Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

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The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is one of the funnies and thought-provoking books I have ever read. It’s a memoir written by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, about raising her daughters and trying to do what’s best for them. Amy Chua was born into a family of Chinese immigrants who came to the US as scholars, her father graduated from Harvard and became a professor. Amy was raised by a very strict Chinese mother and she wanted to raise her own daughters in a same way.  This book is definitely not a “how to” book, it’s more   a search  of the compromise between different sets of cultural values and different parenting styles. What is a Chinese mother anyway?

“Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.”

 Amy was very ambitious for her daughters: they had to be exceptionally good at schools, they had to practice music oftentimes 5 to 6 hours a day from the age of 5, they were not allowed to go to parties, play computer games or watch TV.   The book ends when the eldest daughter  (Sophia) is 18,  she is playing piano, respecting her parents and going to one of the Ivy League universities (like her parents and grandparents from both sides) and the younger (Lulu) is 15, rebelling in her own way, but still bringing excellent grades, paying violin just for fun, and winning tennis tournaments in her spare time.  In the book’s Appendices there is a letter written by Sophia, passionately defending her mother and arguing that strict parenting style, emphasis on discipline and hard work combined with high expectations for children did not ruin her childhood, just the opposite – helped her become the talented, driven, accomplished young woman she is proud to be. Just after the book release, in 2011, Amy Chua was called a “monster” “ruining her daughters lives forever”. To me, it’s totally wrong conclusion.

Amy defines a few key differences between Chinese mothers and Western mothers:

–  Chinese parents have higher dreams for their children, and higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.  They expect a lot from their children and aren’t concerned about their children’s psyches.

– Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital.

I personally find this excerpt below just hilarious:

For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child “stupid,” “worthless” or “a disgrace.” Privately, the Western parents may worry that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials.

 If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.

And to summarize:

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Even if you have not read the book, I am sure, you get the picture.

What I am personally curious about is what makes this or any other parenting style work? To me – it’s authenticity.  Amy insists that her daughters need to work hard, pay attention to all details, prepare and rehearse, do their homework, and aim for excellence. Amy, herself, totally walking her talk: she is working full time, writing books, travelling and giving lectures and, at the same time, going into all minor details of her daughters musical trainings, learning with them, checking their homework, doing the research on dogs intelligence ratings and training the dog, researching leukemia treatments, when her mother-in-law got sick…  Amy is a high performing never losing a minute super-achiever. That is why her demands kind of make sense to me. She truly believes that hard work and discipline are the answer. Amy herself points out into two areas where she was not quite authentic and those are exactly the areas where her daughters did not obey. Amy and her Jewish husband were not really religious, but decided to raise their daughters Jewish. None of the parents spoke Mandarin, but they wanted their kids to be fluent in this language and hired them tutors. In both instances, there are some indications in the book that religion and language would not “stick” after the girls leave their parents home.  Anyway, I admire Amy and her courage even though I do not quite agree with some of her methods.

What about Russian mothers? Funnily enough, they are somewhere between the Western and the Chinese.  Russian mothers are very completive and very driven until their child is out of the primary school. Then they often give up and go with the flow. About 15 years ago, Russian mothers contracted a virus of early child development.  Every mother was going crazy and overboard by learning all possible theories and methodologies, arguing about advantages of Montessori method versus Waldorf, enlisting their newborns into horse riding classes  and hiring Latin and Modern Arts tutors for their 4 year olds by dozens. In Russian traditional society, it very important to be a “good mother”. If at the age of 30 (25 in provincial  towns) you were just successful and accomplished  professional with a lot of hobbies having fun with your life,  but not married and without children, you were a loser.  Probably there was something wrong with you, because nobody wanted to marry you. Many young girls were forced to believe that lifelong happiness was only possible to achieve by getting married to a good guy who would solve all your problems and take care of everything. Many of those girls were explicitly told that  guys would not marry smart or independent thinking women, that’s why career ambitions and personal fulfillments were never high on female agenda.  At least in my days, and something tells me that this is largely still the case. The only socially respectable area for female  ambitions and self-fulfillment was parenting. Hence, early development.

The problem was (in my view) that the majority of those girls did not speak Latin or any other foreign language, they barely played musical instruments, they did not exercise, they got married very early before achieving anything meaningful in life and they often took all kinds of shit from their not so perfect husbands.  All their efforts to raise wunderkinds  were destined to fail, because there was nothing authentic about it.

For example, my very strict mother forced me to go through 7 years of music school,  playing piano and learning solfeggio 3 to 4 days a week,  a few hours a day, because my mother probably felt it was important to give me some opportunities, that she did not have.  Or maybe she hoped music would make me a better wife (ha-ha!) At the same time, music was never a part of our family life, my parents did not listen to the music at home, they did not go to the opera  (there was no opera in a small town anyway) and did not play any instruments. I probably had some talent and even graduated with straight As, but ever since my graduation I barely opened the piano. It was very clear that music was not something my parents viewed as important, they just wanted it to be important to me. It took me almost 10 years of living in Europe, being exposed to the finest theaters and concerts (and people who attend them),  10 years of being surrounded by this amazing cultural heritage, to re-discover the joy and excitement of classical music. I still don’t play the piano, by the way.

My point is that parenting probably happens passively more than actively, not when we do something intentionally, but rather through our everyday actions. Similar to Amy, I have a very high regard for good education and self-development. And  tend to agree with Chinese mothers that kids are able to  handle a lot more than we usually think they can  and I do not think Chinese mothers are terribly insensitive. In my value system, all human beings need to be able to deal with their hurt egos, sensitivities, insecurities and overcome temporary disappointments. This is what they call emotional intelligence, right?

But I am completely, 200%, against Amy’s controls and micro-management.  In my view, freedom, trust and respect work better than controls with kids and adults alike. I also feel like finding your passion is very important, because when you do something you like, even if it’s 12 hours long, it won’t feel like hard work, even if you do it a lot.  It’s something very Chinese in how they value math, science and classical music.  I have seen it a lot with my fellow students. It looks like Chinese families do not have the same high regard for political career, entrepreneurship, arts and theater, group sports or appreciation of nature. Maybe all those other activities and career paths are seen as risky or less predictable, that is why Chinese parents (who always know what’s best for their children) try to chose and focus on something that’s likely to bring success. It’s also clear to me, that  Amy’s parenting style is  not preparing kids to take risks and fail. In my view, it’s OK and even necessary to try and fail, because curiosity and courage are as important (if not more) as hard work, plus it’s impossible to control everything and prepare for everything. In many instances, including tests, homework,  dates, interviews or work assignments, “done is better than perfect”.

I rarely (maybe once a year) check homeworks, usually when the kids need help with a weird math equation. I do not read them books. I do not force them to go to any extra curricular activities, and do not stress when they try something and drop, I do not choose and do not judge their friends, I do not take part in play dates and do not go to playgrounds and kids birthday parties. Probably I am another form of extreme, but I am authentic in what I do.  I study myself all the time, I endlessly go to various classes (and drop from many of them), I exercise several times a week, I travel as much as I can, I read even more than I travel and I want to succeed at least in some of my endeavors (even in parenting). I do not respect lazy, inert or narrow-minded people, especially when they are healthy chronic recipients of the unemployment money. I do not need to state and remind those values to kids, I think even 4 year old Diana is very clear about all of the above. I am pretty sure if we had a dog, the dog would get it.

You never know with parenting, but so far my approach works for me and most likely wouldn’t work for someone with a different  mindset. My only advise to those who desperately take their kids to various tutors and teachers without seeing any progress is to take a step back and ask yourself: are you mastering the things you want your child to learn? If not, it’s better to invest in yourself first.  Statistically, it’s much more likely that children would reach the social level of their parents and stay there.

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3 Responses to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

  1. Yana, thanks for a great post and this book – this is very relevant to me as a mother of a very active 5-year-old. Still struggling to find the right balance – I definitely have no intention of ruining her childhood but want her to be successful in life, that is for sure.
    It is a question, though, if demanding only A’s from a child is really the best strategy. I’ve always been the “star” in class, at university, all straight A’s, group leader, etc. But I cannot say that this is any kind of guaranty for success in life and career – apart from its creating some internal pressure always to be the first and best in everything I do (which is not always possible, as you can imagine; life is a little bit more complex than the “black vs white” of school education).
    Anyways, your post gave me some useful thoughts. Thanks!

  2. el says:

    Waldorf (Steiner) is the complete opposite to the early development methods.

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