Reflections from a Tiger Son
A Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
By Cory Liu
Never let your children earn a grade of less than an A. Tutor them in math until they are two years ahead of their classmates. Require them to play either the piano or the violin. These are the staples of what Amy Chua calls "Chinese parenting."
In her controversial new memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua contrasts her strict style of "Chinese parenting" with "Western parenting." Her usage of the terms Chinese and Western are simplifications, and she acknowledges that plenty of Westerners practice Chinese parenting—in fact she even ponders whether previous generations of Americans would have approved of the indulgent style of parenting that has taken hold in the US.
According to Chua, there are three main differences between Western and Chinese parenting. First, when it comes to setting expectations for children, Western parents are anxious about hurting children's self-esteem, while Chinese parents believe that their children are strong enough to endure shaming and will grow because of it. They assume strength, not fragility, and if their children don't make perfect grades, they assume it's because the child wasn't trying. Second, Chinese parents sacrifice everything to help their children succeed and therefore believe their children owe them everything; this Chinese attitude traces back thousands of years to the ancient Confucian value of filial piety. And third, Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children. They have no problem overriding their child's desires and preferences for the child's own good.
What results from these three values is a parent that is highly strict, intensely obsessed with achieving success for their children, particularly when it comes to academics, and willing to control their children's lives to help them succeed. Throughout the book, Chua provides many emotional and personal stories about the exhausting challenges that come with being a Chinese parent.
For example, when her daughter, Sophia, came in second place on her weekly fifth grade multiplication test , she responded by making Sophia take twenty practice tests with 100 problems each over the course of one week. After that one week of intense practice, Sophia was first in her class for the rest of the year.
In another anecdote, Chua describes how she struggled with her daughter Lulu over practicing a difficult piece for the piano that she had been struggling with. Lulu resisted physically by punching, kicking, and even tearing the music score, but Chua refused to let her to quit. She taped the score together, encased it in a plastic covering, and would not allow her to leave until she mastered the piece. When Lulu continued to resist, she called her lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic. She even threatened to sell her toys. They fought for hours until, all of a sudden, Lulu finally managed to play the piece successfully. When Lulu performed the piece at a recital several weeks later, someone came up to her afterwards and told her, "What a perfect piece for Lulu—it's so spunky it's so her."
Chua's book teaches us two simple truths about life. First, true self-esteem comes through achieving success, not being coddled and hearing empty praise. And second, success is achieved only through hard work and perseverance. Through describing her parenting methods, Chua reveals the process through which Asians have produced the stereotype of being academically successful. Are Asians genetically predisposed to be good at math? Are they divinely gifted at playing the piano? Chua's answer is a resounding no. She makes clear that the success Asians achieve is due to a strict, military-like work ethic driven by an obsessive fixation on competition and success. Chua's style of parenting is one that many Asian-American readers will identify with, myself included.
That being said, Chua does not blindly advocate Chinese parenting. Her book is a memoir of her journeys as a parent, not a manual for parenting. While she vigorously defends the merits of Chinese parenting, she also discusses its shortcomings, sometimes through self-deprecating humor, and other times through serious reflection. One of the main subjects of the book is how Lulu became increasingly resentful of her mother for forcing her to play the violin, resulting in Chua eventually "Going West," as she describes it in the title of one chapter, and allowing Lulu to quit the violin. (Chua switched Lulu from the piano to the violin—without consulting her, of course—because she worried about rivalry with her sister Sophia).
There are two significant shortcomings of Chinese parenting that Chua reveals. The first is that, in being so strict and demanding, parents may lose the ability to empathize with their children, and end up neglecting the children's emotional need to feel accepted and loved by their parents. As she reflects on her decision to allow Lulu to quit, she describes the effects of Chinese parenting on her father, "his mother didn't respect his choices, his individualism, or worry about his self-esteem—all those Western clichés. The result was that my father hated his family…and as soon as he had a chance he moved as far away as he could, never once looking back."
Chinese parents have the tough love part of parenting down. They have no problem making decisions that will upset their children for their own good. But they must not forget to show their children affirmation of their worth, and during adolescence, approval for their decisions. As children begin transitioning into adulthood, parents who always think they know best for their children will find themselves running into more and more conflicts with their children, as Chua's vivid accounts of her conflicts with Lulu demonstrate.
I had many similar experiences in high school myself. For example, in tenth grade, my mother suddenly decided that I need to join the math club. Math was boring to me, and the people in the club were irritating. After going just once, I hated it, and I told my mother so. Her response was to tell me to keep going, because I never knew if I would grow to like it. I was pretty certain that I wouldn't, but I kept going a few more times, protesting increasingly loudly about it when she picked me up. She ignored my complaints each time.
Eventually, I got so furious that I told her that if she wanted me to go to math club, she would have to come to school and force me. I informed her that I planned to take the bus home, and she wouldn't find me if she came to school to pick me up. Thankfully, she was merciful enough, or perhaps just sane enough, not to call my bluff and that was the end of math club for me. (There were, in fact, multiple friends of mine, all Asian, whose parents would show up at school to check up on them.)
With all their demanding, criticizing, and comparing with other children, Chinese parents need to know when they're going too far, and must not forget to also show occasional demonstrations of approval. Otherwise, they run the risk of alienating their children, the way Chua's father was. There is a second shortcoming of Chinese parenting that Chua is not so self-aware about. While Chua concedes that there are possible side effects of Chinese parenting, such as pushing your children too hard and neglecting them emotionally, she never questions the central premise of Chinese parenting—that pushing your children to compete is always a good thing. Having such an attitude clearly has benefits in helping children be motivated and succeed, as Chua demonstrates, but that fixation on competition comes at the expense of spontaneity and creativity.
Competition is about conforming to a set of rules and expectations, with success being determined by comparing one's ability to conform against other competitors. At its core, competition is inherently at odds with individual self-expression. Certainly people can express themselves through competition, but this expression is limited in scope because its ends are pre-determined by the rules of the competition itself.
For example, basketball players can be creative with their slam dunks and alley oops, but the extent of their creativity is limited to finding ways of moving the basketball into the hoop. Chinese parenting, because of its obsession with competition, overlooks the possibility of success and greatness being achieved through undirected, spontaneous, creative activity that arises from within.
With enough focus and practice you can learn to bring out all of the emotional nuances of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. But even with the best technical proficiency and performance skills, a person may never be able to create anything as beautiful and expressive. What Beethoven had was creativity, the ability to envision something original and turn it into a reality.
Of course, as Chua might point out, turning that creativity into a brilliant creation requires a strong foundation of training. You have to understand the tools you're using before you create your work. Simply knowing how to "be yourself" is not enough to produce greatness, and spontaneity without discipline to guide it is mere passion.
Yet with many Chinese parents, particularly those who are first generation immigrants (which Chua is not), spontaneity and creativity are entirely overlooked. When I first told my father I wanted to study political science at a liberal arts college and pursue a career in law or politics, he initially tried to persuade me to study engineering or computer science, because they offered more reliable job opportunities. He told me that I needed to be practical, and that life's not about doing what you want to do, it's about doing what you can do.
Although I've devoted significant energy to describing the flaws of Chinese parenting, I have to say that at the end of the day, I'm thankful for the way I was raised. The same is true for Sophia, who wrote an open letter thanking her mother that was published in the New York Post. Chinese parenting teaches children the value of hard work and individual responsibility, and for all the times I've resented my parents for thinking they knew better, I've also been thankful for the number of mistakes in life they've helped me avoid. In a sense, my criticisms are themselves a form of Chinese parenting—I focus on its flaws precisely because I believe in its strength.