Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherOver Thanksgiving, I finally read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I really enjoyed and which gave me a lot to think about. Spoiler: it’s not nearly as controversial as the Wall Street Journal excerpts would have us believe. Sure, some of Chua’s parenting is over the top, but none of it constitutes child abuse, and it’s clear that she loves her children dearly.

In fact, at some point in the book, I stopped identifying with the girls (even though we’re all halfies) and started finding myself in awe of Chua. As hard as she worked her daughters, she worked herself 10 times harder. It made me think about my own “Tiger mother,” and my rabbit (according to the Chinese Zodiac, anyway) father, and all the hard work they’ve put into their careers, their business, and me.

(Friend and writer Ben L.J. Brooks was having similar reflections over the holiday, and he shared them in this wonderful, inspiring post, simply titled “Thanksgiving.”)

Anyway, on to the book:

In Chinese culture, it just wouldn’t occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson — by their children.

This is something my mom hates about American TV. (Specifically, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, haha.) I’ve always gotten in trouble with her (yes, even now) for “talking back.” In fairness, I’m not always guilty, but I’m probably not always aware either. (Sorry, mom! I’ll try harder.)

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.

“… you can only be really great at something if you love it. So it’s good that you love tennis.” But just because you love something, I added to myself, doesn’t mean you’ll ever be great. Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at the things they love.

I think these are fair points. I certainly don’t tend to enjoy or take pride in the things I’m terrible at. (Except singing. Enjoyment, yes. Pride, definitely not.)

But of course, it’s rare to be good at something without a lot of practice first. That’s why sometimes — sometimes — parents and teachers have to “force” kids to do things they “don’t like.”

(That’s also why first drafts aren’t always fun.)

Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story.

LOL yuuuup.

(Seriously, though: I am going to write that book someday. But mine only deals with two generations.)

Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud. By contrast, I don’t think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. Jed actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.

I can see both sides to this argument. In fact, I think both are true. (Paradox!)

My parents perfectly embody that contradiction. I would say overall my mom believes the typical Asian view, that kids owe their parents, and my dad believes the typical Western view, that parents owe their kids (or at least that kids don’t owe their parents). And yet when it came to my college education, my mom said that since it was their expectation that I go to a top tier school, they should pay for it. By contrast, my dad (who went to the same university I did) said that he’d worked his way through college and expected me to do the same.

(In the end I got scholarships/grants, they paid for some, and I worked for some.)

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery. Those are people who crossed an ocean to come to this country.”

Couldn’t agree more. (Are you that brave?)

“It just always seemed that if you had to ask for something, it wouldn’t be worth anything.”

Unfortunately, I have long thought this too. I say “unfortunately” because we live in a society where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You do have to learn to advocate for yourself, even to “sell” yourself. In jobs, relationships, etc. Humility is an admirable trait, but not always a useful one.

That said, there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, between advocating for yourself and just being a schmuck. Try not to cross it.

There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that. Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

That’s pretty much the long and short of the parenting part of the book (which is maybe the first third or half). The long and short of my thoughts are this:

Part of me wishes my mother had been “more Chinese” with me, and part of me is really, really glad she wasn’t. I like to think I got the best of both worlds. But if I’m being honest, I could be — should be — “more Chinese” with myself.

16 responses to “BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER by Amy Chua”

  1. T. S. Bazelli Avatar

    A lot of this sounds very familiar. I was forced into a lot of things I did not enjoy, and sometimes I think it was a waste. Even if you’re good at something, does not guarantee you’ll enjoy it either. Good intentions though.

  2. Les Avatar

    I actually adored that book, although it highlighted a lot of interesting differences between Asian and American culture. My parents raised me more Tiger Mother style even though I’m clearly not Asian… and NOW I’m thankful for it lol.

  3. s.p.bowers Avatar

    Very interesting observations. I need to move that book to the top of my list.

  4. Sonje Avatar

    I think I might be a little bit of a Chinese mother LOL. I find it *extremely* annoying when parents care about their very young children being happy with the choices the parents are making for them which the parents must make because the children aren’t capable of it–like, I don’t know, not running into the street. If my children become upset because I won’t let them do something dangerous/mean/stupid, I shrug and say, “Go ahead and be upset. You still can’t do it,” whereas so many parents try to convince their children that they should agree with them.

    It sounds like a good book. Maybe I should read it to get some more tips. :)

  5. TatteredSpinner Avatar

    Good post; I saw this book on the Audible web-page and wondered about it. Books that compare cultures really interest me.
    My mother was definitely not a tiger parent, and my father was more like the rock upon which we stood. Although I’m fairly well at peace with my upbringing, I do wish I’d been taught a little more discipline. My mom’s ethic was pretty much “try a little bit of everything and if you don’t like it you don’t have to stick with it.”

  6. Ben Brooks Avatar

    This was an insightful read. I often look at things that my wife and I do differently in regards to parenting (she’s Japanese), and a lot of it is reflected in your experiences as a mixed child. I turned out pretty well, though, and my wife turned out pretty well, so the thought is that our kids will turn out to be just fine as well.

    This book gets added to the queue, right after The Road.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words about the Thanksgiving blog entry!

  7. Juliann Wetz Avatar

    I read this book a while ago. I found the contrasts in parenting interesting and am amazed that Chua and her husband remained married. Their outlooks on life and parenting are so different.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with Chua’s parenting, but I am a person who holds happiness and enjoyment of life above the materialism and status that Chua strives for and reveres. I think about how little joy she let her daughters (and herself!) experience and find it sad.

    I do agree with her that Western parents are typically lazy about raising their kids and enforcing rules. But I found her extremes just as damaging. I think there needs to be a happy middle.

    The book was a worthwhile read but the one I REALLY want to read, Kristan, is YOURS! Get writing! :)

  8. Mari Passananti Avatar

    I agree with your basic analysis: she wasn’t nearly as draconian as the newspapers would have you believe. And I have to say that the old world cultures (both Asian and European) seem to place less emphasis on esteem for esteem’s sake. Which I think is a good thing.

  9. Kristan Avatar

    “Even if you’re good at something, does not guarantee you’ll enjoy it either.”

    Well, that’s the flipside of the coin, and another good point.

    Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. :) I’m sure your children will be thankful for it in the long run.

    I always thought that’s what my parental motto would be, because of how I hated being forced to do things as a kid, but with hindsight, I think I planned a parent more like my mom after all.

    I think that’s a good bet. Also, I think the balance between you two is probably a good thing. In reality, that’s what I had, and that’s what Amy Chua’s kids had too. It’s her book, so it seems like she was completely in control, but she acknowledges that she took out a lot of parts about her husband and his influence because she felt that that was his story not hers.

    Well, first of all, I think she presented herself in an exaggerated form. I’m not sure she and her husband were so different as they seemed. But maybe I’m projecting my own parents — who are very similar and yet paradoxically also very different -– onto Chua. I also think their family experienced a lot of joy — it just didn’t fit the story to show it sometimes.

    That said, I think the whole point of her book is that no one is “doing it wrong.” We’re all allowed to parent our own ways, and to think that they are the best, LOL.

    Thanks, I’ll get it done someday! (The mother-daughter book is not my current work in progress, FYI.)

    Yeah, I wonder when I came about. Honestly, I don’t want to give my kids awards for every little thing. I want to honestly praise them when they deserve it, but not inflate their sense of self to the point where they can’t/won’t work hard. I also think humility is an attractive trait.

  10. Joelle Wilson Avatar

    I normally don’t read memoirs/real life books, but this one sounds interesting. Putting it on the list.

  11. Jon Avatar

    Great review. I don’t necessarily see the Western/Chinese styles of parenting that different, boil both down and at the essence (one hopes) is the same level of caring, decency, and respect for children.

  12. Kristan Avatar

    I agree that the GOALS are the same, but trust me, lol, the styles can be wildly different.

  13. Amanda Kendle Avatar

    Wow, great thoughts Kristan. I have a friend here who’s married to an Aussie-born Chinese and we’ve had lots of discussions about how she deals with her in-laws etc (she has two kids – halfies, as you say, love that word!) and also about this book. Anyway, very interesting, but for me the most interesting quote is about a foreign accent being a sign of bravery. So true and I will tell my husband (for, while I lived in several different countries, I was always “meant” to be a foreigner as I was teaching English, so I was taken care of – as a German immigrant to Australia, he doesn’t always get treated so nicely).

  14. Kristan Avatar

    I’m sorry to hear that, but I hope the quote makes your husband smile. I truly believe what it says.

  15. Meghan Ward Avatar

    It’s funny about half-wishing your mom had been more Chinese with you. I said in my blog post on this topic that I kind of wish my mom had made me stick with piano and practice more – because I wish now that I could play. But, of course, back then my mom DID try to get me to practice every day, and to stick with it, and I didn’t want to do it. So back then I was glad she let me off the hook. Like Chua said, kids don’t know what’s best for them. And so glad to hear your comments on this! I loved the book, as you know. The WSJ article really sensationalized it. It was great press for Chua, but not an accurate representation of the book.

  16. […] Kristan reviewed of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, and while this quote is probably the least representative excerpt of the book, it was very important to note. […]