Like all popular books with a moment in the limelight, The Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother managed to polarize parents and spark heated discussions amongst even those who hadn't read it. Pedantic soul that I am, I avoided weighing in until I'd made my way through the book. Having done so, belatedly, I encountered many surprises, including some unlikely inspiration. And I'd recommend it to any parent, without hesitation.
The first surprise is what a guilty pleasure the book was to read. I expected to find it a slog, like many books on parenting, but it's a compelling narrative that draws one in almost immediately. There's the voyeuristic pleasure of examining the inner workings of another family, something rather rare and fascinating. And there's Chua's pointed self-criticism, which I have to confess is partially what kept me connected--and also what the responses to the notorious (and, I assume purposely skewed) Wall Street Journal excerpt missed. The publicity for the book emphasized Chua's arrogance, while the very cover of the book undercuts it: "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humiliated by a thirteen-year-old." There is a battle, to be sure, and Chua fights it like a warrior, but it's somewhat debatable whether she truly wins in the end. There's a lot more grey area than the early responses recognized. Of course, you might be the kind of person who heard Chua's older daughter just got accepted to Harvard and thinks that alone constitutes winning. Or you might be the kind of person who feels acceptance to Harvard isn't the goal, or maybe even not a good thing...
One thing the early reviews and responses didn't get wrong is Chua's firm (ok, rabid) belief that Western parents have taken a wrong turn on the parenting path. Where they see multiple afterschool activities as a route to "finding your passion," Chua sees pointless indulgence and wasted effort. She decides that as the parent--and a highly educated, very ambitious person in her own right--she is in a superior position to choose which activities are most worth her children's time and effort. She spends even more time than the generic soccer mom driving her kids around and supervising their activities (on top of her job...as a tenured professor at Yale Law), but she asks (forces) them to pick a single extracurricular activity in which to excel: classical music. She brooks no argument and sacrifices the equanimity of her family in pursuit of that goal.
While I could never write a book like Chua's because I would be paralyzed by the hovering objections of my imaginary readers--and she uses her self-criticism as a kind of armor to deflect those objections (nobody could be as hard on her as she is on herself)--I admire her. She unflinchingly exposes the ugly underside of life in a seemingly enviable family. There's constant acrimony and conflict, and while some of that stems simply from her personality (she says her younger daughter Lulu is as fiery as she is), the highly charged, emotional atmosphere of family life will be recognizable to many parents. This, of course, is a familiar trope in Mommy Lit of every stripe: demonstrating that we're all really floundering in the same hot mess of family life. But it hasn't got old, at least not for me; there's still relief in discovering we have compadres fighting more or less the same fight we are.
The biggest surprise, ultimately, was how much inspiration I took from Chua's determination to push her kids towards the goals she envisioned for them. It's impossible to read the book and not wonder what kind of book Chua would have written--hell, what kind of parenting style she'd advocate--had she been given different children. Children who aren't gifted and talented, perhaps? Children who face challenges a little more severe than being strong-willed and non-compliant, as her younger daughter turns out to be? My goals for my children at this point are almost laughably different from Chua's: forget Carnegie Hall; I would love them to read with ease! When you have a child with a learning disorder, for example, you rescale your expectations completely and tuck Ivy League aspirations in a far, far corner of your mind. It's not that I don't imagine they could eventually go wherever they want in life, but it's so clear the path will not be the one I once imagined. And I imagined it not because I thought it was necessarily the best, but because it's the one I took. This new understanding can be a gift, of course, as Priscilla Gilman has written so movingly in her memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child. To be faced with unexpected obstacles can free you from expectations and yield unexpected gifts.
But what Chua offers me most of all, as I refashion my own expectations and adjust once again to the constantly shifting realities of parenting, is a renewed determination to be the engine of change. I think she's absolutely right that too many parents fail their children by easing off just when the need to bear down is most crucial. It's a human instinct to avoid conflict, certainly, but we know deep down (well, I think I do) that we have a better idea of what is good for our children than they do. They are children, after all. Without crushing their souls (and that's where Chua met her Waterloo, in her younger child's spirit), we owe it to our kids to make good decisions for them and to do whatever it takes to see those decisions through. I actually think her message of determined parenting is more apt when applied to kids who face challenges in learning or behavior than it is to children like hers: don't be afraid to push them through the difficult parts when you know that the end goal is truly worthwhile. There will be tears and there will be struggles, but sometimes you are going to have to be the bad guy in your child's eyes to help them reach their most important and worthwhile goals.
What I cooked this week and last: