The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Did anyone read this article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” by Amy Chua, back when it was circulating around in the social networks six months ago? Please tell me you were just as astonished by it as I was. When my book group recommended we read Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I was all for it. I knew there had to be more to the story than just that article, which is an excerpt from her book. If you haven’t read the article, you might want to give it a quick once-over before you read my review. If I were a tiger mother, I’d quiz you on it when you’re done.

There is a generalization that Asian children are smarter than their western counterparts. If not smarter, then let’s say instead that they are higher-achieving, and higher-scoring. Amy Chua writes in her book that you can find the answer in Chinese parenting and then she goes on to describe exactly how a Chinese mother parents. Four or five hours a day of practicing an instrument, or drilling math facts, after the hours of homework have been finished to perfection is a typical day for an Asian child. No playing outside with friends or watching tv for these kids. I’m massively skimming the surface here, but just know that it’s an intense lifestyle, demanding on both parents and children. Though I have to admit, it’s obvious that it does produce very successful children.

The book is less an justification of Chua’s parenting than a description of her journey through trying to parent one child who complies and one who fights. Those fights are nasty, too. The whole situation with Chua and her second daughter, Louisa, is stomach-churningly awful. Not that I agree that parents have to keep the waters still at all times and never deal with tough situations head on, but their fights nearly gave me an ulcer just from reading about it. The more Louisa fought against her mother’s demands, the more her mother dug in and demanded more. It was so ugly.

Surprisingly, the further I got into Chua’s book, the more I agreed with her on certain points. She wrote:

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst 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.

That rang true in my mind. I often push my kids past the point where they would have just naturally given up, but I think that most parents do that, otherwise no child would ever learn to read, swim, ride a bike, do long-division, etc. But I would never scream at my kids, threaten to burn their toys, or call them garbage to get them to succeed. Of course, I don’t make my kids practice piano for four hours a day either so maybe that’s what it takes to get those results.

Here’s the thing that bugs me: success in these families is only measured by whether or not they are the top student in their class, what piece they are able to play on the violin, or whether not they made it to the National Spelling Bee. And there is zero tolerance for failure. I look at this kind of life and wonder, what’s the point? Sure, you can get into any college to study whatever you want (which would only really end up being law, medicine or music if you’re fulfilling your parents’ expectations), but then what? Hard work at a hard job and repeating the cycle with your own kids? Why? Are Asian children happier from all this success?

After reading this, I started to examine my own parenting and realized that I am a watered-down tiger mother. I just spent part of an afternoon writing down all my tiger mothering, and then I deleted every sentence of it. I’m not apologetic about it, but I don’t want everybody to know every gory detail of my tenacious parenting. Before you start to worry, I’m no Amy Chua, but I do expect a lot from my kids. That said, I still believe in play dates and swimming all summer long and letting my kids watch Phineas and Ferb. Chua would think I’m a terrible, western mother, but if I’m not a tiger like her, I’m at least a lynx or something. There are times that I wish I was as easy-going as some of my friends and not ask as much of my kids just so I could have less demands on my time, but I believe I’m doing what is ultimately best for them. Just like Chua for her girls, I guess.

The book ends on a good note, which made me glad. It seems a bit premature for Chua to write her story when her girls are still teenagers, though. I’d love to see what happens with each of these girls’ families and if those parenting styles carry on to the next generation. How long is that sustainable? Will eventually enough generations of western-born kids become more like their peers? It’d be interesting to read her children’s memoirs in another fifty years.


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