Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – a review

The cover of the Mainland Chinese edition of the book. Title: “I am a mother in America: a Yale law professor’s parenting experience.”

This is not a critique of Amy Chua’s parenting, or of “tiger parenting” in general. There have been so many expositions on it that a simple Google search should bring up plenty of excellent blog posts and articles on that matter.

Instead, this is a review of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
. I’d like to say that this was the book that started it all, but what really started it all was the Wall Street Journal article. Many, if not most commentators on the tiger parenting phenomenon have not actually read the book. A newspaper article simply cannot pack in the nuance of a 244 page book (late 2011 edition with new afterword), and I think this is part of the reason why the controversy was so explosive.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a heartfelt, well-written memoir on parenting. Aside from the tedious middle portion in which she switches from one daughter’s musical experiences to the other’s for several chapters, it reads well, and the short chapters make it easy to digest. Her writing can be extremely funny. For example, a fight with her husband Jed after they got their first dog, a Samoyed named Coco:

“All you think about is writing your own books and your own future,” I attacked. “What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever even think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?”

Chua quite abashedly exposes her own vulnerabilities and mistakes as a parent, something that got lost in the WSJ article. Tiger parenting got her amazing results, but she does not try to hide the fact that it is not ideal and that it has caused much pain, suffering, and sacrifice for her entire family. At one point in the book, a very public fight with one of her daughters in a restaurant in Russia ends with her running out into the center of Moscow. She realized that she had gone too far, and that her personal brand of tiger parenting had its limits.

At the end of the book I felt quite sorry for her. She and her husband have the same job at Yale Law School and yet she is the one who makes all of the sacrifices in parenting! This pattern is far from unique, and it is unsurprising that she did not voice any discontent about this division of labor in the book, but I still find it quite unfair.

My only major quibble with this book is her insistence on using “Western parenting” and “Chinese parenting” as broad labels. Though she acknowledges in the beginning that she does not want to generalize too much, she still does in the rest of her text. She does not seem to recognize how much class privilege is involved in her style of raising children. Not all “Chinese” parents can spend as much time and money as she does on her daughters’ music training; in fact, many don’t have the knowledge to do so, even if they had the time. Her “Chinese” parenting really is “upper-middle-class urban second generation Chinese American working mom parenting;” much of it cannot apply to parents without her privileges.

*** Full disclosure: This is an Amazon Associates link. If you click on this link and end up buying the book, I get a small cut of Amazon’s profit on it.

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