Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

First of all, American mothers everywhere need to just calm down.  Deep breaths.  In and out.

Better?

Okay, now we can actually have a conversation here.

Tiger Momming It Up

It’s a fun memoir about all the questions you ask yourself as a mother, all the answers you give yourself as a mother, and all the doubting choruses that can fill your brain as you steam ahead.  I loved this book from the beginning…how could I not?  As I read more and more, I kept bothering poor Drew…”Listen to this!”  “Oh my gosh, can I read you just one thing?”  “Drew– just one more paragraph — check this out…”  So on and so on.  I was in amazement of Chua’s honesty, her philosophies, and the relationships that evolved with both of her daughters.  Striking and amazing — that sums it up.

Here’s the basic run-down of the Tiger Mom concept:

Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother.  This is so wrong.  Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.

The first shocker of the book was that, after all the controversy I’d heard about, this list didn’t seem crazy or militant to me.  In fact, as I read it a second time, a lightbulb began to warm up in my brain…was my mom a quasi-Tiger Mom?  Wait a minute…I was never allowed to question my teachers or their methods, even if she did.  Schoolwork was her first priority for me.  I always felt the engaging pressure of high expectations.  Although I always knew with certainty that she was proud of me and my accomplishments, I didn’t receive many compliments in the presence of others.  I have vivid memories of other people saying what a nice girl I was, or how talented, and I can see my mom, smiling at the compliment, and sometimes agreeing, but rarely initiating.  Okay, the gold medal thing doesn’t fit, but suddenly I had a very personal reason to give Chua’s thoughts a chance.  Perhaps I was the product of Westernized Tiger Mom parenting…a contradiction in Chua’s mind, but not in mine.  A style of parenting with high expectations for both performance and etiquette, but with a slightly relaxed fit.

Be sure to read the type on the cover...

But I am having trouble summing up my feelings on the book as a whole, because there are so many different ideas and striking chords that I found fascinating…so we’ll just go one by one.

Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.

Isn’t that lovely?  Chua insists that both of her daughters play classical music, and classical only because she is invested in the truth above.  This book made me wish I were a better pianist, that I had practiced more, or had more drive in college and continued piano lessons at that point. 

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

So true.  That’s half of the fun of living — working hard to become better at something, so that you get that rush of adrenaline one day when you realize you’re fantastic.  Then it’s fun.  Being able to sightread piano music now?  Fun.  Working hard to get there?  Worth it — but not necessarily fun.

But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.   On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

This is one thing that my own Western Tiger Mom did for me.  There came a time in middle school when I wanted to quit the piano.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate why — I was an adolescent — but I knew I wasn’t improving and I wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of it.  My mom, being smarter than middle school me, knew exactly why I felt this way, and switched me to a new teacher, who became a fantastic musical role-model for me all through high school.  I began improving again, and really enjoying the piano — even if my practicing left something to be desired.  At another point in high school, I also wanted to quit playing French Horn.  Now I can look back on my reasoning and see it for what it was — insecurity, because even though I was a junior, the underclassmen were better than me.  I didn’t like to be out-performed, and it was happening on a daily basis.  But when I asked my mom if I could switch instruments, the answer was no.  She didn’t let me give up on anything, and I am better for it.  Even if I still get out-performed on the Horn.

“Never ever make fun of foreign accents,” I’ve exhorted them on many occasions.  “Do you know what a foreign accent is?  It’s a sign of bravery.”

I don’t think this one even needs any reflection from me.  It’s just a beautiful and TRUE statement.

In the words of Lulu’s violin teacher Mr. Shugart, “Every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.”

Gulp.  This quote made me feel a little sad.  It’s true.  Sadly true.  I am not the pianist I was at the end of high school.  My sight-reading is much better, but my overall technique is poor.  Practicing would fix it.  But I don’t.  This is why I did love teaching piano lessons for awhile — it gave me a reason to practice.  Every time a student missed a lesson, which happened more often than not, I had nothing else to do but practice.  And I had a whole music store at my perusal.  It was fantastic.  I felt my fingers returning to some semblance of their former glory.  But now, 4 years later, it’s gone again.  This doesn’t mean I can’t play — I’m still doing fine.  But I’m no longer as good as I want to be, or sometimes, as good as I think I am. 

I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids.  Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.

But this quote, out of all of them, was the most honest statement she made in the whole book.  Any parenting style has flaws.  Let me rephrase that: EVERY parenting style has flaws.  As I try to piece together my own parenting style for my son, I find so many contradictory statements — philosophies I agree with, philosophies that I’ll see in hell, philosophies that are just banal and confusing.  All parents believe that if you don’t do things a certain way, your child is doomed either to inanity or to jail.  I’ll admit that even now I feel that way about other ways of parenting that I don’t agree with.  Obviously that person’s child is going to grow up severely troubled.  But not my son — because I’m parenting the right way.  We all feel like this, and in a way, we have to.  It’s so overwhelming, that if we don’t create a shell of self-confidence, we’ll crumble into ourselves.

Monkey Mom!

I would hope that most people, rather than judging Amy Chua or becoming deathly afraid of the Chinese Children Who Will Take Over Our Land, will be able to see this book for what it is — an honest memoir.  And, whatever your beliefs, I’m sure you can see that honesty anywhere is hard to come by these days.

And, since I’m not a Tiger anyway, I guess my son won’t have a Tiger Mom.  He’ll have a Monkey Mom.  Only time will tell exactly what that will look like.  Chua says in her book (even though she prefaces this by saying she doesn’t always buy in to astrology), Monkey people are curious, intellectual, and “generally can accomplish any given task.  They appreciate difficult or challenging work as it stimulates them.” Watch out, son — you are my given task right now.  And I shall accomplish you!  Ha!

But the final word should go to one of the daughters herself.  Be sure to check it out — it really makes all the critics look pale by comparison.

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