Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I will confess that I picked up this book with preconceived notions and the knowledge that it would infuriate me.  I fully expected to spend the entire book arguing with the author because her parenting strategy is very different from mine.  On the first page, Chua writes, "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones."  And I planned to beg to differ.

First, Chua notes that a "Chinese mother" need not necessarily be Chinese or a mother: "I recently met a supersuccessful white guy from South Dakota...and after comparing notes we decided that his working-class father had definitely been a Chinese mother....Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers."  She also posits that Western parents are a very diverse group and that the term isn't to refer to every parent of non-Chinese descent but just as a generalization. (4)

Here are some of the things that Chua attributes to her ability to raise "stereotypically successful kids".  Here children were never allowed to "attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than piano or violin, not play the piano or violin" (3-4).  Despite the fact that some might compare the "typical American sports parent" and their sometimes blind pursuit of their child's athletic success with Chinese parents, Chua says they are completely different:
Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold. (5)

To which I say, seriously?? We like to think that we put schoolwork first, and my first instinct is always to side with the teacher/coach.  As far as the others, though, that's not me.  I have one son who's very successful academically and one who's very successful in athletics.  My youngest is seven, and school comes easily to him as well.  On Chua's "never" list, however, we hit every single mark.  My kids have had sleepovers and playdates; my oldest is heavily involved in his high school's drama and chorus clubs, they are huge fans of TV/video games, and they choose their own activities.  One of my children is, unfortunately, well acquainted with the lower ranges of the grading scale. 

Now, I'm not happy about that last item, and I'm not thrilled about the TV/video game thing, either, but I have a hard time seeing that as the end of the world.  As far as the grades, my standpoint has always been a) I know he's a smart kid, but he's disorganized.  His low grades typically come from missing assignments rather than poor test grades; b) once you are a certain age, I really can't hold your hand and make you do your work; c) it's virtually impossible to find out exactly what assignments my high school children have; d) when/(if!) you go to college, I won't be there to help you so you'd better figure out how to get your work done now. 

Unfortunately, Chua pops some holes in my balloon.  In response to a friend's question of rather she pushes her daughters for them or for herself, she responds,
...I'm pretty sure 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 that they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can't.

To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the question...should be asked of Western parents.  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 in the 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)

Ouch.  I see so much of myself in that. 

Make no mistake: her children did put in grueling hours.  Her oldest daughter knew her alphabet at 18 months and excelled in math.  "While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way--with rods, beads, and cones--I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way." (7)  At three, Sophia began taking piano lessons using the Suzuki method and began excelling.  As the parent was required to be at the lesson, Chua was there each time and then practiced with her daughter ninety minutes a day...unless it was a lesson day, when they practiced twice that long.
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.  This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.  But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.  Once the child starts to excel at something--whether it's math, piano, pitching, or ballet--he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. (29)

Chua's participation is something I noted, too.  She expected more of herself than of her children.  This is a big difference from how I was with my older boys.  She was there at the lesson; I dropped one off at soccer practice, brought the other to practice, studied til practice was over, and then picked them up.  She was there as her older daughter practiced piano and, later, as her younger daughter practiced violin; I told my kids to go practice, and if they didn't, it was on them.  In addition to her career as a Yale law professor and author, she put in a full day's work attending lessons and being right there as her daughters practiced.  And getting them to practice wasn't always an easy task.  She admits that a lot of screaming and threatening went on in their house ("If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!" "Oh, my God, you're just getting worse and worse.")

She admits,
In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme.  On the other hand, they were highly effective.  Sophia and I were a great mother-daughter fit.  I had the conviction and the tunnel vision drive.  Sophia had the maturity, patience, and empathy I should have had, but didn't.  She accepted my premise that I knew and wanted what was best for her--and she cut me a break when I was bad-tempered and said hurtful things.  (28)

In fact, Sophia later remarks in the book, "Everyone's going to think I was SUBJECTED  to Chinese parenting, but I wasn't.  I went along with it, by my choice (226).  It worked for Sophia, both in the sense that it led to success and that it was a good fit for her.  Lulu, on the other hand, didn't thrive in the system.  Even as a little girl she rebelled against her mother's authoritarian regime.  While Sophia bought into the parental authority, Chua had to bribe, cajole, and threaten her younger daughter on a regular basis.  She writes of telling her that she was a terrible daughter and comparing the two girls to each other.  While that makes me blanch, her point of view is:
Western parents worry a lot about their child's self-esteem.  But, as a parent, one of the worse 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. (62)

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 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)

"As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks--drawing a squiggle or waving a stick--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 knowing how much they can take." (8) 

While I don't necessarily agree with the way that she went about it, I can see a lot of truth in all of these statements.  How many times do you hear an adult say that they'd stuck with piano lessons? Is it really a matter of honoring your child's choice or is it because you're tired of the fight?  That's why we let (made) N quit trombone; he wouldn't practice, I wouldn't lie for him to tell the teacher he did, he got in trouble for not practicing, repeat circle.  And probably what it would have taken is for me to sit in there with him and insist that he practiced. 

I can see a lot of truth in this, too, as it relates to my running.  I say all of the time that if I quit when it started feeling bad I'd never run past the end of my block.  Most of the time, running is work.  Most of the time, I'm thinking hard about how much longer I "have" to run.  Especially on my early morning training runs, we aren't talking about pretty scenery or enjoyable weather (not when it's 20 degrees out with an 8 degree wind chill!).  But occasionally, it's wonderful, and when I ran my half marathon, I was able to meet my highest goal for myself.  That was an amazing feeling.

On the other hand, my motivation to run is internal.  If anyone tried to make me run, it wouldn't go well (just ask my brother).  And that's just the situation Chua ran into with Lulu.  While Sophia might have protested and fought the system at times, she bought into it.  Lulu did not.  As a parent, once your children get to a certain age and physical state, the only way we can "make" them do something is when they honor our authority.  There is no way for me to physically force my 6'3", 215 pound, linebacker-looking son to clean his room if he doesn't want to; I can tell him, bribe him, or threaten him with some kind of punishment, but I can't make him do it.  What do you do, though, when those methods don't work anymore? That's the situation Chua reached with Lulu, and the resolution is interesting, funny, and somewhat satisfying to someone who doesn't subscribe to Chua's methods.

There are so many great quotes in this book and so much more to it than what I wrote here.  It really made me think about the decisions I've made as a parent, and while I don't agree with everything she wrote (by a long shot), it's good to examine what you do and why you do it.  I think that there's a lot that any parent could take away from reading this book.    It's a very quick read...I started it the first evening of N's volleyball tournament and finished it the next afternoon.  If you have read it or read it, come back and let me know what you thought.


  1. I have not had time to read all of this little guy is crying. But can you please move here to be in my book club. You're the kind of gal I'd like to discuss a book with! Makes me want to read! I think books are so good at making us think about our own lives. Especially the books that stick with us for awhile. This sounds like one that I might enjoy...if anything, just to get me being more conscious about my parenting.

  2. You are awesome at culling the teachable moments out of this book.

    I'm not sure if I could get past my judgmental opinions of this woman. Even though she has great points, in my opinion, I think she's trying to justify some pretty ghastly behavior.

    One of the biggest reasons that Chinese people give for committing suicide, is failure, a lack of success. Her theories makes me see why.

    Having said that, I didn't do the Suzuki method of violin with my girls because it required my participation. Perhaps I did fall down on the job. Every child I know who was really successful at violin, both in prowess and in diligent practice, all studied through the Suzuki method. It just goes to show parental involvement makes all the difference in the world.

    I'm conflicted. I tend to be really rash with my judgement calls and I won't lie. I hated this woman's mothering skills the first time I read about this book, but your words have given me reason to look at it another way. Thank you. I'm going to reread this, especially your points. I'll let you know what I think.

  3. It's funny, bc at my book club the other moms had a MUCH more critical view of her than I did. And here's one place where I think the difference comes from: I AM very much the kind of Western mom she criticizes, and I felt very convicted by this book. My friends, on the other hand, are all stay-at-home moms who really approach motherhood as a profession (in that they put time into developing their skills as mothers). They AREN'T, by and large, the kind of people she's talking about. 

    And another thing that trips me up with this book is the idea of being "the best". How much is it worth to be the best? Is it worth your childhood? What does it bring to your life? In the end, would a child be content to put all that pressure and effort into being the best, or would he/she think the end result was worth it? And that doesn't even get into the idea of what if you aren't the best. 

    I think a lot about this with running. And, to be clear, I'll never be any world class runner...I'm unlikely to even place in my age group unless donuts are involved...but the training I do is a lot for ME. And there are definitely times when I wonder if it's worth hurting, missing out on sleep, missing out on some (not much) stuff with my kids. What's the point? ...and then I keep going. Of course, the difference is that it's my motivation for myself, it's my choice whether to run or stop, to get up or sleep in, and her girls didn't have much of a choice in the matter for a long time. 

    Such an interesting and loaded topic.

  4. Hey Kate. We have this thing in Canada called Tim Horton's sports. It's sports (sponsored by the largest coffee/donut chain in Canada) for little kids that have no competition, no score keeping, and no playoffs. Everybody wins and gets a most valuable player award at the end of the year. Most "progressive" families put their kids into this league rather than the normal competitive leagues so that their children will not get hurt.

    We hired two such little league graduates as interns last year. We thought it was interesting to find two from different parts of the city. We hired 4 interns in all.

    Although they (donut little leaguers) came well-recommended, and had similar placements in high-school over the last summers, they were unable to cope with having customers upset with our company and product, and could not conclude service calls. When we put them into the marketing department, they were unable to filter out unnecessary information or make a decision about timing, rather preferring to leave everything in and work extra hours because they couldn't make a decision. Finally we gave them a chance in the engineering group with testing beta user interface designs. Again, they admirably were able to view the "feelings" of everyone involved but could not make a decision that might make someone angry. They were consistently looking for consensus. Unable to accept criticism, and very weak at thinking on their own (especially under stress).

    Although I don't like the comparison between the two cultures, because the Chinese culture is at a different stage socially and economically than the American - North America could use a lot more independence and risk taking in the way we raise our kids.

    I had a Polish mother, who is like a Jewish mother, who is like a Chinese mother in your book. The role is one of an immigrant wanting their progeny to succeed.

    Once you arrive at the destination your Chinese mother pointed you at, you can kick your heels up and wonder why your kids struggle to get a part-time job at MacDonalds!

    On another point - I was a running back for my High School football team (15 years old). We came home from shopping once and I didn't want to help my Mom carry out the groceries. A broom magically appeared and popped me in the a$$! After my attitude adjustment, I helped get the groceries in.

    I though, have never hit a child, and I'm 45. I talk them to death and then yell when I get angry. My wife is the boxer in the family. When they see her pressure cooker heating up ... they run to the four corners of the Earth!

  5. Andrew,

    Thanks for commenting! Very interesting...I've never had a chance to see that play out in a work situation. It makes sense, though.  While "everybody plays, everybody wins" is a great way to introduce kids to things, it sure isn't real-world reality in most situations. 

    In the book, one of the things the author mentions is the difference between immigrant parents and the born-in-America generations...much as you described. 

    And like you, I'm not a spanker. I'm not bc I felt like I couldn't keep on the right side of that discipline/abuse line. So instead I yell and ground and restrict privileges. 

  6. Just found your blog via the manliest runner in blogland. Like Amanda, I wish you were in my book club. I think there's a balance in styles Chinese vs Western. I also think parental involvement and consistency are bigger roles than "pushing & threatening" or the "find you passion and I'll support you" approaches. Ultimately parents are influential, the task is how we focus those energies.

  7. I love your take on this and I am fascinated by the different perspective. I must say that I am not offended by this author (and I was a stay at home mom when my kids were young). Being a child psychologist, I'm fascinated by anything that has to do with parenting and child development...I totally want to read this!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a great review!