Saturday 18 February 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - review

I've been wanting to lay hands on Amy Chua's book for the last several months. My library never had it and finally I got so impatient that I ordered a copy through Flipkart. I won't quote too many things out of the book or give you a synopsis because everyone knows what the books is supposedly all about. It is a memoir of Chua's journey as a parent, her insistence on Chinese parenting (rooted in her belief of Western parenting being permissive and negligent) and her ultimate humbling by her 13-year old daughter. 
First off, I found the book very engaging. Chua writes well, clearly and humorously. The book is funny and ironical in parts (which I think American reviewers completely did not get. Chua herself mentions that the irony was much better appreciated in the UK). I myself managed to finish the book in 2 straight sittings and in just about 2 hours.
Second, the book is not a how-to manual on parenting, but a parenting memoir. Chua constantly compares the Western and Chinese styles of parenting (and by Chinese, she means a school of parenting that is highly visible in many other ethnic groups such as Koreans and Indians). While you may or may not agree with her parenting style, many of us from India would readily identify with her constant expectation of excellence from her daughters, her inability to accept anything less than superlative performance, and her being a parent and not a friend to them. Haven't we all come from such families or at the very least known of friends who had such parents?
Third, the most intriguing question raised by the book is "How do you live life to the fullest?" Amy Chua believes the only way to do so is to explore your potential to it's absolute max. She believes that if you give a 5-year old a "choice" then he will just spend all his time playing video games, spending hours on Facebook and eating disgusting junk food. In that, she is absolutely correct. Children do need to be pushed to do better and best. Chua mentions as her mantra, several times, the Chinese "virtuous cycle" where hard work begets achievement begets praise begets hard work begets more achievement. At the same time, she leaves no room for the child's unique temperament and interests and like any other zealot, she took things too far in her quest for excellence.
I'm aware that at some point in time, I may perhaps have to bear down heavily on my children in order to make them overcome any self-imposed limitations. At the same time, making that one's mission in life to the exclusion of everything else, is simply crazy. There were many passages in the book where I was thinking "Dear God, I hope she's kidding. She's MAD!!" Strong opinions, anyone??? For example, this oft-repeated passage from the first few pages of the book.
Here are some things my daughters were never allowed to do:
  • 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 extra-curricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the #1 student in any subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin
I liked the book for it's honesty (though sometimes I had my doubts whether the author was being deliberately provocative!). Chua comes across as bigoted in many many instances, but then all of us have seen mothers/people like that, who have strong vocal opinions on many issues and don't hesitate to put down others. I don't agree with her paranoid, alpha-aggressive treatment of her daughters ("for their own good"), some of which seemed downright cruel and insensitive. My main takeaway from the book has been a heightened awareness of how important it is to know where to draw the line - between fun and hard work, creating good childhood memories and building a solid learning foundation. The book says "Just because you love something doesn't mean you'll be good at it. Not unless you work really hard at it. And once you become really good, you'll love it even more."


  1. I'll have to agree that some kids do need a 'push',.....and mothers might appear ruthless doing it..i guess thats the lot of the mother.
    I havent read Chua's book but i read the article Why Chinese mothers are superior? I actually didnt like it one bit.

    I wonder how muhc of the differences she observes between Chinese and american parents are because of race politics. Asian and african children have had to work hard for a lot of opportunities that have come to western children more easily. I dont mean that the current generation has to work hard cause obviously Amy Chua and her daughters belong to an elite family...but historically, they have had to work extra hard to carve a niche. But then again, the American puritan work ethic is also similar. But perhaps that farther away in history.

    Ok now i am just rambling. But thought these were some interesting questions.

    1. The WSJ article was pretty one-sided (for example, the title itself. Nowhere in the book does she says Chinese mothers are superior!). You are right abt the race politics. Immigrant populations have had to indeed work harder to get to where they are today.

  2. I felt exactly the same, when I read the book! While she certainly takes it to extremes in a lot of situations, reading this has made me rethink about my own parenting. And as you say, the thin line between 'between fun and hard work, creating good childhood memories and building a solid learning foundation', is so so important. To be able to achieve that perfect balance - that is really what we all aspire to, isn't it?

    1. Yup we all aspire to it...hope we all get there one day! :)

  3. I missed this post. I did not read the book because it would stress me out. Tigerness does not come to me naturally. I am becoming more and more relaxed. I do tell KB and KG to do some work, to learn stuff etc. But I do let them watch TV. And I do let him read Asterix books cover to cover in one evening instead of doing some extra work even if he finished his weekly homework on Monday itself. Am sure Amy Chua would not have allowed that. Esp when I see KB get hic cough episodes I feel like - as long as he is healthy - it's OK - he (and KG) love to learn - he knows he needs to work hard and I have told him many times that no one is born with knowledge and no one can learn everything - you learn till the very end etc. I just don't know how to push beyond a point and how much is damaging for him. I feel also that he is not growing up in India - let me give him the freedom to just be a little relaxed and find his way. I feel I could be a little more tiger momish but it doesn't come to me naturally.

    1. Noon, that is true of me as well. That's why we put ads in a chilled-out school with a good balance of acads plus sports and extra-curriculars. But I recommend you read the book anyway. It was an eye-opener!

  4. hmm..seems like the mom in the book is quite an extreme case...
    We all oscillate between going to some extremes either way in different aspects of parenting. But somewhere, we should average out, draw a line, balance it out, else the poor kid will have a hell of a time with us, IMO.

  5. Nice review Aparna, I still haven't got around to reading this one - I fear I might relate to Amy Chua a bit too much ;).

    Just about got to reading Steve Jobs biography and greatly enjoying it !


I would love to hear your thoughts :)