Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

hybrid tiger by João Fazenda

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ is a 2011 book by Yale law professor Amy Chua. The complete subtitle of the book is: ‘This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.’

Chua reported that in one study of 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, the vast majority ‘said that they believe their children can be ‘the best’ students, that ‘academic achievement reflects successful parenting,’ and that if children did not excel at school then there was ‘a problem’ and parents ‘were not doing their job.” Chua contrasts them with the view she labels ‘Western’ – that a child’s self-esteem is paramount.

An article published under the headline ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’ in the ‘Wall Street Journal,’ contained excerpts from her book, in which Chua describes her efforts to give her children what she describes as a traditional, strict ‘Chinese’ upbringing. This piece was controversial. Many readers missed the supposed irony and self-deprecating humor in the title and the piece itself and instead believed that Chua was advocating the ‘superiority’ of a particular, very strict, ethnically defined approach to parenting. Chua later stated that the book was not a ‘how-to’ manual but a self-mocking memoir.

In one extreme example, Chua mentioned that she had called one of her children ‘garbage,’ a translation of a term her own father called her on occasion in her family’s native Hokkien dialect of Southeast Asia. Particularly controversial was the ‘Little White Donkey’ anecdote, where Chua described how she got her unwilling younger daughter to learn a very difficult piano piece. In Chua’s words, ‘… I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have ‘The Little White Donkey’ perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, ‘I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?’ I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.’ They then ‘work[ed] right through dinner’ without letting her daughter ‘get up, not for water, not even for bathroom breaks.’ The anecdote concludes by describing how her daughter was ‘beaming’ after she finally mastered the piece and ‘wanted to play [it] over and over.’

In a poll on the ‘Wall Street Journal’ website regarding Chua’s response to readers, two-thirds of respondents said the ‘Demanding Eastern’ parenting model is better than the ‘Permissive Western’ model. Annie Paul, writing for ‘Time,’ describes, ‘[i]n the 2008 book ‘A Nation of Wimps,’ author Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of ‘Psychology Today’ magazine, marshals evidence supporting Chua’s approach. ‘Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences,’ Marano explains. ‘Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned that they’re capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.’

MSNBC stated that the article ‘reads alternately like a how-to guide, a satire or a lament.’ MSNBC’s critical response goes on to state that ‘the article sounds so incredible to Western readers – and many Asian ones, too – that many people thought the whole thing was satire… [but] aspects of her essay resonated profoundly with many people, especially Chinese Americans – not necessarily in a good way.’ In the ‘Financial Times,’ Isabel Berwick called the ‘tiger mother’ approach to parenting ‘the exact opposite of everything that the Western liberal holds dear.’

David Brooks of the ‘New York Times,’ in an op-ed piece entitled ‘Amy Chua is a ‘Wimp,” wrote that he believed Chua was ‘coddling her children’ because ‘[m]anaging status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.’ ‘The Washington Post,’ while not as critical, did suggest that ‘ending a parenting story when one child is only 15 seems premature.’

Others have noted that the ‘Wall Street Journal’ article took excerpts only from the beginning of the book, and not from any of the later chapters in which Chua describes her retreat from what she calls ‘Chinese’ parenting in response to her older daughter’s rebellion against such a strict upbringing. Jon Carroll of the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ felt the excerpts in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ article failed to represent the content in Chua’s book and states that ‘the excerpt was chosen by the editors of the Journal and the publishers. The editors wanted to make a sensation; the publishers want to sell books’ but ‘it does not tell the whole story.’ A spokeswoman for the ‘Wall Street Journal’ told the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ that ‘[w]e worked extensively with Amy’s publisher, as we always do with book excerpts, and they signed off on the chosen extract in advance.’ Chua maintains that ‘[t]he Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it.’

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