Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I’m sure you’re familiar with all the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Some of the controversy is well-deserved, but much is not.

This book came to the world’s attention through an excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal and splashed all over the Web. Chua seemed to be claiming that Americans raised their kids all wrong, that Chinese (and other Asian) parents knew how to do it right, that it’s OK (and even desirable) to emotionally abuse one’s children in public, and that the important thing was to emphasize doing huge amounts of homework and spending even more time on practicing piano and/or violin. No other instruments would do. Theater was certainly out of the question. Grades of A– were also out of the question; only straight A’s sufficed.

Needless to say, this seemed exaggerated and full of stereotypes. But Chua is a successful law professor at Yale, the second-best law school in the country (well…some people do call it the best…), so she has to be taken seriously. I decided to get the whole story by reading the entire book, not just the brief excerpt that had caused such extreme reactions.

The book is worth reading. It’s written in a breezy style that makes it quick to read, and no deep thinking is required. That’s a mixed blessing, of course. Clearly there were some logical inconsistencies, such as the claimed insistence of every Chinese family in a class that their child had to be #1. More interestingly, it became apparent that the Journal had unfairly selected the most sensationalistic portions of the book, no matter how unrepresentative they might be. The full realization doesn’t appear until close to the end of the book, where the reader discovers that Chua recants half of what she had said earlier. It turns out that her child-rearing methods worked for one daughter and not for the other. (It also turns out that this memoir is only partly about child-rearing; like any memoir it covers an entire range of events.) It also turns out that Chua admits to unfair generalizations by contrasting Chinese child-rearing with American, since she admits that it isn’t ethnically based after all. So don’t believe everything you read in the papers, even the Wall Street Journal.

In closing, however, I need to point out that there are, of course, several grains of truth hidden in the excerpts and in the earlier parts of the book. It’s not coincidence that over half of the students at the state math meet are always Asian. We know that it’s not genetic; it’s because of parental expectations. That much is believable.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning