Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother – Book Review
For Indians, bits of Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother will sound alarmingly familiar. The school I went to had a practice where exceptional students were not only given their own sections within a batch, (the ‘abilities’ sections), but if you excelled, you earned the right to wear a blue blazer when everyone else was wearing green. These blue blazers weren’t really that coveted amongst the student body – who wants to stand out as a really good student when there are so many other things that could give you better social standing – but I know a lot of parents who really, really wanted it for their child.
And maybe that’s what Indian parents and Chinese parents have in common. Well, at least the kind of Chinese parents Amy Chua, the author of this book, claims to have. And wants to be. Nothing but the best achievements for your child. No excuses! No failing the test by one mark! I remember the weeping and crying around the exam results board; students who sat with red eyes and heavy heads because they’d have to go home and explain to their parents why they didn’t make that final two per cent, raising their score to 100, instead of 98; students who had no social life at all, going home straight after classes to have even more classes, week in and week out, so that they could go to the best engineering colleges. Leisure time, they were assured, could happen once they got a good job. And had a family. And so on. Every year, around exam time, you read about two or three students who kill themselves, unable to meet expectations, and you shake your head at the unfairness of it all, and nevertheless push your own offspring to their breaking point so they can achieve whatever it is you want them to.
“Other parents were always asking us what the secret was,” says Chua. In liberal America, parenting is much about letting the child to run free, explore their own boundaries, discover their own abilities, treat them with kid gloves as they were. Perhaps the most quoted passage from her book is the bit where her daughters present her with homemade birthday cards and she looks at them and throws them back in their faces. “I work so hard to give you good birthdays,” she tells them, “I deserve better than this. I reject this.” American parents reviewing her book went up a great flurry of pearl clutching. Even I, born of Indian parents with slightly exacting standards, found it a bit horrifying. But it worked. She got the cards she wanted, up to the standards she wanted, and her daughters never presented her with anything subpar again.
Chua has claimed since that parts of her book are actually satire, and no one understood that. I didn’t see any satire in it. It speaks of parenting yes, but it also speaks of pain. She didn’t want her daughters to hate her when they grew up, she simply wanted what she thought was the best for them. In one section, she recounts a fight she has with her non-Chinese husband: “Everyone is special in their own special way,’ I mimicked sarcastically, ‘even losers are special in their own special way. Well, don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to the Yankees games.” This passage is from a bit where she’s railing at her daughter about a piece on the piano, and her daughter has reached her breaking point. Eventually, happy ending, the daughter picks it up, and is proud and pleased. Chua ruminates later: “Western parents worry a lot about their child’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem, is let them give up.” If this were the case, then Chua’s kids were never allowed to. Even during holidays abroad, she made sure they had somewhere to practice, for two hours every morning before they went sightseeing.
In India, we perhaps don’t put that much importance into things that aren’t academically related. I have a few friends who grew up learning dance or music and I envy them this ability. I took Bharatnatyam classes and Hindustani classical classes briefly, but when I tired of it, I was allowed to abandon it. The math that I hated, however, was something that stuck with me for twelve long years before I was allowed to abandon it, and even that came with much discussion. I never use an algebraic formula anymore, but I sometimes wish I was a better trained singer.
It’s not like Chua’s daughters paid any less attention to their academics. Sleepovers and socializing were sacrificed to the altar of studies and music practice. “Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and therefore override all their children’s desires and expectations.” She later talks about announcing at a dinner party that she called her older daughter ‘garbage’ and how one guest was so upset, she left the party in tears. Later in the book, battling with her rebellious younger daughter, who seems to fight her at every step, Chua’s own parents tell her to ease up. But, she replies stubbornly, “that’s not the Chinese way.”
In the end, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother isn’t a parenting manual. It’s a parenting memoir. Her love for her daughters shines through, even when she’s threatening to burn their stuffed toys if they don’t practice the piano. Sophia, the elder daughter, is compliant and willing. Lulu, the younger daughter, fights with her mother frequently, but in the end, when offered a choice, decides to stick with the violin because she’s learned to love it. Chua pushed her kids, but they took it, and from all accounts, went on to succeed. There’s a lot in the media these days about parents pushing their children too hard, but not so much about the kids who come out of that shining.
As for me, all that school’s competitive training and my parents in the background pushing me onwards made sure I got into a good college, which specialized in the liberal arts. So, there’s my Tiger Mother Happy Ending. Which is all any parent wants, right?
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