Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tiger Mothering

I just finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
 by Amy Chua and now I feel like I can actually comment on it legitimately.

So: it's funny (humorous, not strange. well, a little strange). Chua is a funny writer and has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. She mocks herself as much as she promotes herself.

The book is told in short, very readable chapters that are occasionally repetitive, but every chapter is provocative and amusing.

That said, I did not come away with a favorable impression of Chua. Not because of her parenting (or rather, not simply because of her parenting) but because she is an insufferable snob. She is status obsessed and presents herself as deriving no pleasure from her life except achieving milestones. When her mother-in-law dies, Chua's daughters eulogize their grandmother as life-affirming and someone who was full of joy. Chua's chapters about the woman, in contrast, present her as having impeccable taste: she wore great clothes, collected great art, ate great food and Chua strives for her compliments.

Another example: she has three sisters and Amy claims to be closest with her sister Katrin. I have no reason to dispute this claim, but her way of explaining how similar they are is to mention that both she and Katrin went to Harvard as undergraduates and also went to Harvard professional schools (Law for Amy, an MD/PhD for Katrin). Sure, except she's a lawyer and another sister went to Yale and then Yale Law School, so superficially, it seems to me that being a lawyer is a lot more similar to another lawyer than to a scientist unless you overhype the Harvard brand.

Similarly, the pushing of her daughters is all toward Juilliard or Carnegie Hall (and then the main hall at Carnegie Hall) -- she admits she doesn't expect or want her children to become professional musicians, she just wants them to have amazing college applications.

She complains about over-the-top bat mitzvahs but the amount she spends to celebrate the Carnegie Hall performance -- they amount she spends just to audition for new teachers -- is insane. I think she recognizes the hypocrisy and means it to contribute to the humor, but it's still crazy and hypocritical.

And don't let the Chinese/Westerner comments fool you: she's a Western snob. She obsesses over European classical music and insults Indonesian gamelan music and discounts Chinese music. She imposes Chinese discipline in order to instill Western culture in her girls. Ironic? She doesn't really do irony.

Ultimately, Chua's value system seems very superficial.

What she does do well, however, is to present ambition with a lack of shame. I think it's good to have high expectations for your kids, and Chua is not lacking in expectations.

Oh, do you want to know how it ends? Her younger daughter Lulu rebels and refuses to continue on the mommy track of violin playing (she continues to play, but for herself -- no more mother hovering marathons of practicing). Instead, Lulu pursues tennis. Not a bad choice, but Chua is only satisfied with this decision when Lulu starts winning competitions. If it's not measurable, Chua has no interest.

So, is it worth reading? Sure, it's a quick read and there's plenty to muse on so it's a high return on your time investment but that's pretty faint praise, I have to admit. Have we already all moved on? Perhaps, but this book will certainly mark a moment in parenting literature.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother


Wilson said...

I'm glad that you read this book, so that I don't have to! Thanks for the detailed review.

One of the other reviews that I read pointed out that Amy Chau is trying to say that her book is a memoir, but that her book shows almost no evidence of self-reflection. Is that accurate?

jc said...

Hey Wilson,

It really is a memoir, but she is very much lacking in self-reflection. Part of that is humorous -- she says things that she clearly believes are outrageous to amusing effect -- but overall the takeaway is that she describes a particular process of achieving goals but she never stops to consider whether the goals are worth achieving. The way she describes her life, it sounds frantic and there is no time at all for reflection.

Peter said...

I'm with Wilson. Your review was a lot more informative than anything I read in the msm. Thanks for writing it up.