Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, a Yale Law Professor, on the ‘Chinese’ parenting method, is a funny and honest look at parenting, specifically her style of parenting. Now i love books and i Love reading and i absolutely LOVE books which are funny, honest and still manage to make you think about the issues of life. In this case, the issue of parenting and parenting methods/styles or principles. It has been soooo very long, ever since i left school, that i had gone back immediately after finishing a book to mark out the parts i like and want to or need to have a think about. This is one such book. (See photo.)
Of course you know, i am Chinese 🙂 and as such the parenting methods which Amy speaks about and employs with her daughters i know and am used to and even identify with some of them. Looking at my photo you might think, “Oh my, is she going to talk about every single one of those points in this post?” Well, i did consider that. i even considered doing a 2 or even 3 part series of posts. But i think not… it would just give too much of the book away. i would like you to read it for yourself if you so feel inclined to.
So on to the book review proper.
First of all, i must say that i do not think that she deserves the bad press which she got for writing this book. She was honest and really put herself and her family and her personal parenting methods out there for all the world to see. And of course, you say, if you put it out there, people will naturally judge. But i believe that most of her critics don’t get her and they don’t understand her sense of humour and they don’t see how much she is reflecting on herself. She never once in the book said that she was in the absolute right. She said that she believed that she was doing what she felt was best for her girls. And being a mummy myself, i believe she was and is telling the truth; i also understand that as a parent that is as good as you can do – do what you feel is best for your child.
When she speak of ‘Chinese’ parenting it has nothing to do with Chinese as a race. It refers to a method of parenting which is really strict and demands the very best from both child and parent alike. The parent in this method is expected to doing every single thing for the betterment of the future of his/her child, regardless of how tough it might get or how much it costs or how the child might hate you for doing it. You, as the parent in this method, know that the future can only be secured through hard work and perseverance, and more hard work. The child is expected to respond in an obedient, respectful and grateful manner for all that his/her parents are doing, regardless of how tough it might get or how boring or how it’s not what the child wants to do. That is what i have gathered from her book.
My parents gave me everything i ever wanted. They are ‘Chinese’ parents in that they demanded absolute respect for them and our elders. But they were also liberal ‘Chinese’ parents or in Amy Chua’s view, they would be ‘Western’ parents. Even though there were issues upon which they were strict and demanded obedience, they were also ‘Western’ in that they allowed me to follow my interests and dreams and i only had to show them that i would and have done my very best and not short-changed myself of any opportunity. i thank my parents for the way i turned out. i am grateful for everything they have done for me, for indeed they have given more than enough.
So i guess i fall into the same category of parenting as my parents. i’m very strict with my little guy about respect and obedience towards parents and elders. My husband is with me on this. But i want him to follow his heart and do what interests him, regardless of whether the world considers that a profession or a future which would provide (in money terms) the best.
Here are 3 of my favourite parts of the book, or at least they are parts where i either agree/disagree or have personal experience in or wish to consider more about (there were so many, it was hard to choose just 3):
In Chapter 2, she writes:
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
In Chapter 10, she brings up another point which i feel is an expansion on the one from Chapter 2:
I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets. First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children would feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave differently.
Now while i don’t agree with her that Chinese parents have higher dreams for their children or that Western parents have lesser dreams (all parents have big dreams for their kids), i do want to highlight the part about knowing how much a child can take and to assume strength in a child. When our friends become first time parents, we (me and hubby) always tell them, “Babies are a lot tougher than they look so don’t worry, they won’t break.” Naturally, this is said in good humour. But really, i do believe that children are very tough and as long as they know that you truly love them and would do whatever it takes to help them in their future, they can take a fair amount of scolding and butt-kicking (figuratively that is or maybe physically if it really came down to a very important point). My take on this is that if you expect a low standard from a child, you will get a low standard. If you expect a high standard, then the child will likely live up to it. Let me give you a very simple example.
When my little guy was about 1.5years and just starting to speak, i was in a nursery with him and another mum. There i was chatting with her and playing with my son at the same time. i turned and said to my boy who had just shown me a toy helicopter, “That is a helicopter. Say helicopter. He. Li. Cop. Ter.” He didn’t at that time and toddled off to play with something else. The mum laughed and said, “Well, won’t you be surprised if he did say helicopter.” i smiled and said, “No i won’t be because i fully expect him to say helicopter. It is you who would be surprised.” He’s now a real chatterbox 🙂
So parents, hold your child to a high standard and expect them to reach up and achieve it. Just you watch, they will, as long as you keep cheering them on. They will get there.
In Chapter 15, she tells of how they took her mother-in-law in to live with them as she recovered from chemo, fighting Leukemia – it’s “the Chinese way” to look after your elders. Her mother-in-law passed soon after that and she
made demanded her daughters put their best into writing and reading a short speech about their grandmother. They touched on how they spent happy times together and how their grandmother always wanted “full happiness”. Amy Chua reflects on happiness:
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 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 a trace of bitterness or resentment.
I’m really not 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.
i found this point to be really interesting and worth some more thought. While i have no empirical evidence whether or not this is true, what i do know for sure is i am raised the Chinese way and my husband was raised the Chinese way (his parents are more traditional and even stricter than mine) and we are both happy and grateful to our parents, even though when we were going through all that discipline, it was no fun at all.
i also think that happiness is what you make of your life. If you spend your days chasing utopia, then you will be unhappy because the world isn’t a utopia and its people are not perfect. (Teach your children that early on in life) However, if you are instilled from an early age with “inner confidence that no one can ever take away” (Chapter 11), then you are ready to face life and will make fantastic lemonade from the lemons life throws at you.
Chapter 22 is where i think she (Amy Chua) begins a slow re-evaluation of her parenting methods:
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 think good-luck earlobes.”
To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the question “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 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.
I don’t doubt that everything which she does, she does for her daughters and their future. But i also do not agree that allowing children to follow their hearts is such a bad thing. i admire what Amy Chua has done for her daughters, who are both master musicians and clever and confident and happy. When I read about how she trains and trains them and how she studies up on music herself just to help them and how she ferries them from master teacher to master teacher, i am exhausted. All that on top of being a full-time professor and author.
i say to myself i would have given up long ago. But that doesn’t make me a bad parent or a lazy parent. i chose not to over-achieve on behalf of my child. i choose to allow my child to follow his heart. But God knows that if i find my child to be talented/gifted or simply very interested to pursue something, i will do my very best to help him, i will help him train, i will read up, i will drive to wherever he needs to go to learn from the best. However, i will not choose what that talent/gift/interest is on behalf of my child. i want him to show me what truly makes his heart beat.
In closing, i must say that i have most definitely enjoyed reading this memoir and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn a little about ‘Chinese’ parenting. Though i do warn you (if you are not raise ‘Chinese’), that not all Chinese (ethically or otherwise) parents are the same. Oh and also read it with an open mind and enjoy her quirky sense of humour. 😉
Amy Chua has been very brave in putting herself and her thoughts and doubts out here for us to read and scrutinise. Amy Chua has taken us along for a journey, a journey where she learnt and grew and changed. In the last chapter, she writes:
“I’ve decided to favor a hybrid approach,” I said, “The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path,” I added gallantly.
i favour a hybrid approach too. Though i would not take it as far as she did. We’ll take a hard-line on issues such as respect and care for elders, politeness, obedience to parents, manners and safety. We’ll give him the choice when it comes to dreams and careers and will be cheering him on in whatever he chooses to do. Oh, and no calling him names (another very Chinese thing to do) when his school grades are not top marks (which, by the way, they are, at the moment – *proud*) as long as he has done his best.
Have you read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? If so, let me know what you think. If not, would you be interested to read it after my review of it?
PS: i also touch a little on discipline in this post.