Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: An Uneven Song

When it comes to cultural differences, as G.K. Chesterton notes in his essay on “The French and the English,” every cultural vice is partly a virtue, and every cultural virtue is partly a vice. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother mucks about in this uncomfortable truth. It explores, sometimes in sweeping stereotypes, sometimes in subtler ways, the differences between Asian and American culture, as seen through the lens of parenting.

Though Amy Chau calls her style “Chinese,” it’s really a hybrid of “Chinese” and “hothouse” parenting with a large measure of her own personal craziness thrown in. It no doubt has elements of the “Chinese style,” including excoriating children. (I do believe we modern Americans might do well to scrutinize our rejection of shame as a motivator of behavior and success. Shame has its place. But for Chau, its place is “always” and everywhere, even on the eve of grandma’s funeral.) Yet her parenting style also has as many, if not more, elements of the hothouse style of parenting. That is, Chau is one of these well-to-do, culturally and intellectually elite parents raising gifted children, pushing them hard to excel, and living vicariously through their accomplishments. Even her own Chinese parents are perplexed by the demonic way Chau drives her children and advise her on more than one occasion to cool it. This prodigy-producing parenting style is really a cross-cultural phenomenon, something that is present, yet exceedingly rare, in all cultures. When, for instance, Chau says every child in China practices his instrument for ten hours a day, I think, well — perhaps not the ones who are working in the fields. She lives in an elite world inhabited by intellectuals and creative talents, and that world is perhaps not so different in China than in Manhattan. (Indeed, when she moves to Manhattan, she mentions being thrown into the world of “third graders prepping for the S.A.T.’s.” ) Yet her hothouse parenting is perhaps compounded by her Chinese culture, and by one aspect in particular, the idea that “the child is the extension of the self.”

Amy Chau is clearly proud to be Chinese, but in the end this book doesn’t really insist on the superiority of Chinese culture. She appreciates the virtues of American culture (especially its compassion and tolerance, and she acknowledges how “America changes people” in positive ways). She recognizes some of the flaws of Chinese culture as well. There’s often an undercurrent of doubt when she relates her own parenting choices. What she’s writing is not a book of parenting advice, not a how to guide, not even a sustained argument that the Chinese way is the best way. What she’s writing is a family memoir fraught with parent-child struggles, human weaknesses, human self-defenses, human failures, and cultural clashes. Granted, she often comes across as boastful (her daughter Lulu aptly calls her a “show off”) and sometimes downright insane, but she can also be funny, self-depricating, and surprisingly clear sighted. Overall, the memoir is average because the writing is uneven: I’ll be rolling along very entertained and suddenly find myself skimming seven droll pages in a row. It’s also somewhat aimless; as Lulu puts it, “she doesn’t know what she wants to say.” It’s almost as if she’s working out her own opinions as she writes, trying to come to some useful balance between the Chinese and the American way.

Despite her elitism, there is something universally human about Chau’s memoir. I think most readers could find at least some points at which to connect. The realization of human frailty flows somewhere underneath the surface of her memoir. You have to listen for it, but it’s there. Was I wrong? Chau asks herself more than once. Throughout the book, she’s telling you what she told herself as she did these things, how she assured herself she was right, but you see her doubts also, see her ideology under assault, her self-assurance crumbling, her self-awareness that “sometimes when I know I’m wrong and dislike myself, something inside me hardens and pushes me to go even further.”

One issue that drew me to this book in the first place was the question of self-esteem. However much I may disagree with Chau’s excesses, I do think we Westerners could benefit from asking ourselves whether we overemphasize self-esteem and undervalue the strength and resilience of our children. But the answer to Western excess isn’t Chau-style excess either. On the subject of self-esteem, Amy Chau notes, “One of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning that you can do something you thought you couldn’t.” There’s a lot of truth in this, but there’s a problem and a challenge also. When Chau says this, she seems to have forgotten that pages earlier she told us that her dad “saved” her by encouraging her to give up math, not by forcing her on. Yet when it comes to dealing with her own children, Chau seems not to have remembered the saving grace of her father. Her children must excel, and they must excel at everything (except drama and sports).

She’s certain she’s right, too, because of a particular instance when she forced her daughter to play a piece of music that her husband Jed suggested might be too difficult for the girl. “You don’t believe in her,” Chau tells her husband and feels she has proven her point when the girl finally masters the piece. But what if the girl hadn’t? What would that have done for her self-confidence? (As Chau herself later briefly wonders when Lulu is rejected from Julliard, “How could I have set her up for such a disappointment?”) Ay, there’s the rub. We parents are not gods and don’t actually know the limits of our children. And as Charles Murray points out in his book Real Education, “When your well-meaning person in authority said, “You can do it if you try,’ and you knew it was not true, the well-meaning person was not raising your self-esteem. Not getting you to find untapped resources within you. He was humiliating you.” Let them quit, and they might never build confidence. Don’t let them quit, and you might destroy their confidence. Let them quit, and they might miss out on getting really good at something. Don’t let them quit, and they might miss out on pursuing some other talent for which they are more suited. We parents must walk this tricky balance beam daily, and neither the “lax Western” style nor the “Chinese” style of parenting is the ultimate solution. Perhaps there is no solution. Perhaps Amy Chau should read the The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, look at the differences in her two children, and admit she really doesn’t have the power to write their futures.

But if there is no solution, no way we parents can ensure the success and respectful behavior of our children, then the “lax Western” style has one clear thing going for it: it’s easier. “The Chinese way is much harder than raising them the Western way. There is simply no respite,” says Chau, and “so much of what I do — .is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The Western way is easier for the parent, and easier for the kid. True, it may not produce as many prodigies and top math students, but it can produce a decent family man with a comfortable income. And maybe the overall cost-benefit ratio of low investment to moderate outcome is superior to the cost-benefit ratio of huge investment to huge outcome. Especially when that investment is your sweat, tears, and years. Especially when part of the price is a tumultuous, mutually resentful and verbally violent relationship with one of your children. There were hints throughout the book that perhaps if she had just raised her children the way she raised her dogs (with “patience, love, and possibly an initial investment of training time”), it would have been so much easier and more pleasant.

Too bad for all parents everywhere that children aren’t as easy to raise as dogs.