the hard way and does a lovely job telling the story, sometimes nearly satirizing her own life to illustrate her experience in an accessible way.
I recommend this book for any parent willing to turn a mirror on him or herself in the way Chua has done. There is much more to this book than the two issues I’ve explored above. Chua will lead you down the path to examine the choices we make as parents, the idea of doing for our children vs. for ourselves, and most difficult of all, what we sacrifice now in the interest of the future and the many implications and outcomes those choices can create.