Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

After seeing all the press lately about Amy Chua and the Tiger mother philosophy, I put myself on the hold list for Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, at the library.  It came in at the library last week and despite the fact I'm still not done with A Tale of Two Cities or Jane Eyre, I took it anyway.  On a side note, the Cobbler caught me red handed with it!  I was supposed to be finishing up A Tale of Two Cities for my book club meeting which was last Wednesday, but I was trading off --- a trudge through a chapter of Dickens and then I would treat myself with a quick chapter of Tiger Mother.  Dickens.  Tiger Mother.  Dickens.  Tiger Mother.  The Cobbler said, "So how far are you now?"  and I replied, "Page 150 in the Tale of Two Cities.  Page 63 in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."  And the eye rolling commenced.

Okay---back to the book review.  First off, if you're looking for a quick and easy read, this one is for you.  Compared to Dickens, there is a lot of white space on each page which was a welcome breather for me.  The content, however, was a bit heavier (not heavier than Dickens.  Just heavier than I was expecting).  If you're not familiar with Chua or the book, allow me to share with you the list of activities from the back cover of the book that Chua's two daughters (now teenagers) 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 video games
  • choose their own extra curricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the violin or piano
  • not play violin or piano
Sounds like a fun childhood, eh?  Here's some background on the author.  She's a law professor at Yale who is of Chinese descent.  Her husband (who is Jewish and white) is also a professor at Yale.  When they had their children Sophia and Louisa (AKA Lulu), they agreed to parent the kids using the Chinese method.  Throughout the book, Chua shows open disdain for Western parenting which she considers to be lax and a disservice to the children who are not being brought to their full potential.

I consider my parenting style to be loving, but also firm and consistent for the most part (we all have our days, right?). I encourage creativity.  If my kids want to paint, we paint.  If they want to play outside, we play outside.  Red took two years of figure skating from age 3 to 5 because she asked for ice skates for Christmas.  She excelled at the sport for her age.  When she didn't want to skate anymore at the start of last year's season because she said "it's cold and there are boys in my class", I allowed her to not continue.  Tom Thumb hasn't shown interest in doing anything extracurricular yet.  That's not quite true.  He did try dance lessons for 3 weeks, but then decided that he'd rather sit in the hall outside the classroom on my lap with his blanket and his thumb.  That was fine with me.

Being a fairly laid back parent, some of the scenes from the book shocked me.  Keep in mind that I am saving the most shocking examples for you to read yourself should you choose to read the book.  Here are a couple examples. At 3 years old, Chua started her daughter Sophia in piano lessons.  When she was 5, she had Sophia practicing 90 minutes per day.  Here's a quote from the book about it. 

According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
1. Oh my God, you're just getting worse and worse.
2. I'm going to count to three, then I want musicality!
3. If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!

Another scene in the book that stood out to me was when the family goes out to dinner to celebrate Chua's birthday and her daughters each have a birthday card to present to her that they made.  After Lulu gives her the card she made, Chua responds with:

"I don't want this...I want a better one----one that you've put some thought and effort into.  I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia and this one can't go in there...What if I gave you this for your birthday, Lulu----would you like that?  But I would never do that, Lulu.  No---I get you magicians and giant slides that cost me hundreds of dollars.  I get you huge ice cream cakes shaped like penguins, and spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors that everyone just throws away.  I work so hard to give you good birthdays!  I deserve better than this.  So I reject this."  (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, p. 103)

It would never even occur to me to have those words come out of my mouth.  This woman is hardcore...and maybe a wee bit crazy.  That being said, the results she has gotten from her children both musically and academically are undeniable.  Sophia has played at Carnegie Hall, Lulu has been a student of some of the most demanding (and in demand) violin instructors in the world, the girls performed in Hungary headlining as "Two Prodigy Sisters from America."  They accomplished all this and more while still excelling in school.  While I shared some of her more over the top moments, Chua clearly loves her children and feels her parenting style is helping them achieve their (well, maybe her) goals. 

The burning question that was in the back of my mind the entire time I was reading the book was "At what price?"  No playdates, no sleepovers, no free time?  In my mind, that equals no childhood.  Definitely not a way I want to raise my children.

One thing I've struggled with lately that I thought about even more while reading this book is Red and her swimming.  The one thing the Cobbler feels very strongly about is that both children should take swim lessons until they can swim proficiently.  He always has said, "Swimming is a life skill, not an extracurricular activity.  Not swimming is not an option."  Little did he know that we would have a daughter born to us who is terrified of water.  Red has taken swim lessons since she was 6 months old.  We took a 6 month break when Tom Thumb was born (until he was 6 months old and eligible for lessons) and that's when the trouble began.  In the Tadpole swim class she was in at age 3, she screamed and cried the entire class for the first three weeks.  She had to retake Tadpoles three times before the instructors were confident she could move into the next class successfully.  Needless to say, that class didn't go well either.  Last summer when she reverted back to being afraid to put her face in the water, we started doing private lessons with our friend Colleen who also happens to be a lifeguard (and our babysitter to boot!  She's a jack of all trades).  Each week was like pulling teeth.  It took three classes of Red crying the whole time before she would let Colleen let go of her in the water even when she had a foam noodle to hold her up in the water.  I tried bribery (she got lots of erasers and Silly Bandz last summer), I pulled the Daddy card ("Just do it!  Daddy will be so proud of you!"), and I finally resorted to (I didn't know it at the time) the Tiger Mother ---"Stop being disrespectful to Colleen!  You get in that pool and you do it NOW!"  I can't even imagine what the other parents think when they see me sitting on the edge of the pool yelling commands like a drill sergeant.  But like Chua (I hate to even admit this), we have results.  Red can now dog paddle in deep water to the edge of the pool.  She still cries during most lessons, but is (dare I say) joyful when we go to the pool to swim for fun and can do things that she learned in swim lessons.  What I've learned is that there's a fine line there in parenting between pushing your child to be their best and being downright scary as a parent and that line sometimes is awful grey.  I guess if swimming is the only area where I'm a Tiger Mother (and I use that term very loosely here since our 2 measly hours of swimming during the week ---one half hour lesson and 1 1/2 hours of swimming for fun as a family---wouldn't even qualify us in Chua's book) then I guess I'm all right with that.
I leave you with this passage from the book to ponder:

   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.
   There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests.  For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.  I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides.  All decent parents want to do what's best for their children.  The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
    Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment.  By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.  (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, p. 62-63)

What do you think of the Tiger Mother parenting philosophy?  Do you think there is some value to be gleaned from Chua's story?  Do you think "Western parenting" is too relaxed?

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