Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — A Book Review and Commentary

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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. By Amy Chua. The Penguin Press. Buy Here From Amazon

After reading Yale Law professor Amy Chua’s provocatively titled article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” in the Wall Street Journal, I not only instantly ordered her memoir, but I knew it was destined to become an instantaneous New York Times bestseller.

Even though Professor Chua lucidly articulated her fundamental points in the article, as with most things controversial, people felt it necessary to mischaracterize her assertions to undermine her arguments. The most common lamebrained criticism of Professor Chua came from people who insisted that she is racist due to her “making a claim about parenting superiority based on race.”

Even if this were Professor Chua’s actual argument, it would be a stretch to call it racist. However, in a society with rabble-rousing racial opportunists, it is no surprise that every fleeting mention of race is construed as intolerable racism. What’s comical, however, is that isn’t her argument, at all. Professor Chua clearly states in the piece that she is using the terms “Chinese” and “Western” loosely. She argues that it is entirely possible, albeit rare, to have Western parents who are “Chinese” parents, and in the same way, it is possible to have Chinese parents who are “Western” parents. If her fire-breathing detractors even bothered to read just a sentence past the controversial list in her article, it would have been entirely apparent that she wasn’t making a point based on race.

The other critique levied against Professor Chua is that she is wrong to vigorously push her children towards excellence. For instance, FOX News anchor Bill O’Reilly, while discussing the book on the January 27th edition of his show, called Professor Chua a “crazy woman,” while constantly repeating the line, “She never let her kids watch TV or play sports!” Apart from making it glaringly evident that he didn’t bother to read the book or the article, O’Reilly decided to launch his finishing argument to “destroy” Professor Chua’s assertions.

O’Reilly’s supposed sockdolager was that because he was a rotten child whose parents allowed him to be mediocre throughout his childhood, and he still managed to become a successful news anchor with an advanced degree from Harvard, therefore, you have to let children be themselves.

Subsequently, O’Reilly superciliously remarked that Professor Chua was too intimidated to come on his show because she cannot stand up to his questioning.

Although I, by and large, enjoy O’Reilly’s show and generally agree with most of his assessments, he couldn’t be more wrong here. While O’Reilly believes he is a purveyor of unconquerable logic, the sad reality is that his comments with respect to this issue were logically fallacious. To be exact, he is guilty of the logical fallacy of converse accident.

O’Reilly fails to understand that despite the fact that: (a) he was a poorly behaved child; (b) he was left alone by his parents to wallow in his mediocrity and indiscipline; and (c) he ultimately ended up with a Harvard degree and a successful television show, it does not follow that his exception should be a general rule meaning all children should be left to be unruly and will naturally turn out as fantastically as he did. The vast majority of children who are left undisciplined by their parents make an irreparable hash of their lives.

Contrarily, however, the vast majority of children who are raised with Chua-like parenting end up as prodigies.

Looking at it from the broader end, Professor Chua’s argument is clearly more cogent and efficacious. By every meaningful metric, immigrant children, who more often than not undergo the kind of “Chinese” parenting discussed in the book, massively outperform Western children at practically every stage of education, and are massively ahead as it relates to mathematics and science — continuing even to the doctoral level with foreigners taking home the bulk of Ph.D.s in engineering in 2006. Obviously there is something immigrants are doing right that Westerners ought to take notes on. (Just like Professor Chua corrected her mistakes and adopted the best parts of “Western” parenting.)

On a literary level, I found this book to be stunningly well-written, and the smooth prose was highly readable and enjoyable. The book is divided into three parts with the first part introducing the reader to the harsh parenting practices that occurred in the Chua household, the second part developing the narrative, and the third part describing how Professor Chua’s second daughter, Lulu, rebelled against her mother after being pushed incredibly hard to get a place at Julliard, which ended unsuccessfully, and — without spoiling the book — with a weird haircut.

While reading the book, what surprised me most was the undue emphasis that was placed on music — even ahead of education. Sure, we saw some portions of the book where Professor Chua would drill her daughters with stopwatches in order to get their math skills to a level far beyond their peers, but Professor Chua writes that she used to take her daughters out of school early so they could get more time to practice their music, as she felt that school wasted a lot of time with unnecessary fluff activities. In point of fact, almost the latter two parts of the book are devoted to Sophia and Louisa’s various musical conquests. The ratio of music practice to book learning, strictly inferring from the amount of time devoted to each in the book, was clearly heavy on the former and much lighter on the latter.

It is conspicuous that the daughters became very well educated, as Sophia’s eloquent language in her essay and angry retorts to her mother using sophisticated vocabulary demonstrated, but the book definitely demonstrated that Professor Chua’s passion was making sure her children were musical prodigies, and I left with the impression that was of greater importance to her than their cerebral development and academic achievement.

Another important point that one can learn from Professor Chua’s parental missteps is that killing the creative side of music in favor of mechanical learning isn’t always the best thing. There is a scene in the book in which a piano teacher for Sophia (the eldest daughter) is hired, and he gives some good advice: Play for yourself and learn to improvise. Music is about feeling.

Eccentrically, Professor Chua responds with the following passage (pg.26):

As the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants, I don’t have time to improvise or make up my own rules. I have a family name to uphold, aging parents to make proud. I like clear goals, and clear ways of measuring success.

This treatment of improvisation as a dirty word is extremely damaging, especially considering it stifles the innovative spirit within a child.

By the end of the book, Professor Chua has relaxed her “Tiger Mother” stance and allowed Lulu to play tennis, which she excelled at. The book closes with Professor Chua mentioning she wants another dog, signifying to the reader that there was a complete change in her mothering style. The book leaves the reader with the impression that there is a healthy balance between the “Chinese” and “Western” styles.

While Professor Chua argues that she did not intend the book to be a “How to Parent” guide, I believe if the book is read properly and in context, without people simplistically picking out the few harsh things she did at the beginning in order to label her a bad mother, the book is a pretty good manual on parenting. A competent reader can learn what one should do, as well as learn what one should not do as a parent. It eloquently points out the pitfalls of being “too Western” and “too Chinese.”

Of course prohibiting your child from ever watching television, having a play date, or playing a school sport is excessively authoritarian. Similarly, forcing your child to sit at the piano for hours until they’ve learned a particular song without allowing toilet breaks is also beyond the pale and counterproductive. However, to brush aside the entire book as being worthless because of Professor Chua’s initial filial excesses, which she learns from by the end of the book, is preposterous.

Regardless of whatever anyone thinks of Professor Chua’s parenting, her results cannot be disputed: she created two child music prodigies. The parenting she received obviously was effective also: Apart from being a tenured professor of law at Yale, she holds a B.A., magna cum laude, from Harvard and a J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law. Her sister holds an M.D. / Ph.D. from Harvard and is a professor at Stanford Medical School, and their sister with Down’s syndrome holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.

You cannot argue with such overwhelming success.

Although I am still very young and nowhere close to being a parent yet, I learned a lot from this book. When I am a parent, the “nothing less than ‘A’” policy is something that is going to be unwaveringly enforced in my household. I am going to persuade my children to go into hard sciences and, given the moral bankruptcy and educational dilapidation we see throughout the American scholastic system, the likelihood that my children will be home-schooled is incredibly high.

This book should be read by every parent and everyone who hopes to have a child one day. It’s unfortunate, however, that there are so many allegedly intelligent people who have no intellectual sieves to filter out good information from bad information. It is profoundly provincial to see one thing in a book that is outrageous or wrong and thus dismiss all the other wonderful points that can be garnered and utilized.

The fact that Professor Chua’s incredibly important opus is being brushed aside by the intellectually lazy, who prefer mendacious sound bites and catchy headlines to actually sitting down, reading a book, and contemplating the ideas it offers is shameful.

If people dispassionately read this book and adopt Professor Chua’s great ideas, while discarding the bad ideas that Professor Chua herself jettisons by the end of the book, America would certainly be on track to winning the future.