So, when I got an email asking if I was interested in reading and reviewing Amy Chua's 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', and given that my usual review requests tend to be of the ' Is my bum clean?' variety, I responded with a (possibly over eager) 'Hell Yeah!' Between you and me, I was also thrilled to bits that someone other than family had discovered my blog, so I'd have said 'yes' to pretty much anything I think....I've always been rubbish at 'playing it cool'.
Like many of us, I had heard of this memoir when it came out last yearand had watched a documentary about British tiger mothers, so consequently, I had preconceptions of an obsessively ambitious, Chinese freak show of a mother, who pushes her children so hard she robs them of their childhood. Now, having actually read the book, I can say that this is a true, but somewhat one dimensional conclusion and the book is so much more.
Amy Chua is a second generation Chinese American, who has raised her two daughters, (now in their late teens), in accordance with her very strict Chinese culture. She is, along with her husband, a Professor of Law at Yale, and has written two previous books, both best sellers, in the areas of global politics and foreign affairs. In other words, she's no slouch herself, so it's hardly surprising that she would be very ambitious for her own children. Nor that they, with such high achieving parents, would likely be naturally gifted themselves.
She begins by explaining the premise of Chinese parenting, which does produce a very high proportion of maths whizzes and music prodigies, and why this is the case. In a nutshell, the parents decide what is best for the child and set extremely high expectations and goals. The child has no input, choice and virtually no free time and they are expected to respect and obey their parents without question. Here are things she says her own daughters are never allowed to do-
- Attend a sleepover
- Have a play date
- 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 #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- Play any instrument other than the violin and piano
- Not play the violin and piano
The book does make for a very easy read- it has bite sized chapters (which pair beautifully with a snatched cuppa), and her tone is witty and self deprecating-I actually couldn't help but like her. This is certainly at odds with the dogmatic, driven way that she parents, and although she is able to, at times, step back and reframe her motives and actions from a 'Western' point of view, it certainly doesn't cause her to question or modify her behaviour in the slightest. Her American -Jewish husband seems to just let her get on with it - it seems that the external successes of their daughters are reason enough to continue. Her children are both extremely bright and accomplished but have very different personalities. They are also a more diluted, third generation Chinese American, and enjoy a very privileged lifestyle-all these clashes eventually force Chua to, (grudgingly but blessedly), make slight changes as they get older.
I found that I had quite extreme and conflicting reactions to her parenting. On the one hand, I was in awe of her endless dedication and unceasing drive, sacrificing time for hobbies, friends and even her husband relentlessly. Every moment of every day involved pushing her daughters, and often herself to near breaking point.... but admittedly with amazing results. The other reaction was one of repulsion at her unchecked, unbridled parental ambition, her cruel, even abusive methods, and her seemingly complete disregard for the feelings and happiness of her girls. I wondered why such a clever woman didn't possess the vision to combine the best parts of Chinese parenting- the single minded focus, self discipline and work ethic, with a creative child-centred 'Western' approach...and a little bit of plain old common sense!
Her book has certainly made me reflect on my own, more haphazard approach to parenting, and to question whether, more often than not, I let my own children off the hook too easily. I am definitely a bit of a tiger mother where schoolwork is concerned, but in regards to extracurricular activities, I have a much more laissez faire approach. Take piano for example- Is it essentially for fun or should I be timing and monitoring their practice more closely, and setting clear goals and expectations?
|Amy Chua with her daughters|
My thinking is that, like most things in life, moderation is key. A little bit of a tiger mother is definitely a good thing. Let's face it- we all love to see our children do well. They are a reflection of ourselves, and we're genetically wired to nurture and invest in our offspring. But where do we cross that line? Is it when it becomes uncomfortable for us? Or for them? Or both? Surely it's our parental responsibility to help our children reach their potential even if they don't feel like it sometimes or understand why we're doing it at all? All tough questions and not easily answered, but I found myself pondering them long after I read the last page. And that surely is what makes a book worth reading. So if you've read 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', I'd love to hear your thoughts about it, and if you haven't and you get the chance, do!