Thursday, February 24, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I recently read this book by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American woman who teaches law at Yale University. The book is a memoir about the parenting methods she has used in raising her two daughters Lulu and Sophia, now approximately 15 and 18 years old.

Chua was raised as a first-generation American by highly successful Chinese parents who expected great things of her and her 3 sisters. Chua "defied" her father by applying to and attending Harvard University instead of going to Berkeley, the school he had chosen for her, at which he is a highly-regarded professor of electrical engineering.

Chua met and married Jed Rubenfeld, an author who has written several books and is also currently a professor at Yale Law. When Chua and Rubenfeld had their children, they decided to parent the girls the "Chinese way" by Chua and raise them to be Jewish by Rubenfeld.

The book tackles the topic of strict "Chinese" parenting versus relaxed "Western" parenting. Chua demanded that her children achieve straight A's (an A- was unacceptable), play either classical violin or classical piano, and generally achieve higher success than other children their age. She did not allow her daughters to attend sleepovers, join any "unnecessary" extracurriculars that might have distracted them from their music or schoolwork, or to pursue other hobbies for the same reason. She insisted they practice their music at least 3 hours a day (even on holidays abroad) and to study just as hard for school.

Here is a list of things Sophia and Lulu were NOT allowed to do (quoted directly from the book):

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being 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 No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.

Chua shares many anecdotes in which she shouts at her daughters and pushes them so hard they are driven to tears. She demands perfect work from them and pronounces anything she considers less than perfect to be worthless. In one story she angrily refuses to accept homemade birthday cards from her daughters because they "look as though they were hastily made in 30 seconds and could be way better if more of an effort had been made". (Paraphrased by me.)

Though it is clear that Chua may have been overly harsh with her daughters, they have both become highly successful. Sophia made her piano debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. Lulu has similarly stunned international audiences with her mastery of the violin. On top of that, both girls have maintained straight A's in every class at school every year.

As the story progresses, Chua describes how her classic first-born Sophia seemed to thrive under her strict method of parenting. Lulu, however, ended up rebelling and angrily fighting her mother. We discover that she now no longer pursues the violin to the same degree and instead has turned her focus to other things, like tennis.

Towards the end of the book, Chua seems to gradually change her mind about "Chinese" parenting as Lulu stubbornly resists her demands and all hell breaks loose within the family. Chua finally comes to the conclusion that each child is different and requires a custom approach in order to reach the best of their ability. As she reaches this realization her relationship with Lulu does a 180 and the dynamic within the family dramatically improves.

Reading the book, I surprisingly felt conflicted in how I felt about Chua. I fully expected to hate her for being so "mean" to her kids. Plenty of the situations Chua shared made me uncomfortable and even angry; I found myself mentally yelling at her for some of the choices she made, and I even felt personally affronted at times. Ultimately though, oddly enough, I began to realize that I might just admire Chua after all.

Here's why. I have always felt that a gentle approach is crucial in raising a confident, secure child. I strongly disagree with those who spank their children and I have shameful childhood memories of being treated badly by various people of authority in my life, ie: teachers or church leaders. (Don't worry Mom and Dad, I'm not talking about you.) My plan has always been to treat my children with respect and to allow them to explore their own interests on their own terms. I've always felt that it's impossible for a person to tap into any talent or creativity they have unless that person is deeply self-motivated.

As I thought harder about the book, however, I began to reflect upon my own life. From the time I was a very little girl I was passionate about ballet. I begged my mother to let me take lessons when I was 5 years old. I started lessons just before I turned 6, and I stayed in lessons for several years. As I got a bit older, I began to lose some interest in ballet. It wasn't "cool" at the time the way it seems to be now. I had classmates and friends who made fun of me for liking ballet. I began to feel bored by it and resentful that it took up a lot of my time. I fantasized about not having to do anything or go anywhere on the nights I had class. I expressed this to my mom and at first she was hesitant about letting me quit. She insisted, "You'll regret it when you're older." I told her I didn't care, that it was my life, that I preferred to quit. Eventually I wore her down and she let me stop going.

Many years went by and I tried a variety of other things: gymnastics, Irish dance, tennis, flute, clarinet and basketball. I quickly lost interest in each of those things as I didn't have any real passion for them. During all of those years, I felt a nagging ache of regret for giving up ballet. It was definitely a pain to have to take classes, or to have to be disciplined about it, but I began to suspect that it just may have been worth it had I stuck with it.

Eventually I started taking ballet again, but by this time it was too late to really be invested in it. I was too old to do anything real with dance and though I enjoyed being in that world again, realistically I knew it was just something to do. At this point I felt deep regret at not sticking with ballet. I even felt annoyed that my parents weren't tougher with me even though I was the one begging to quit at the time.

My parents were great to me when I was young; they absolutely encouraged me to pursue my dreams and they made me feel that I could accomplish anything I wanted to. The problem was, they didn't get really tough with me. They didn't push me to see the importance of sticking with something that could pay off later in life. They were too easy on me, and because of that I ended up quitting something I could have been successful at! While reading Chua's memoir I began to realize that maybe I needed someone to force me into something I didn't care much about at the time. I needed strict discipline and someone to call me on my laziness.

As a result, I think I've changed my mind (somewhat) about parenting. Obviously each child needs a custom approach according to their unique personality, but honestly? Kids don't know what's important in life when they're 10 years old. Kids don't understand that persisting with ballet, violin, tennis, whatever, can open doors later on and shape them into incredibly accomplished people. Sometimes kids need to be pushed, and pushed hard!

I don't want to be harsh with my children, but I want them to come to a full realization of their potential. Unfortunately this means being relentless with them at times. Life isn't easy, and being accomplished at something doesn't just happen on its own. This is an opinion Chua maintains throughout her entire book: being forceful with your children and pushing them hard shows them you strongly believe in their capabilities. Not accepting anything less than their best communicates that you believe your child is brilliant. It says, "I know you are incredibly smart. I believe you are capable of being highly successful. I don't want you to get used to producing less than what you are potentially capable of producing." It takes a lot of parental pressure to get your child to keep going when boredom strikes and that child has no way of fully grasping what life will be like 10 years down the road.

I don't completely buy the tough love parenting style however, and evidently, neither does Chua by the end of her journey. Unfortunately she has received a lot of criticism from "Western" parents who have accused her of being an awful mother. What these critics fail to see is that Chua wrote her memoir (yes, MEMOIR, not "how-to manual") to communicate that being demanding of her children was crucial to their success, while at the same time listening to them and supporting them in other ways is equally important. I believe Chua does regret some things she's put her daughters through, but she also stands by the value of her "Chinese" approach. I think I agree with her.

I hope Chua's critics look deeper into the book and read into the subtle wistfulness she reveals because she took the wrong approach with Lulu. In the end it is apparent that she still values strictness and placing high standards on children, but that flexibility is also important.

As well as being thought-provoking, the book is sharp, witty and pleasantly full of humour. Chua manages to poke fun at herself and be unapologetic about her choices at the same time. As much of a task-master as she is in the stories, she is actually pretty hilarious. I highly recommend this book!


Sonya 5:28 PM  

I read a news article about Amy Chua a couple of months ago and was stunned by how she raised her girls. I really can't agree with her approach at all, even though her intentions were good. Getting physical with a child is crossing a line.

I would be interested to hear her daughters' perspective on the whole thing.

I think you can be strict with kids but also allow them freedom to discover who they are, what they enjoy and what they want from life. It's important to find that fine line.

Annie 6:30 PM  

Actually, her daughter Sophia wrote a letter to the New York Post in response to the criticism. You can read it here:

I don't think getting physical with a child is acceptable either - I would NEVER spank my child. I do admire the principle of challenging your children to put great effort into what they do though. That is the point I am making in my post.

I don't think forcing kids to play a specific instrument or rejecting a birthday card is a good idea, for example - but I do think kids should choose something to do that they enjoy, and that parents should challenge their child to do their best in that particular activity. A combination of strictness and flexibility.

I still recommend the book, because if nothing else, it is interesting and obviously thought-provoking.

Annie 6:39 PM  

This link is the link to the first page of the article -

The one I posted above takes you to the second page.

Anonymous 9:02 AM  

Great post Annie! I'm interested in reading this book too! Here are some of my thoughts on the discipline thing....
I have read a ton of different opinions on disciplining and I think the key is like you said, each child is different. Unfortunately, my second little guy does not care about the time out technique at all, whereas my oldest child thinks it's the worst punishment in the world! I'm not saying that I've spanked out of anger or when I'm at my wits end even, but when he has been warned and is still refusing to obey and what he is doing is going to harm him physically or even mentally down the road (because he never learns to listen!), I will give him a tap. Funny thing is, he doesn't even really cry, more like wimper, and he immediately stops what I had been trying to distract him from (or threaten him from!) for the past 1/2hr! And that has been the ONLY thing that has worked with Josiah, he has calmed down with his fits quite a bit and listens the first time I ask him now more often then not.
I need to remember that the little guys are all about challenging authority as they're becoming more independent (which is why 2's can be terrible!) and if I don't step up as his mother, he will run my life. Kinda like how you put that a 10year has no idea what he wants, we are also not doing them any favours by being soft because how they learn to react to authority starts very early on and will carry on throughout their life.
Tough parenting is hard and I'll admit, I've been super crappy at it because I thought I would ruin our relationship, or he wasn't really doing anything that bad, so I tried every other option, until I decided more recently, mostly because Joey is a challenge (whereas Samuel was pretty easy to distract from wrong), that if I really love him and want him to succeed, I need to parent him the way he needs it - he's a tough guy and needs an even tougher Mommy! Prayer is the most important thing as God will direct us to parent His way (which is the BEST way!) and you will always feel peace doing the right thing, even if it's different then what the books or friends tell you!
Sylvan is sooo blessed to have a mommy like you who is careful to do the right thing and raise him the right way!

Annie 9:41 AM  

Thanks Sarah, I love your input! What you say about disciplining your two boys differently makes total sense. The "tap" thing rather than the spank, to get his attention, seems like a good thing if it works for Joey. Like you say, I guess it takes a bit of figuring out your kids' different styles/personalities before finding out what works, especially as that doesn't work as well for Samuel. I sort of fear what Sylvan is going to turn out like because even though he's only 2.5 months old he is EXTREMELY opinionated and particular!!

Shel 2:00 PM  

wow, what an interesting post about a seemingly interesting book! I have a chinese friend and her mother was so harsh on her, that she ended up rebelling, getting kicked out of private school and also University. I would love to read this book to gain a better understanding of chinese culture x

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Low Flying Angel 11:38 AM  

Hi :)

I liked the book but do not agree with her philosophy

I'm not a parent but I think raising a child who is kind to others is a child who is successful

Anonymous 1:04 AM  

Fine, lets all teach our children about something that they will necessarily use: relationships. We should all learn to excel at that no matter what. Everything else: sports, academics, jobs... is just icing on the cake, not the point of life. Drive your children to be good at relating, empathizing, making good choices and supporting others. Then, whether or not they can play the piano, they will have no regrets.
I cannot relate to the All-A's point of view - school is stupid and useless, and the smarter you are, the more true that is. The real parent would take the excellent child out of school and educate them by going to places where real learning was possible. But, it is so much easier to be angry and demanding, that no one will bother.
Another factor is family-systems: two people in a family cannot fill the same niche. Therefore, it is an absolute that no two children will be able to similarly excel in the same areas - it is like asking two cars to fit in the same parking spot - utterly impossible. If you do not already understand this, you are stupid, and have no business having children. Find another hobby for your overdriven ego to engage in.