It’s probably the toughest job in the world, but there’s no training for it. There are no degrees you can get, or papers you could write before they feel you can come on board. Seriously, all it takes to become a parent is the correct set of anatomical parts and a functioning hormonal make-up. And the ‘job’ in concern is a small human being who you have to care for and nurture for the next 20 years. That bit in italics is the scariest thing about parenting.
All you bring to the table, really, are your own emotional baggage and your set of highly idiosyncratic notions on what sort of person your kid should grow up to be. Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother is Amy Chua’s description of how she raised her children, bringing her own unique and mildly demented ideas to the process — often, in the face of her American husband Jed Rubenfeld’s quiet anger and disapproval.
A daughter of Chinese immigrants, a professor of law at Yale, and a renowned writer on ethnicity and foreign affairs, Chua is the epitome of the successful, driven, Asian mom. Brought up in the hard, Chinese way, she is determined not to raise her child like Western parents do — with kindness, quick appreciation and indulgence. Much that she sees wrong in the people around her — neuroses, dysfunctional families, entitled kids with no drive or ambition — she attributes to the Western model of parenting, where parents readily accept their children’s under-achievement and laziness. Western parents let children enjoy their childhood; but Chinese parents, she says, prepare children for the future.
She opts to be a ‘Chinese Mother’, which she explains early on, is not a racial identity but a personality type. ‘Chinese Mothers’ are parents who are ambitious for their children and will steamroll their kids’ immediate desires to ensure their future success. Nothing is fun, she says, till you master it. It’s not enough to be ‘good’ at an instrument; you have to be playing at the Carnegie Hall or performing for international audiences to be acceptable.
Chua’s non-acceptance of mediocrity is across-the-board. She rejects the sloppy birthday cards her kids make her because — with her Confucian wisdom — she knows they can do better. The speeches they write for the funeral of their dead paternal grandmother are moving, simply because Chua wouldn’t accept their first ‘Hallmark-card-type’ efforts. Every success is a direct result of her slave-driving.
In Chua’s view, being a hard-to-please parent will ensure that you raise obedient, devoted, focussed kids who excel at classical music, never become neurotic, and best of all, will look after you in your dotage. Well, her older daughter is just 15 or 16 years old, so let’s not start setting off the fireworks of success yet. Will there be a Guess How My Tiger Mother Scarred Me by one of her kids in the future? Let’s wait and see.
Battle Hymn… is engaging because it makes you cringe and laugh at the same time. Chua’s determination to make a genius out of the family’s dog is funny, while her daughter’s stress-induced biting of the piano’s legs, is not. Working within the cruel-to-be-kind school of parenting, she admits that reprimanding her kids is exhausting, heart-wrenching work. So slapping her daughter in Barcelona — for not kicking her fingers high enough while playing the piano — is the price she pays for giving the child the opportunity to play for an audience ‘in a glass-windowed room, overlooking the Mediterranean’. That she shares these instances in horrifyingly naked detail, is chilling.
Each time Chua goads one of her kids into a stellar public performance, she rests and gloats for a brief moment — usually in the last four lines of the chapter. Then it’s back to nagging them on to another euphoric accolade-drawing effort. Just as this starts getting dull, Battle Hymn… takes a turn for, I’m tempted to say, the human. Her sister’s grave illness becomes a pivot for the story. It is followed by a meltdown of sorts, which brings her the realisation that the Chinese Mother must transmogrify into what she really is — a Western parent. Ironically, the advice that prods her into doing so comes from her mother who raised her the hard, Chinese way.
Battle Hymn… is about choices we make — for ourselves and our children. It is a frightening book in parts, and in others, it nudges us to question our own assumptions. Watching her point out the obvious failures of Western parenting is interesting. But then, just reading about Chua’s horrible excesses — throwing a three-year-old out into the winter evening because she refuses to play one note on the piano — is enough to stamp out all admiration. It makes you want to have her certified.
What works for the book is the close-to-the-bones feeling that Chua brings to her words. She pulls no punches. When her relationship with her second daughter sours, her descriptions of their encounters are as graphic as her writing on her ‘triumphs’. The book is destined to become a bestseller in the chick-lit-for-grown-ups genre. It has that crucial mix of ingredients: clever, glib writing; humour; pretty, successful people with tiny, self-created problems; and a dramatic twist where the angry maverick turns back to the fold of the Western way. All one hopes for is that the book doesn’t become a self-help-type bestseller, with mothers being inspired by its methods.
Now that would be truly scary.
This book review first appeared in the DNA of Feb 6, 2011 with a different title.