Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eye of the Tiger: In Defense of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

As a relatively new mother, I was unable to escape the hype surrounding Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin, 2011). For weeks, my eyes inadvertently wandered to reviews, mostly scathing, of this alleged “Freudian nightmare” treatise on parenting. While Chua is a successful law professor at Yale, has authored numerous articles and two compelling books on political history and economic issues, she is recognized in most households as mean mommyBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother shocked a nation of parents and non-parents alike over Chua’s “Chinese” method of parenting. Her philosophy encompasses strict rules such as: no TV, no video games, no drama class, and no sleepovers. Children must honour their parents, play either the piano or the violin (perfectly), and they must never receive a grade less than an A. Before the book hit the stores, endless tear-stained reviews poured into the media, many accused Chua of taking her tough-love tactics too far, of being abusive, of being a fanatic and worst of all, of stealing the childhood of two innocent girls.

While the hype seemed very entertaining, I had no intention of reading another parent’s latest musings, mainly due to my strong aversion to the rise of mommy-literature and mommy-bloggers. I feel no need to publicize my child-rearing methods, nor do I have a desire to read the same philosophies of mass-marketed pseudo-intellectuals. Alas, my efforts to avoid the debate came to an end one evening when one especially cheeky rascal tossed a copy of the book in my lap over dinner. As he sat there quite proud of his gag gift, I managed an underwhelmed “thanks,” while I struggled to decipher whether it would fit in my purse with my more important books. When I finally committed to reading –  what I was expecting to be sanctimonious garble I was incredibly surprised. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was frustrating, inspiring, thought-provoking and above all entertaining. It was not filled with the mere tirades of a matriarchal maniac, but instead featured the courageous journey of one tremendous woman determined to create the best life for her daughters as humanly possible. I found myself wanting to defend Amy Chua to the bleeding heart masses.

Chua makes a compelling defense of her thesis that the Chinese method of parenting is superior to that of the Western style. This argument is fueled by Chua’s fear of a declining civilization. "This country is going downhill,” she articulates throughout her work. Chua is petrified for the next generation, the generation that “because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents” are reaping the benefits of an upper-middle class. She worries that this generation has become both lazy and satisfied with mediocrity. To prevent her daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), from falling victim, she installs what she believes is a superior method of parenting. This requires Chua to be, what she describes as, a Tiger Mother. This means strict schedules, little involvement in the whimsical touchy-feely activities practiced by Western parents. She is dead set on raising children far ahead of the curve, prodigies in fact.

Amy Chua with daughters Sophia and Louisa
The first two thirds of the book demonstrate the rules of the Tiger Mother in action. Chua reminisces about grueling music lessons, all night math homework escapades and nerve-racking auditions. Her faith in her daughters’ talents caused her to push them to limits unimaginable to many parents limits of which shocked the nation and sparked outrage. From the trivial (Chua did not allow her daughters to own unintelligent pets such as rabbits) to the undeniably shocking (threatening to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she did not play a piano piece perfectly), these criticisms were presented in the most unfair light.

As I read Tiger Mother, and came across each of these so-called injustices, I could not help but wonder how many people actually listened to the author and how many were just going into knee-jerk hysteria. If one read carefully, they would realize that Amy’s threats were mainly talk. She used various verbal tactics of installing both pride and shame in her daughters. One example that sparked a lot of disparagement was when Chua described how, when at her wit's end with her enraged three-year-old daughter Lulu, she demanded that Lulu stand out in the cold until she agreed to play the piano properly. Did the reader not get past the part where Chua felt immediately guilty and pleaded with her defiant daughter to come in and, after eventually coaxing her, put her in a warm bath with brownies and hot cocoa? In my opinion, this more than made up for the ordeal. True, some tactics are unorthodox in this day and age, but I disagree that there was any abuse or neglect. Her daughters at no point were afraid of ever standing up to Chua’s punishments: Lulu obstinately stood out in the snow to spite her mother. Chua just put more effort into raising her children than the over-psychoanalyzed critics would like to admit.

Chua put immense pressure on her daughters to succeed, and why not? What is so wrong with having standards and demanding excellence? There seems to be an inexplicable movement against elitism. When did being exceptional become a bad thing? Chua is an individual who still will not settle for mediocrity. And, to excel beyond the rest, you need to bust your hump. As harsh as the discipline seems, Chua is on to something. When her daughter lost a math competition to a classmate, she had to perform 2,000 math questions that evening until she was the best. Insane, yes, but look at where it got them. These girls have a track record of academic excellence coupled with prestigious awards. Her eldest daughter, Sophia, performed at Cargegie Hall in the eighth grade. Both girls performed in Budapest at Franz Liszt’s Acadmeny of Music. Obviously Chua had done something right.

This thought-provoking work made me contemplate much of my own childhood, which was also very strict and sheltered. While there are many things that my parents did that I still disagree with, the installation of a strict schedule is not one of them. I give much credit to many of my accomplishments and my abilities to the fact that I had discipline installed in me through childhood. Like Chua, I have been able to work “psychotically hard” when necessary. With hard work comes rewards, freedoms and responsibilities that I now enjoy. Chua perfectly describes the difference between idealistic actions and responsible ones: “In Disney movies,” she describes, “the good daughter always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes give you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.”

Author Amy Chua
However, speaking from experience, I do recognize an important flaw in Chua’s strategy. Being dead set on grooming her daughters for success, she needs to pay attention to the society in which we live and all variables necessary for success. We live in a world where practical intelligence and the ability to build inter-personal relationships is imperative. Separating her daughters from most social activities is not the best method to raise emotional intelligence quotas. This is what concerns me the most about Chua’s parenting method. During my upbringing, sleepovers and extracurricular involvement, outside of piano lessons, was also limited. This led to a great disconnection between me and my peers. While things are getting better, I still feel at a disadvantage in many social situations, both personally and professionally. I believe this has held me back from many personal relationships and has also made necessary professional socializing all the more nerve-wracking.

Thus while hard-work is imperative to success, it does not guarantee it. Natural intelligence, genetics, social abilities and socio-economic placement also come into play. Chua’s daughters are successful and disciplined mainly thanks to Chua’s parenting, but also luckily thanks to their genes and their socio-economic platform. Those without these platforms may find benefits to tiger parenting, but may not have as great of results.

The last third of the book is more introspective and philosophical. You see a softer side of Chua as she is grief stricken by an illness in the family and emotionally brought to her knees by a rebellious teenager. She even, to a degree, acknowledges that she had to ease up on her youngest daughter who, while she benefited from Chua’s simulated boot camp, was just not responding well to the culture in her thirteenth year. It is here I could see not only the physical effort that Chua has invested in her family, but the emotional investment as well.

Overall, the Chua sisters had a tremendously enriched childhood. Those weeping over lost childhoods are in need of a reality check. Sophia and Lulu’s childhood was spent travelling the world, experiencing opportunities of a lifetime, receiving the highest standard of education, and grooming for success. They turn out as bright, well-adjusted, ambitious young women who are in no need of anyone’s sympathy.

Would I instigate any of these methods into my own daughter? Not entirely, especially since my daughter recently attended her first sleepover at the tender age of two. I believe there is no categorical imperative to child rearing. There are people who just do not respond to authority, and while one can try their hardest, you just cannot change people. I do, however, hope that I have the courage and tenacity that Chua had. I hope for the strength and ability to inspire an equally unique and strong human being.

As the title of the book reflects, Chua was born under the sign of the Tiger. (While she claims to disagree with astrology, Chua still finds pride in her sign.) According to the Chinese zodiac, those born in the year of the tiger are courageous, charismatic, and diligent. They are also stubborn and authoritative. Chua does reflect this perfect combination of being extremely admirable and extremely overbearing. The Tiger Mother, regardless of how strict, is an extraordinary parent. While she followed the road less taken, it was much harder, not only in time and effort, but she also had a mind blowing schedule of legal lectures and penning two books, while she invested so much time in her daughters’ upbringings. She also fought a lonely battle, separated from other parents who believed that Chua was in the wrong. But the Tiger Mother kept going. This alone confirms that she is a respectable and admirable person. Whatever one feels about her parenting methods, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother certainly proves that Amy Chua is a force to be reckoned with.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.


  1. What about just wanting your kids to be happy? Or is happiness too 2010?

  2. Laura Warner replies: Hi Bookbutterfly. Yes, everyone wants their children to be happy. I would also argue that Chua wants very much for her daughters to be happy. She wants them to work hard, succeed and have the freedoms, and subsequent happiness, that comes from hard-work.

    Although you do raise an interesting point. It reminds me of a Robert Lynd quote: "Most of us believe in trying to make other people happy only if they can be happy in ways which we approve." I think this applies to Chua's method, because, to her, happiness is excellence.

    While we can criticize Chua for imposing too many of her own opinions on her daughters, the same can be said for every other parenting method. Even the most relaxed parents who see happiness as doing crafts all day and coax them to do so are also pushing their ideals of happiness.

    I'm just arguing that Chua's method is no better or worse. Just different. And she is motivated by the idea that in the end, her daughters will live full, happy lives.

  3. I think the best parents are those who truly *see* their children. Parents who recognize children for who they are at any given moment, not who they could be and not even who they want to be.

    Parents use so many things (piano lessons, day camp, organized sports) as a substitute so they won’t have to take ownership over truly engaging with their children. I’m not saying that having children involved in these things is inherently wrong, just that good parenting and busy children can coexist, but are in no way directly correlated.

    I’m just concerned that Chua’s parenting method is not really a parenting method at all – more like a method to boost her own ego.

  4. Laura Warner replies: As far as using extra-curricular events as a subsitute, Chua was actually against this. It was what she dubbed the "over-scheduling soccer mom." Chua was very very much inovlved in every waking moment of the music lessons.

    I do think there's some truth in what you say about her ego. But a lot of everything we put time and effort in has a lot to do with bolstering our egos.