I read a few articles and blog posts about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother when it was causing so much controversy in the US. And I admit to feeling outrage at many of the incidents and attitudes described. But, like many of the authors of these pieces, I had not actually read the book. I recall Chris suggesting I blog about it at the time, but I never got around to it and also felt wrong about ranting about a book I hadn’t read.
So, when Bloomsbury asked if I’d like a copy of the new edition (due out in paperback and ebook on 9 February 2012), I jumped at the chance. Let’s see what all the fuss is about, I thought, and I also warned the publicist that I might not be positive in my reaction to the book.
Well, I’m very glad to have had this opportunity, particularly as I think it’s quite unlikely I would have gone out and actively bought a copy myself.
I loved this book. It was a fascinating read and while, yes, there were some incidents and attitudes described that did make me feel uncomfortable, the overall read overshadowed these. I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the glimpses into another culture (I love getting inside another culture and having my world view challenged – I usually do it through fiction, but it was equally appealing to do so through a memoir) and I also enjoyed, somehow, a little element of relief that I’m not doing awfully as a mum.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not a parenting guide. Amy Chua never set out to write an instruction manual on how to bring up a musical prodigy or how to get your children to receive constant A grades. This is a memoir, an engagingly and sometimes comically written one, that centres on the author’s attempts to bring her children up in the traditional Chinese way. It looks at her successes and her failures – both in terms of her children’s achievements and in terms of their happiness, the importance of which the book shows her growing to appreciate over time.
Amy Chua is self-critical – she is emphasising the extremes of the ‘Chinese parenting’ that she was adhering to. She admits to its failure for her younger daughter and father. She shows how she had to adapt her ideas and principles, because no two children are identical (something most of us with more than one child discover soon enough).
One of the things Amy Chua talks about in the postscript to this new edition of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her eldest daughter talks about in the letter she wrote to the New York Post (which is reprinted at the end of the book) is that the book cannot possibly convey the whole story of their family dynamic. Of course, it can’t. As someone who blogs about her children I can testify to this. There are a million incidents in our family life that never reach this blog – both positive and negative (and, of course, plain boring). There are things I don’t write about because my children or husband (or other family members) don’t want me to. There are things that I choose not to share because they would paint me in a bad light and, in a rather British way, things that I don’t write about because they would sound too braggy.
Amy Chua’s book conveys mostly one element of their life – a very big element, admittedly, but not the entirety – her efforts to raise her children to excel in academics and music. It shares some parenting methods and strategies that will make many people (myself included) cringe. But, as she mentions in her new postscript, it doesn’t show the laughter and hugs that they share and the fun that they do have together.
Amy Chua’s parenting methods (or the Chinese parenting method, as she calls it) are definitely not ones that I want to adopt. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get some interesting and useful insights out of reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. One thing in particular that struck me, is something I’ve talked about in a post a few weeks ago – how we sometimes need to adjust our expectations of our children. I talked about expecting both RoRo and LaLa to be more mature than the actually are, but I also mentioned the problem of having too low expectations of a child and therefore preventing them from pushing themselves. I do think that we (or more I, really) am often too quick to let RoRo (and LaLa, actually) give up on something. With reading and spellings, if she’s not enthusiastic I tend not to force the issue, even a tiny bit. Because I know she does fantastically well when she is enthusiastic. But sometimes a little bit of a push is all it takes and putting that extra effort in can make all the difference.
But, no, I’m not going to give up on playdates (actually, we only have time for one playdate a week as it is, with all the overscheduling we already fit in) and have the girls drill times tables and Latin conjugations or spend lots of money on tutors. But I might expect them to a bit more now and then and reassure them that they can do something, rather than letting them accept defeat.
I would definitely recommend reading this book, whether you see yourself as an authoritarian parent, a laissez-faire woolly liberal or a progressive something-or-other. You might scream and shout at Amy Chua, you might gasp in astonishment, you might put your head to one side and wonder, but you might just enjoy a good read, without having to take any particular learning or message away from it.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher, but this review is my own honest opinion.