Amy Chua's memoir was an international bestseller when first published a year ago, and caused a storm of controversy. The book, a description of her approach to raising her two American children the 'Chinese way', touched personal, cultural and political nerves, with many branding her parenting as abusive and extreme. In the midst of the storm, others noted that nerves get touched for good reason, and that perhaps the Western world wouldn't be in total decline - unlike China - if we all had a Tiger Mother to urge us on.
It's not surprising that Chua's book pushed buttons, for her descriptions of the methods she used to drill, coach and shape her children into musical prodigies and academic achievers are at times jaw dropping. Right from the first page she tells of how her two girls were not allowed to attend sleepovers or playdates, be in the school play or get a grade lower than A, but, as the book goes on, she confesses stories which have now become notorious: threatening to shut her three year old out in the freezing cold for refusing to play the piano in the way she was asked, telling her six year old she would burn all her stuffed animals if she didn't play the piano perfectly, calling her children 'garbage', and, when they were seven and four, rejecting the birthday cards that they had made for her on the grounds that they were simply not good enough.
You'd think that a parent like me - a touchy-feely Westerner who is largely opposed to punishing children, especially her own - would despise a parent like Chua. And I wanted to, believe me, I wanted to hate her, and absolutely shred her book in this review. But then, as I read, two things began to happen. First of all, I realised that Chua had her tongue in her cheek slightly, and was setting out to spark debate and prove a point. Secondly, I really started to like her. Her simple, clear storytelling belies her fierce intelligence: don't think for a moment that Chua, a Yale Professor of Law, hasn't considered carefully all of this issues the book raises plus a few more. Her anecdotal style interspersed with the odd bit of observation had me turning the pages, but most of all, her book made me feel uncomfortable, it challenged me, shaking up my assumptions and forcing me to unpick and reconsider some of my more dearly held values and beliefs. This is not a parenting manual, and Chua never tries to assert that her way is the best or only way. But by offering us this starkly contrasting view point, she does what all good writers should - she makes us question, she makes us think.
What is the role of a parent? Do we wish to be our children's friend, their ally, taking their thoughts and feelings seriously and allowing them to make their own decisions, take their own choices, make their own mistakes? Do we shower them with praise and let them know that we love them, no matter how small their achievements? And are we sensitive to their feelings, always considering their emotional experience above all else and striving to protect and strengthen their mental health? Chua thinks not. She has no desire whatsoever to be liked by her children, and seems to control their lives down to the smallest detail. She doesn't believe in telling them they have done a 'good job' unless they have achieved something really exceptional, assuming that if they do not excel it is not because they have reached their limit, but simply that they did not work hard enough. And she doesn't subscribe at all to the Western view that children's feelings should be protected, rather she assumes that they are, 'strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.'
To our child-centred Western ears, this seems like a harsh approach, with no consideration for the child's experience (let alone a hundred years or more of developmental psychology). But Chua assures us that, by initially forcing our children to apply themselves to a task, we create what she calls a 'virtuous circle'. Initially, our child will resist, complain and generally be made unhappy by our actions. But, if we ignore their feelings and push through this phase, something wonderful will happen - they will begin to excel. With excellence comes praise, admiration, confidence, and even fun. As Chua puts it, 'What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.'. We might think we are being kind to our children by allowing them to steer the ship along side of us. But could it be that, if we behave more as their equals than their masters, we are actually failing them, cheating them of the chance to reach the absolute limits of their potential?
Chua's description of what she refers to as 'generational decline' struck a particular chord with me. She describes what she feels is certainly a pattern among Chinese immigrants to the States in the last fifty years. The immigrant generation, (like her own parents) are hard-working, and often work their way up from nothing to become successful and respected professionals. They pour everything they do and earn into their children's education and future. The next generation will be high achieving, and find themselves even higher up the work and money ladder than their parents. However, their children, born into a life of wealth and privelige their forbears could only have dreamed of, will often be disobedient, ignore career advice, and be 'headed straight for decline'. This is Chua's greatest fear for her children, and the outcome she hopes her strict parenting methods will guard against.
There are strong echoes of my own history in this cautionary tale. On both sides of my family, my grandparents had the bare minimum of education and lived much of their early lives in poverty. On my mothers side, my grandmother's family 'came over on the boat' from Ireland to the slums of Liverpool, and my grandfather was one of twelve children. My paternal grandparents emigrated from the UK to Canada in the 1920's, and lived through the Depression, when they would move house in secret every week to avoid paying the rent.
On both sides of the family, there was a hugely strong work ethic, and both my mother and father were taught by their parents to 'graft', 'work your way up' and 'better yourself'. Having left school with barely any qualifications, they were jointly determined for a better life for me, and felt that the key to this was a private education. Through a seemingly endless combination of business ventures and by-the-hour jobs, they put me through a fee-paying school where I did well academically, going on to be the first person in my family's history to attend University.
I felt my heart sink slightly as I read Chua's words about generational decline. I thought of my own life now; in spite of my Ivy League degree and hugely expensive education, I've never really 'got on in life' the way my parents and grandparents would probably have liked, working as a hot-shot lawyer or high-flying executive, and earning the big salary with matching house and car that life denied to them. Instead I've lived it up, partied, dipped in and out of a few careers and now given up the only really serious one - therapy - to be a full time stay at home mother. And now that it is my turn to parent, my focus is entirely based around my own children growing up happy, mentally healthy and well adjusted. They are still very small, but nevertheless I have given barely a moments concern to their education, their careers or their financial futures. I have told myself that none of this matters, and that to be kind, considerate, happy and creative are the only things that really count in life. Is this the right way to be, or am I doing my hard grafting parents and grandparents a great disservice here, squandering the opportunities they desperately craved for themselves and bought for me with the sweat of their brow? And am I letting my children down too, instilling in them a rose-tinted view of the world that might find them, somewhere down the line, a jolly nice person that everybody likes, living in a cheap flat without qualifications or prospects?
What really matters in life? And what does it mean to be a 'successful person'? Chua's excellent book forces us to consider this, although she herself makes no claim to have the answers, asking in the closing paragraph, 'Given that life is so short and fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?'. No matter what our zodiacal sign, cultural background or parenting philosophy, if we love our children deeply and want the best for them we need to ask ourselves this question. Like Chua, we need to answer with humour, be brutally honest, and perhaps even risk making ourselves unpopular. We may subscribe to a very different world view to the Tiger Mother, but her book reminds us that, whatever we decide, our values and beliefs will shape our children's future, and that of generations to come.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is published by Bloomsbury and is available in paperback from all good booksellers.
To win a free copy, leave a comment on this post on my blog at http://mamamule.blogspot.com/2012/02/battle-hymn-of-tiger-mother-book-re....
Five winners will be picked randomly and announced on my blog on Sunday 26th February.
I was not paid to write this review and all views expressed are entirely my own.