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Mommie Dearest?
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua

The Penguin Press | 229 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

author amy chau

Helicopter parents have nothing on Amy Chua.  Does she not have enough to keep her busy? She’s a Professor of Law at Yale, author of several books on ethnicity, she often tours the country as a guest speaker, and now, this memoir.  And yet nothing, and I mean nothing, can get this sticky flypaper mom off the back of her kids’ necks.  Basically, she raises them in a hothouse atmosphere where all they can do is work, work, work – no play dates, no TV, no computer games, no sports. They are to study every second (alone, with a private tutor and then with her), even on vacation, and devote 5-6 hours a day to practicing piano for one, and violin, for the other.

All is excused, as this is the way Chinese mothers (tiger mothers) raise their young.  The method is obviously successful, Chua says.  Look at her and look at the many Asian youngsters who are accomplished, successful, and fulfilled!  And then look at the unwashed hordes of American kids whose parents are too afraid to discipline them or expect much – not as successful, in her book.  So though married to another Professor of Law, a Jewish-American, she forswears perhaps the love of her kids, and certainly the peace of her household, for kiddie boot camp.  Both daughters become musical prodigies, but at what cost?

Chua takes us through the daily routines with her daughters, the painful hours of monitoring their schoolwork and their endless practice sessions on the piano and violin.  Her power struggles with her younger daughter start at three and climax as the daughter enters adolescence.  Once in a while, Chua lets a bit of doubt enter her voice when she wonders aloud if she has any capacity herself for happiness.  And, hell, Chinese mothers don’t worry about whether their child is happy, self-actualized, or has found his or her passion.  Only by pushing harder and harder and never ever settling for an A minus can they gain confidence in their abilities and develop self-esteem.   Their eyes are set on four generations of family behind them who they cannot and will not disgrace with subpar performances.

What makes this book so engaging is Chua’s tone.  She is perceptive enough and American enough (second generation) to see her actions from the outside, acknowledging at times that Child Welfare would have a good case against her!  She knows her husband disagrees with all the screaming and fighting and inflexibility of routine, but simply defers to her.  As much as she criticizes American parenthood, she has to admit that her husband has turned out to be pretty darned successful in his own right.  So he gave up music at a young age and wishes he had been forced to practice – yet he still emerges as a more well-rounded character and, conceivably, a happier person.

Easy as it is to poke holes in Chua’s Chinese method, the American reader has to admit that her techniques and assumptions make us a bit defensive about our own.  We’re not likely to adopt her Draconian measures with our own kids – you know, she would be a good match for The Great Santini! – but maybe we should be a little more demanding of them?  Or else how, as she points out, will they ever compete in a global economy with the ultra-disciplined offspring of Eastern countries?

Throughout, Chua displays a blithe unconcern for her children’s psychological well-being and disregards any preferences they may have about how to spend their free time.  “It’s all about you, Mom,” one accuses her, and the reader has to agree that having a child perform at Carnegie Hall may be more of a thrill for the parent than the child.  The book builds towards a climax of sorts, a confrontation between mother and daughter, in which, Omg, the daughter, throws a water glass on the ground! 

This climax is not more exciting than it sounds, and from here on, Chua seems to flounder.  The kids are not grown up yet so it’s hard to access whether any real damage has been done to their delicate psyches.  When asked, they let their mother off the hook (of course!).  She admits she does not know how to finish the book and it shows.  It would be instructive to revisit this family in ten years and then assess the damages.

Whatever the conclusion, the reader has to applaud Chua for her honesty in recreating the daily routines to which she submitted herself and her daughters and indirectly, her husband.  Even her Chinese immigrant parents, at times, were begging her to ease up a bit.  She has written this account in a very readable, clear prose style, and her story can be absorbed in no time at all.  What follows are hours of stimulating dialogue with friends and family over the Chinese vs. American way of raising children and the conclusion that we both have a lot to learn from each other and maybe the middle road, as is often the case, is the one to take.

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