I first caught on to this book a few weeks ago when I heard the first few chapters serialized on Radio 4's Woman's Hour. In those few minutes, as I laboured through another pile of ironing, I was hooked on Chua's story, and her promise of parenting secrets to impart.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants to the USA, Amy Chua is a full professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her Jewish-American husband is also professor of Law at Yale. They are both not only academics but also producers of a number of best-selling books and articles. They are, one might say, high achievers.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Chua was born in the year of the Tiger) is the story of how this mother refused to allow her two daughters to settle back into the privileged world of an American university town, to throw away everything she and her immigrant parents had striven for, to achieve nothing, as many third-generation children do.
Chua rejected the laissez-faire 'Western-style of parenting' which she characterizes as giving children choices, emphasizing creativity over hard work and enshrining the fervent belief that learning, punctuated by mandatory playdates and sleepovers, should be fun. Instead she looked to her own culture, the Chinese way of doing things which, she says, demands complete respect and obedience from children, sees parents making choices for their children, and has a child's life taken up entirely with study and home.
Under Chua's absolutist regime, her daughters grew up "polite, interesting and helpful". They were simply not permitted to fail. Their school grades were perfect and the elder child, Sophie, was two years ahead of her contemporaries in maths. Both developed exceptional musical abilities, one on the piano, and the other on the violin. They were both bilingual in Mandarin and English at an early age.
This story is partly about the immigrant experience - an audition at Juilliard, for instance, was packed with Asian families and their hopeful prodigies, but Chua was ostracized at a dinner party by her Western friends for calling her daughter 'trash' when she came second in a maths competition. It is also about culture clash - how does one raise a child to be exceptional through sheer force of will, when that child is daily inculcated with the values of a culture that despises parental control and considers borderline criminal any parental attempts to force children to do what they think is best for them.
This was all very interesting. I really didn't like the angry, screaming, driven Amy Chua that came through. But I have to say, she has my respect. The sheer number of hours she put in struggling to keep the girls at it, learning by rote, getting it right every time, practising over and over and over and over. The sheer force of her will, which dominated her family's life for almost two decades, which brought her into conflict with her husband, her daughters, both sides of her extended family and even the dog.
But to my disappointment, the promised parenting revelations never materialized. I would like to have read more about how she did it. I was hoping for nuts and bolts. Where did she find the time between her full-time job, writing books and articles, and keeping house, to drill the girls on their homework or their music? I suspect an unmentioned housekeeper. I suspect plenty of readies for music teachers, maths tutors and nannies. I suspect a dishwasher...
And how did the girls stay awake at school each day when their mother was drilling them past midnight on their music? And exactly what means did she use to cajole them into doing all this stuff when they would rather have been out with their friends? And how is it possible to push your child to do something against their will and still have them love you at the end? More generally, and as a mother of a daughter who will, God-willing, one day be a teenager, did this intensive parenting style help to deflect the pain of the teenage years, to divert her daughters from trashy dressing and the delights of boyz, to develop them into something more than the vapid, airhead babes that 70s feminism seems to have spawned?
It's a fast read, and for anyone with children, an eye-opener. I wonder whether any 'Western' mother, after reading this book, would adopt such a harsh regime, but I think some will be tempted to up the ante and perhaps be less prepared to tolerate sloppiness, laziness, failure and disrespect.
I'll wind this up with a rather telling story, and the one that certainly made me think twice:
"Coco [the family dog] was afraid of going into the water - she'd never swum before - but Jed gently pulled her in to the deep center, where he let go of her. I was afraid Coco would drown, but just as Jed said she would, Coco dog-paddled safely to shore while we clapped and cheered, toweling her off and giving her big hugs when she arrived. That's one difference between a dog and a daughter, I thought to myself later. A dog can do something every dog can do - dog paddle, for example - and we applaud with pride and joy. Imagine how much easier it would be if we could do the same with daughters! But we can't; that would be negligence..."