Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, The Penguin Press, RRP$25.95, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 237 pages
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a parenting memoir by a Yale law professor, Amy Chua. Previously best known for writing books about global superpowers, Chua has come home for this breathtakingly personal book about her strategy for raising super-powered children. “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I have done it.”
Chua’s strategy as a fearsome “tiger mother” is the exact opposite of everything that the western liberal holds dear. Our focus on raising children to be happy, opinionated and well-balanced is interpreted as lazy weakness in Chua’s world. We, as western parents, aren’t trying hard enough. Mothers go to yoga and spas rather than spend hours forcing children to work harder. (No wonder that this book is already labelled “controversial”. The internet is buzzing with outraged parents).
By way of a warm up, Chua tells us that her two daughters are not allowed playdates (“Why why why this terrible western institution?”). Other mothers treat her icily when she makes excuses not to let her children socialise. Nor are they allowed to watch television, play computer games, or do any hobbies or activities they choose for themselves.
Accordingly, Chua chooses musical instruments for the girls, although only the piano and violin are acceptable to the Tiger Mother, for these are hard to master and can bring great rewards and prestige.
Her tale is compelling in the same way as a good thriller. Are obedient A-graders Sophia and Lulu going to grow up, perhaps discover boys, shopping and YouTube and rebel against the tyranny of their mother? Oh yes. The denouement, involving smashed glass, a despairing Chua, and tennis lessons, is well worth the wait.
A huge amount of vitriol has been heaped upon Chua, and she is self-admittedly cruel (Lulu, aged three, refuses to start playing the piano. So she is put out into the garden, on the coldest day of the New England winter, until she bends to her mother’s will).
But Chua is also aware of her own ridiculousness, and her writing is very funny in places. Having run over her older daughter’s foot with her car at the start of the summer, Chua breezily informs us that Sophia’s boot and crutches “put her in a bad mood but at least gave her a lot of time to practise the piano”.
Despite its don’t-care tone, this book leaves not a sour taste, but a sad one. Chua has lost sight of the fun of having children. That’s not part of the Tiger Mother philosophy. Saddest of all is her description of how her mother-in-law just wanted to spend a whole carefree day with each of her granddaughters. She begged Chua. “But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor and practise their instruments.”