The well-written and witty memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (interesting title for marketing a book in these days of war and political violence) is a mixed bag. Chua thinks parents should hold high expectations and encourage kids to work hard and achieve competence. Yes, hurray for that! But the flash point of the book is her methods. They include emotional blackmail and frankly — if what she writes is true, and not writerly exaggeration –abuse. She threatens to take away her daughter’s toys, holiday presents, and even dinner if she doesn’t practice her instrument. She calls her daughter garbage. That’s demeaning and cruel. Chua’s basically telling her kids she’ll love them if they achieve, and not love them when they disobey.
Perhaps some kids are super-resilient and can ignore abuse and be grateful for high involvement like Chua’s and the skills they gain. But 99 out of 100 kids are going to rebel, quit their instrument or sport, and resent if not hate their mother.
And here’s another problem with this book: parents who want their kids to reach their full potential may panic as I did at first when reading about the alleged glorious results of Chua’s harsh coercion. “OMG, maybe I should have forced Zach to play piano!" I thought. "Why didn’t I make Jeff take up the saxophone?" But my kids’ interests — and ultimately their excellence – lay elsewhere. In other words, the book will likely rouse your anxiety, at least momentarily. With all the pressures parents face today, do we really need that provocation? I think not.
So, if you read this book, look at the end first, where Chua admits her methods were a bust.
A word about the cultural angle: Chua’s extreme methods are not typical of Asian-American parents. The memoir plays into the negative stereotype of Chinese mothers as cold enforcers. Not only does this stereotype falsely criticize an ethnic group, but what does it say about the academic preeminence of many Asian-American kids in American schools today? These kids are doing well because they work hard and because their culture and families place a very high value on education. Their parents nurture and support their learning and impose reasonable, helpful rules. Those are lessons to draw, not that kids who aren’t succeeding need Tiger Ladies for mothers.
Maybe you like to read horror stories, but if not, better to check out some of the books about how to fan the flames of a child’s interests while laying down reasonable rules and structures. Maybe they’re less sensational and provocative but at least you’ll benefit from research results that you can actually use to have a high-achieving kid while preserving a great relationship with him.