Monday, 18 July 2011

Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chua

If you ever want to feel inadequate as a parent, then read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Amy Chua produced two A-grade musical child prodigies who won International competitions and performed around the world in their early teens: Sophia on the Piano and Lulu on the Violin. In this book she outlines the secret to her success as a parent and the price she paid in time, sweat and tears.

Chua is the Über of all Über mothers, who manages to combine full-on parenting with a legal career that leads her to join her husband (Jed Rubenfeld) both as a Yale Law professor and a successful author. Her disdain for Western approaches to parenting permeate the book; indeed it sets out to compare the flawed approach adopted by most Americans to her preferred methods of what she terms "Chinese parenting". The cultural battle is played out in the lives of her two daughters who achieve so much due to the focussed approach of their mother, but who ultimately rebel. Chua throughout is convinced that the Chinese approach is not just different, but superior to any Western methods of parenting.

On the first page of her book she sets the tone when she lists some of the things that her children were never allowed to do. These include:
  1. Attend a sleepover
  2. Have a playdate
  3. Be in a school play
  4. Complain about not being in a school play.
  5. Watch TV or play computer games
  6. Choose their own extracurricular activities
  7. Get any grade less than an A
  8. Not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  9. Play any instrument other than the violin or piano
  10. Not play the piano or violin.
To the liberal, Western mind, her methods are Draconian bordering at times on the monstrous. However, amongst the moments of confession, self-justification, therapy and maternal angst, there are some profound insights into the real dilemmas that we all face bringing up children.
Amy Chua's approach throws up a mirror to the post-Enlightenment values of freedom, rights and above all choice - all of which she asserts have no place in parenting. Children should obey and respect their parents, make them proud and look after them in old age.

The sadness of the story is that the girls did rebel [This is not a funny book - despite the protestations on the cover to that effect]. Amy Chua eventually lost the battle. Lulu ultimately gave up playing the violin seriously aged 13. Indeed, having backed off and given her the choice ["horror of horrors" - Western heresy!], Chua did not really learn the lesson and even tried to "backseat drive" when Lulu decided to devote herself to tennis instead.

Her "Chinese parenting" methods clearly worked, but for whom? Is she so driven because she wants the best for her daughters or does she need prodigious children to confirm her status as a good mother? Were the hours of toil and argument in the music practice room for them or for her? She certainly wears the highs and lows on her sleeve. It is difficult to like the author. Indeed I spent most of the time sympathising with the children and, above all - reading between the lines - for her long-suffering husband, Jed.

Chua's concluding insight is that life is too short to waste time. Like many high-achieving people she obviously lives by this mantra. But like many high-achieving people I wonder if she ever steps off the achievement hamster wheel to enjoy life. She even snatches victory from the jaws of the final defeat at the hands of teenage rebellion by writing a best seller - a Radio Four book of the week, no less. I suspect that says a lot about this particular Tiger Mother.

Clearly there has been a lot of controversy, particularly in the States, over whether or not Chinese parenting methods are superior [just Google the book!], but what struck me most was that there is something genuinely prophetic here.

Above all, this book serves to warn us about the way the world might become. If Amy Chua's approach reflects what is going on in the majority of homes in China, then the West needs to take note and prepare for a tidal wave of highly motivated and driven talent sweeping the world. The "Chinese parenting" approach and drive has been there for generations, but we are faced for the first time in recent history with a generation of young Chinese who have had significantly greater educational and travel opportunities and greater access to wealth than their parents. "Chinese parenting" on that scale will undoubtedly shake the domestic foundations and values of Western society.

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published by Bloomsbury in 2011
[You don't really need to purchase this book - the first chapter says it all and that is available free online on the Amazon website]

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