Whether you agree with Amy Chua’s controversial ideas about parenting as outlined in her best selling apologia, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, two things seem incontrovertible. Either because of or in spite of those ideas, she and her husband managed to raise two exceptional children: number one. Number two: she has written one fascinating account of growing up Chua. Certainly there will be those who are unable to get beyond the image of the tiger mother and her methods. There will be those who object to the stereotyping of Oriental and Western parents. There will be those that feel compelled to defend play dates, sleepovers, and school dramas, and they may well have some points to make. Still when all the points have been made, all the objections noted, readers will be left with perhaps the most stimulating book on the subject of child rearing since Dr. Spock.
The tiger mother, as embodied in Chua based on her understanding of Chinese parenting, demands superlatives and nothing less from her children. She assumes they are capable of excellence in all things, and it is her duty to make sure that excellence is realized. They must devote themselves to their studies and engage only in other activities approved by the parents. Whatever they do, they must be the best and the only way to be best is to work hard. First in everything is the expectation; anything less is unacceptable. To accept less than the best is demeaning to the child. In school, A-’s are poor grades, B’s, I assume are failures.
In other activities, the child must work to be the finest and the parent must provide whatever is necessary to make that happen. As far as Chua is concerned, the pudding proves she is right. One only has to look at all the Orientals in top 10 universities and Ivy League schools, the dominating performance of Orientals in math and science, the proliferation of Oriental virtuosos in music. Parents who push their children are only doing what they should. Parents who expect the best and refuse to settle for anything less get the best.
As it turns out her own two girls, despite what a tiger mother might consider at least one failure, are themselves a testament to the success of her theories as one could want. They are academically successful. They are industrious and articulate. They are talented and willing to work hard to develop their talents. And if in the case of one of her daughters there is a rebelliousness that eventually asserts itself, well by some standards that is probably more a sign of success than blind obedience. After all, the author herself, raised by her own tiger mother, admits to her own eventual assertion of her own independence. To raise a child confident enough in her own judgment to defy authority if need be is not necessarily a failure. Lulu, her younger daughter, is miserably unhappy about being forced into the kind of fanatical practice of the violin her mother demands despite her talent on the instrument. Eventually, the tiger mother is forced to concede defeat and allow the child to go her own way. In doing so, she discovers that while the violin may have lost a potential prodigy, the lessons of hard work and perseverance have not gone unlearned.
Chua’s picture of herself is not always flattering. She is both demanding and stubborn. Many of the incidents she describes might well cross the line into child abuse for some of the more squeamish readers, but that would seem to be pushing it. Some of her behavior seems mean-spirited, but since she is reporting it about herself, it is clear it was always well intentioned. She is obviously a loving mother and this is a loving family. She wants what is best for her children, and she believes that she is the best judge of what is best. If her ideas have caused controversy among some, there is at least one important voice in her defense. Sophia, her oldest daughter, ends an article in the New York Post last January by thanking her “Tiger Mom” for having taught her the value of striving to do your best. “If I died tomorrow,” she says. “I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent.”