Many of you have, no doubt, read the extract from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother that made so many people so hot under the collar. In it, Chua detailed what appeared to be her absolutely brutal methods for driving her children to technical excellence in school and music. Like so much we read in the newspaper, the extract was designed to polarise and it did so perfectly. It created an absolute furore, a wealth of free publicity which led to mega sales of the book. I certainly found Chua's article appalling; however, I recently sat down and read her book, wherein I discovered a more complex story.
Battle Hymn opens with Chua's claim that she, and all good Chinese (read: strict immigrant) mothers, know how to raise their children properly. They are dominant and controlling, and commit themselves utterly to driving their children to excellence. Growing up, Chua's two daughters had no play dates, no sleepovers, no school camps, no television, and no extracurricular activities except music. Thus they had plenty of time to work hard, get perfect grades, and master an instrument. Satisfaction, claims Chua, is to be found in mastery of something, and mastery doesn't come easily. So her daughters practiced their musical instruments for more than an hour every day, and three to five hours if a performance was looming; and when they were unwilling to rehearse Chua stood over them screaming, threatening to destroy their soft toys and even withholding food and water until they had completed their practice.
This is pretty much where the article stopped and, of course, it was ghastly. We were left with the picture of a psychotic mother brutally dominating her children as they attempted to master the instruments of her choice. This is not an entirely inaccurate impression, but it omits the good humour, the self-deprecating tone, and the way Chua's methods fell to pieces with her second daughter, which are all detailed in the book.
Daughter one, Sophia, was willing to get with the program. She went along with the rules and the practice, and calmly excelled at everything. Lulu, however, was different. Lulu just said no. The battles grew more and more heated until, despite her natural gifts, years of accomplishment and a love of playing, Lulu flat out refused to pick up the violin. The book details how mother and daughter interacted and how Chua eventually admitted defeat, allowing Lulu, at thirteen, to make some of her own choices about how to spend her time. Lulu now sets much of her own agenda and, shock horror, wastes time playing tennis.
Chua relates her ambitions and her methods as well as her rages at Lulu and where she went wrong, and freely admits the things they missed when both of them obstinately refused to give way. The girls continued to practice when travelling with the family; and there were times when the whole family missed one thing or another because Lulu refused to practice and Chua refused to leave the hotel until the practice had been completed. At one level, this is crazy; at another, I have some sympathy for Chua – unlike so many of us with our children, at least she stood her ground.
Battle Hymn is more than a parenting story, however. It is also the classic immigrant tale. The daughter of migrants, Chua had limited opportunities and was determined to be successful in a measurable way. Now that she has made good, Chua is absolutely determined that her own children will have every opportunity made available to them. Utterly predictably, her oldest child has taken up the mantle and excels, while the second child has adapted to the dominant culture and rebels against the strict cultural mores of her mother.
The book is also about family and Chua writes simply and well about her parents and their shift from China to America; the illness and death of Florence, Chua's mother-in-law; and the terrible leukaemia of Katrin, Chua's sister.
Overall, the book is candid, moving and very funny, and Chua has a nice self-deprecating tone. She is an odd mix of extremely sharp and charmingly naive, brutal and fragile, and I found myself loving to loathe her.
On a more personal level, Chua's book raises serious questions for me as a parent. While I will never be the sort of mother who will stand over her children for hours of music practice or drive them all over creation to see particular teachers, I often wonder whether I don't demand enough from or for them. I'm not sure how to balance the needs of childhood – for play, daydreaming and exploration, which my kids excel at – with the fact that they don't seem to be learning as much as I would hope.
At home, my husband and I have focussed on relational demands: respect, obedience, graciousness and kindness; but I wonder if we should be demanding more intellectually. One of our daughters is constantly bored at school; the school fails to stretch her academically. A parent like Chua would be in there, devising curricula and making it happen, while I sit at home, fretting and naively trusting that the school will actually do what it promises. I don't want to compensate for the school's lack by filling my daughter's hours at home with academic challenges – surely that is what the hours at school are for – but I am afraid of her becoming lazy and stupid just through sheer lack of exercising her thinking muscles.
And yet, like most concerns I have for my children, these issues are really about me. Chua writes that letting most kids follow their passion leads to ten hours a day on Facebook as they lack the discipline to become really good at what they love; they need parents to provide the drive. In fact, she goes on, most people really suck at what they love because they are too lazy to practice enough to become good.
Her comment stings. I was bored out of my skull for most of my schooling and doodled around at home, and now I'm an adult who is often not quite sure what I'm doing or why. Were I slightly different or had I more drive, I would have written books or be working on a newspaper or doing something else professional rather than sweeping the floor, wiping snotty noses and making notes on a blog from time to time. In Chua's eyes, I am certainly an underachiever, but I don't know where her drive comes from or how to get it.
On the other hand, I'm not sure that people with great drive are always settled in themselves, or even kind. And there's the nub – what is success? Chua is very focused on measurable success: learning things quickly; being top of the class; earning the praise of well-regarded people; having a prestigious career at a famous institution. But the kind of success Chua dreams of often comes at great cost. Chua's daughters had a nanny (Mandarin speaking so that they would grow up bilingual, of course); and Chua details the many years that she and the girls lived in one city and her husband in another as their careers took them in different geographical directions. Meanwhile, Chua spent her girls' childhoods racing from work to school to home to music lessons and back to work again, desperate to fill every minute with useful activity, which is the sort of behaviour I associate with a certain emptiness in oneself. I can't imagine running on that sort of treadmill, or paying that sort of price, to gain the conventional markers of success. What is life if it is not about raising one's own infants, or spending evenings with one's own husband, or just sitting listening to the silence?
As for the hours her daughters spent practicing their instruments when others would be throwing snowballs or hanging out with their girlfriends – it's hard to know what really matters in this life. It might be rather thrilling to be a musical virtuoso; it might be rather satisfying to be sought after by prestigious institutions; but then again, I have had most of my life-giving experiences when I'm just doing nothing. Reading Chua's book raises the all-important question, what does it mean to live life to the fullest? Is it to cram every moment full of work and family, or is there more? Battle Hymn doesn't claim to answer these questions; in fact, it ends with these questions, and the answers, of course, differ from person to person and shift and change for an individual over time.
As for my parenting style, I can't dismiss Chua's methods all-out. I know far too many kids who seem to spend their lives in front of a screen, and have so little real attention paid to their gifts, interests and development that it is hard to imagine them growing into anything much other than consumers. There is merit in a strict, disciplined and intentional upbringing; and it is great for kids to become so good at something that they are brimming with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Chua tells a story in which she tore up the birthday cards her daughters had made her. They had been slapped together in five minutes, and she rejected the lack of care they had put into the cards, demanding more from her daughters. The bloggerati was horrified, yet I think Chua was right. We constantly praise our kids for drivel, but it hardly encourages them to stretch out and discover what they are capable of; instead, it tells them that a lazy mediocrity is just fine. And perhaps such a mediocrity is enough in a society in which a major university has plastered billboards with slogans of 'Relax' and 'It's all good' – but it hardly encourages excellence.
As a parent myself of daughters who sometimes make beautiful things and other times churn out horrible slop, I found myself cheering Chua – and when the next piece of crap came my way, I gently raised an eyebrow. I asked whether it was really the best my kid could do, and talked about how presentation and effort communicate a great deal about love and care or lack thereof. I didn't yell and tear the piece up, but it disappeared and something decent took its place.
Chua's methods and goals are extreme; but if they give our parenting a nudge, so that we kindly and gently ask our children to do a little better, then we might just be surprised at what our kids are capable of; and our kids might have the privilege, too, of being delighted by their own strengths and abilities.