Monday, January 30, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I can think of few books in the last couple years that have elicited as much anger and controversy as "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". At the beginning of last year, heated reactions to Amy Chua's parenting memoir pervaded media and bookstores. And yet I wasn't interested in reading it. I was aware that Chua apparently supported rigorous parenting, arguing that an A- is unacceptable, hours of daily instrument practice is necessary, and children are to be subjugated instead of cultivated.

Perhaps my disinterest stemmed from the fact that I was enrolled in an early childhood program that promoted a philosophy that was ideologically opposed to Chua's supposed concept. More likely, I was disinclined to read the book because I have been exposed to parents who believe their toddlers should be drilled in math and pre-literacy concepts. Two summers ago I interviewed for a job working with one-year-old twins. I had assumed it was a babysitting job but was soon informed that the infants had a full-time nanny and I would be their tutor. "I've been looking for toddler flashcards but I can't find them anywhere!" The woman said in frustration. "Maybe that's because one-year-olds can't read," I said helpfully. I didn't get the job.

I passed on Tiger Mother until a friend whose opinion I respect mentioned it as an interesting read. This time, my curiosity was piqued. I am not currently working with high pressure parents or studying early childhood philosophy. Also, I have been on an absolute memoir binge lately.

So, armed with Pirate's Booty and a Diet Coke, I read it in one sitting. And I absolutely loved it. I thought for a while about the intense and wide-ranging emotions elicited by this memoir and here's what I ultimately concluded:

People who say this is a terrible book because of Chua's parenting style are missing the point. Chua admits toward the beginning of the book that she had intended to write this as a defense of "Chinese parenting". However, as she is writing the book the unimaginable happens: Chua's youngest daughter hits puberty and goes rogue. This sets the tone for some truly epic showdowns between a strong, determined woman and her daughter, the opposition who inherited mom's tenacity and stubbornness. From my perspective, Chua writes with self-deprecating humor and a self-awareness that allows for reflection and, eventually, evolution.

I'm intrigued by her explanations and the rationale behind her strict parenting style. While it is not a philosophy to which I subscribe, I find myself agreeing with her more than I anticipated (DISCLAIMER: It is quite easy for me to debate the various parenting styles in my current childless state, as I sit in my pajamas drinking Diet Coke and writing at 10:30 on a Monday morning). Of course I have many questions about the socio-emotional impact of parenting with such high expectations. I also worry about the potential social stigma placed on children with developmental disabilities in environments with that much pressure to succeed. However, Chua's story is not a psychological study or sociological expose. It is the experience of one family. I felt that she is not necessarily defending or critiquing a particular way of life. Rather, she is telling a story of her experience as a parent: The exquisite, the sublime, and the very down & dirty. Chua is unflinchingly honest. I found myself empathizing with her even if I didn't agree with her decisions.

I recommend this book but with a caveat. Read this for what it is: one woman's harrowing journey through parenthood.


angel011 said...

Nice review... I've heard of this book, of course, but the way it was presented in media here (Serbia), it looked like ALL the Chinese people were raising their kids that way. Thanks for clearing that up.

Bibliomania said...

Really? That's so interesting! I wonder how many other books are presented in such drastically different ways in different parts of the world?