Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: book review

I've just read - with a kind of horrified fascination - Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (you've probably heard about it - it's created quite a stir). It's a book written in defense of the 'Chinese mother' approach to parenting, as opposed to more indulgent Western parenting. Amy Chua writes,

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, 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 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.
  • I was particularly struck (horrified? flabbergasted?) by a few events, like when Amy threw her 4-year-old daughter's carelessly made birthday card at her and told her to do a proper job, declaring 'I deserve better than this! So I reject this'; when she made 7-year old Lulu drill a piano piece far into the night without toilet, water or meal breaks, threatening the loss of her dolls' house and telling her to 'stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic'; and when she said to Sophia, 'If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!'.

    For me, reading this book felt a bit like watching a slow-motion train crash: you can't look away, even though you can tell it's heading for disaster (although my friend, more experienced in parenting, tells me that teen rebellion is hardly a train crash). By the end of the book, Amy Chua is standing in the wreckage, still gamely declaring the advantages of 'Chinese parenting'.

    There are a few things I think us 'Western parents' can learn from Amy:

    • We assume fragility, not strength, on the part of our children, so that self-esteem depends on praising and not criticising them. Amy argues that true self-esteem comes from having high expectations for our kids, on the assumption that they are strong and capable enough to meet them.
    • Our kids don't need a protective environment, but skills, work-habits and inner confidence that will equip them for the future.
    • Our goal shouldn't be to be our children's best friend: good parents risk disappointing and being disliked by their kids. Children don't need to pursue every passion and fulfil every impulse.
    • Western parents try not to burden their children, but it's good to expect children to respect and care for their parents (although I'm not sure the Asian 'never disappoint your parents' or 'you owe me everything' is any better than the Western 'you are free to go your own way and make your own choices').
    • Nothing is fun till you're good at it, and to get good at anything you have to work hard; after that, success is self-replicating. I see this in my children's piano practice (on a small scale - no child prodigies here): discipline produces achievement which produces joy which reinforces discipline.
    • Honesty about a child's weaknesses and failures can be a good thing: it assumes that they are capable of more, and that they are strong enough to handle the truth.
    • Good parenting involves dedication and self-sacrifice: coming alongside our children and helping them to learn skills and character.
    In the end, it's not Amy's methods (extreme as they were) that bothered me most. Parenting has as many different methods as parents: some will be more strict (although I hope not harsh) and others more gentle (although I hope not indulgent). As long as there is grace, love, discipline, prayer, a godly example, and teaching and training from God's word, we've covered the essentials.

    What really bothers me is what Amy boasts she was trying to achieve: the 'dreams' she had for her daughters. Musical prodigy, academic success, career advancement: if these are the things we aim for, we're encouraging our kids to pursue idols that will come up empty. Better to aim for things that last, even if it means our children aren't high-achievers: love for God and his word, self-sacrificial love, a longing for people to come to know Jesus, and a willingness to give up everything for him.

    In the end, whatever our methods, our parenting will be driven by one of two things: our love for idols or our love for Jesus.


    Tasmanian said...

    Amy's list of "not alloweds" are almost the same as for my sister's children except they had to play piano plus another instrument. They didn't HAVE to get As but they were certainly expected to do their best in each subject. Wisely, they all played hockey for the local club so they would learn how to resolve conflict and relate to many different kinds of people. This is so different from the feeling of being locked in your bedroom to study (or the music room to practice) thinking only of yourself and your own achievements, or constantly feeling you are competing with everyone rather than working in a team. There was also an expectation that we all work together as members of the family in terms of cleaning, helping younger family members etc. Sometimes the tiger mother avoids team sports and children doing housework.

    Deb L said...

    Oh this book! I want to read it but I don't want to read it. I'm scared of it. It feeds right into my "am I doing it right?" parenting angst. The overwhelming desire for educational and financial success and the attitude that everything (and everybody?) else is a waste of time is astonishing. But I think here in the 'burbs, we still do the same sort of things just a little toned down. It's about competition at the end of the day - often the only difference is where the finish lines are drawn.

    Jean said...

    Tasmanian, I like the sound of how your sister does things, and especially how chores and working on a team are part of what she wants from her kids.

    Deb, I don't think you need to be scared - it's really just a very fun read and because it's so far off what you'd want to imitate, it's not likely to make you feel guilty or intimidated. Perhaps give you a few ideas from a different perspective on parenting; but mainly, make you grateful you're not parenting this way! :)