Parent and Child Face-to-Face: On the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Printable Version
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Parent and Child Face-to-Face: On the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - starshine - 05-31-2011 03:22 PM
by Celia Genishi & Mariana Souto-Manning — April 05, 2011
This is a commentary on the best seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. The authors make the contents of the book more complex than the media have by emphasizing the author's actual message, the pressure on parents to have model children, and the agency and capacity for resistance of children who have their own ideas about how their lives should be lived.
Amy Chua writes on the cover of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011a):
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. 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 humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
Despite the author’s admission of defeat, the reductionist blurb in a well-known book review says only this about the same book, “A Chinese-American mother makes the case for strict and demanding parenting” (New York Times Book Review, March 13, 2011). In this commentary, we first urge our audience to read the entire book in order to see what the author’s actual message is; and, second, we discuss contemporary perspectives on parenting and children that help explain the striking popularity of this book about “extreme parenting.”
Indeed what Chua, a law professor at Yale, writes on the dust jacket of her book is accurate: as the book ends, 13-year-old Lulu conquers her formidable mother, convincing her that she, Lulu, should be able to choose an activity that makes her happy, rather than one her mother has chosen for her. We found the book to be compelling: well written, engaging, humorous, and alternately maddening and touching. On the maddening side, we note that most families in the United States and elsewhere lack the economic resources of Chua’s family to hire the most talented music teachers, attend expensive private schools, and have worldly experiences unimaginable by most children. On the touching side, readers do not doubt that Chua loves her children/family even as she takes on the role of the tiger mother.
We turn now to the implications of the book, to a discussion of contemporary perspectives on child-rearing and young children. Regardless of a family’s economic circumstances, there is currently intense pressure on young children to grow up quickly while conforming to adult-established schedules and expectations, including expectations to learn academic skills in preschool, where they begin preparing for college entrance (Genishi & Dyson, 2009). After all, many believe that the preschool a child attends directly affects his/her chances of entering Ivy League universities (Hu, 2008). Chua maddens some moderate readers because her book looks initially like a radical guide for getting children into the most prestigious colleges, for raising children with few rights and many responsibilities. It also (mis)leads readers to associate “Chinese mothers” in general with successful child-rearing. Thus the author manages to reinforce a stereotype of Asians and Asian Americans as model minorities, a myth which “is full of compliments about Asians…[yet tends to] define Asians in essentializing ways, such as ‘studious’ [and] ‘conforming’” (Stires & Genishi, 2008, p. 63).
This mythic view is further enhanced by Chua’s own essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” (Chua, 2011b). The essay is an excerpt of the first two pages of the book and thus decontextualizes the complexities that Chua experienced while raising Louisa (Lulu) and Sophia, her two daughters. Here we include an excerpt from the two pages:
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've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
•attend a sleepover
•have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
•watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin. (Chua, 2011a, pp. 3-4)
Such a sensationalistic introduction to the book has encouraged the popular media to repeatedly deliver an extreme, one-sided representation of the struggle of a determined mother raising two daughters.
While we certainly don’t agree with many of Chua’s actions (e.g., in an early power struggle, leaving three-year old Lulu outside in frigid temperatures), we also see the love she has for her daughters, as she admits that she is uncertain about her principles and actions. As evidence of her doubt, she concludes the book with a question: “But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?” (Chua, 2011a, p. 229). So, as she clashes and learns through (re)actions and interactions with her younger daughter Lulu, she embraces a stance that is “newly accepting and open-minded” (Chua, 2011a, p. 221). Thus, we reiterate the importance of reading the entire book in order to explore—and perhaps even understand—the many complexities presented.
Chua’s experiences offer a situated representation of a larger phenomenon—the complex struggles of contemporary parenting. As parents’ anxieties grow over how to do the very best for their children in a competitive economy, they may wish for the perfect formula for successful parenting. In their heart of hearts, they would probably agree with us that there can be no simple or single formula for parenting, just as there is no simple or single approach to teaching. Families and individuals within families are similar and different in many ways. What works with one child may not work with another. This is exemplified in Chua’s book as her approach to parenting—note that we are purposefully not associating her approach with Chinese parenting thus moving away from stereotyping Chinese parents as a monolithic category—works better with Sophia than with Lulu. Parents, whether or not they are Chinese, are not monolithic; and as Lulu demonstrates to her mother, neither are children.
Our final point is a consideration of how parents and other adults are continually challenged by the reality of children’s lives, as they struggle to be not only what their mothers/parents want them to be, but to become what they want to be. It might be appropriate to comment on the title of the book here: many think of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to which the title alludes, as the anthem of the Union—the North—which was waging war in part against the institution of slavery. Can Chua be admitting that she lovingly enslaves her children, but that one of them emancipates herself? Both Sophia and Lulu seem to have a sense of who they are and where they are going. Lulu, like her older sister Sophia, does many things that her mother wants her to do. She is an A student, she is a remarkably talented musician. Yet, unlike Sophia, at age 13 she chooses to do something different, to focus on the game of tennis, something she is not yet good at. In short, Lulu, who her mother says resembles herself, makes a decision on her own.
In social science terms, she demonstrates agency, not to mention resistance to someone else’s plan. These are terms that are more often associated with students in classrooms who do not find the curriculum to be relevant or interesting than with children in affluent and socially well-positioned families (Genishi & Dyson, 2009). Still Lulu is undoubtedly a resistant adolescent with agency. This is a characteristic of children that is rarely mentioned in the frequent discussions of schools whose students are on one or the other side of the achievement gap. Faced with a standardized test, students may “get it” or not and may resist the practices that lead to successful test results. This fact underlies the fallacy that teachers are entirely accountable for their students’ achievement. Children are in fact persons with their own viewpoints. Indeed they can be plain unruly as they assert themselves and their own interpretations of the “official curriculum” of their teachers—or parents—using, for example, their own humor and linguistic forms within the context of their own social and cultural interests (Dyson, 1999). This sense of agency starts well before children turn 13. Young children in preschool and primary grades, while often positioned as subjects of others’ actions, can be participants in research and curriculum co-designers in early childhood classrooms (Souto-Manning, 2009; Souto-Manning, 2010). One wonders if knowledge of this vein of education research would have saved Amy Chua from investing so heavily in her own parent-driven agenda. With this knowledge, might she have revised her commanding vision of how children come to live life to its fullest?
Chua, A. (2011a). Battle hymn of the tiger mother. New York: The Penguin Press.
Chua, A. (2011b). Why Chinese mothers are superior. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html
Dyson, A. H. (1999). Transforming transfer: Unruly children, contrary texts, and the persistence of the pedagogical order. In A. Iran-Nejad & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education: Vol. 24 (pp. 141-172). Washington, DC: AERA.
Genishi, C., & Dyson, A.H. (2009). Children, language, and literacy: Diverse learners in diverse times. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hu, W. (2008). Where the race now begins in kindergarten. The New York Times. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/nyregion/06private.html?_r=1&ref=winniehu
Stires, S., & Genishi, C. (2008). Learning English in school: Rethinking curriculum, relationships, and time. In author & A. L. Goodwin (Eds.), Diversities in early childhood: Rethinking and doing (pp. 49-66). New York: Routledge.
Souto-Manning, M. (2009). Negotiating culturally responsive pedagogy through multicultural children’s literature: Towards critical democratic literacy practices in a first grade classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 9(1), 53-77.
Souto-Manning, M. (2010). Challenging ethnocentric literacy practices: (Re)Positioning home literacies in a Head Start classroom. Research in the Teaching of English, 45(2), 150-178.
RE: Parent and Child Face-to-Face: On the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - achali - 05-31-2011 04:47 PM
Best review I've seen of this. The lack of attention in the mainstream about the point of children's agency raised here might hint at mainstream narcissism in many gen-x and millennial parents.
I also read this one on HuffPost a while back that I thought was interesting:
Battle Plan Of A Tiger Daughter (And Mother-To-Be)
On the same day that Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother went viral, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. And while talk shows, op-ed pages, parenting blogs, email inboxes, and Facebook and Twitter feeds across the nation began to flood with outraged invocations of damaged self-esteem, elevated suicide rates, Asian automatons, "Yellow Peril," and even child abuse, I stayed in bed reading Chua's story, feeling strangely sentimental.
It wasn't just my hormones. Chua's tale of extreme parenting -- including those infamous scenes of calling her daughters "garbage" for imperfect piano playing and rejecting their birthday cards for being sloppy -- made me profoundly grateful for my own Tiger Mother.
Like Chua, my mother was a Chinese mother who directed an iron will toward her daughters' success. Growing up, whenever people remarked upon my grades or awards, I almost wanted to tell them I hadn't had any choice in the matter.
Because I had the kind of mother who, if I brought home a test score of 98, would demand an explanation for how those two points had escaped me. If I scored 100, she'd demand to know why I'd failed to earn extra credit. Explanation was futile. As my mother would say, "There's no Chinese word for try."
I generally resist simplistic East/West dichotomies, but this is true. In Chinese, you can try something out -- as in sampling, tasting, taking a turn -- but you can't say, "I tried my best" or "But I tried." In any case, I knew better than to attempt such excuses in English.
I had a duty to excel because, as the daughter of immigrants, I was privileged: privileged to grow up in a land of peace and prosperity -- with a Chinese mother. With privilege came responsibility: responsibility to validate her sacrifices and avail myself of opportunities that, by her implication, might otherwise fall to Americans who were lazier, dumber, or more self-entitled than me.
So I tried to fulfill that duty -- but, like Chua's daughters, I wasn't always happy about it. There were times when I disappointed my mother, intentionally and not; when I raged and rebelled, doctored report cards and forged signatures. There were times when we fought like animals; when she screamed that I was ruining her life and I screamed back much the same.
The moment I got into the college of her choice, I figured I'd satisfied enough of my mother's expectations. I partied, slacked off, had boyfriends who dismayed her. I self-indulgently pursued a degree in creative writing. I spent most of my twenties abroad, far away from her.
And I worked on a novel in which a family of strong-willed Chinese American women reunite for a tour of China in the wake of tragedy. I wrote about family secrets, hidden political history, what we seek when we travel -- and the lifelong pressure to be extraordinary. I wrote about the tolls exacted on these women's relationships with their own mothers and daughters, and the difficulty of reconnecting when we lack a common language for failure or weakness -- for what makes us human, as opposed to, say, tigers.
So my own sentimental reaction to Chua's book caught me off-guard. That same day, I sent Battle Hymn to my mother, along with a note expressing my gratitude. And then I had my husband read it, as a primer.
Because I'd just had another realization: According to the Chinese calendar, our baby would be born in the year of the rabbit. Not a tiger like Chua, not a boar like my mother, not a horse like me, but a bunny. Cuddly, cute, and -- the adjective Chua deploys with the greatest disgust -- soft.
I decided we needed a battle plan.
My husband was game. He hadn't grown up with a Chinese mother, but he sometimes wishes he had. Once, strolling Prospect Park, we watched a little kid point out his shadow to applause and cheers of "Great job!" from his parents. My husband muttered, "'Great job?' More like, 'Correct.'" Here was a sign of a soon-to-be Tiger Dad.
We started strategizing how to raise our kids -- by Chua's definition -- Chinese. Self-esteem built upon hard-won skills and achievements, not mindless praise. Discipline and obedience. Respect for elders -- i.e., us. Regimented chores. Academic drills, Mandarin lessons, and practice tests after school. That's when my husband asked what school our kids should attend (here in New York, an issue often raised before conception). I said they would simply attend the local elementary, like me, then test into the elite city school from which I'd graduated.
My husband looked worried. "What if they don't get in?"
Without hesitating, I said, "We'll beat them."
Right about then, I received a reply from my mother: a correspondingly loving message, along with a declaration that Amy Chua's depiction of Chinese mothers was "totally distorted" and that Chua herself was "a hysterical control freak."
Of course, in many ways, she was right.
I'd gotten a little carried away with Chua's manifesto. After living in China for four years, I'm well aware that her characterization of "Chinese mothers" would perplex most of those one-point-three-billion masses, from the impoverished villages where toddlers often wander unsupervised amid livestock and littered streams to the booming cities where overweight "little emperors" (the spawn of China's one-child policy) often tyrannize their doting parents and grandparents. During my time there, I was continually struck by how my homegrown notion of "Chinese mothers" bore almost no relation to the realities on Chinese ground.
And as Chua acknowledges, the traits she attributes to Chinese mothers are also found among "Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents." In fact, this parenting style would much more accurately be described as common to striving immigrants -- in other words, to those whose life trajectories are "uniquely American," as a Time article astutely observed. But that doesn't have the same ring as "Chinese mothers." Neither does it play to the current national fear of losing to China on the global stage nor to long-held xenophobic views of Asian kids as "hypercompetitive robots," as Ken Chen noted at CNN.
Finally, for me to call my mother a Chinese mother diminishes not only her American-ness, but her individuality. Unlike Chua, my mother never outlawed school plays or TV or sleepovers. She wanted her daughters to engage in society, rather than hold ourselves above it; to develop social skills, independent minds, a strong sense of personal responsibility and civic duty. That was more important to her than raising the "math whizzes and music prodigies" that Chua (perhaps self-mockingly) promises.
And whereas Chua tells her daughters that hard work is what differentiates them from the school janitor, my mother never indulged the temptation to overlook social inequality. A former journalist and social worker who earned a law degree while I was in college, she enforced academic success not as an end in itself, but as a necessary foundation for the power to challenge the status quo and the freedom to pursue the passions that can't be decreed, that can only spring from our individuality.
Maybe it's no accident that I became a novelist, in the same way that one of my sisters now heads a nonprofit defending immigrants' rights while the other teaches public school -- careers that Chua might not consider "stereotypically successful" but have made my mother very proud.
Which is not to say that my mother is superior to other mothers. I can attest that her daughters are as deeply flawed as anyone -- and that we all carry battle scars. To be honest, I have no idea whether my mother represents "Chinese mothers" any more than Amy Chua. All I know is that the central way she raised us -- holding us to the highest standards and refusing to settle for less -- is how I want to raise my own children. And while my mother might loathe the term "Tiger Mother," as far as labels go, I like it -- with a few caveats.
My husband and I made some modifications to our battle plan. We'll emphasize basic diligence and rigor, along with personal choice. We'll probably deploy my mother's line about the word "try," but only if our kids bring home a grade below, say, 92. We won't care if our kids can't play piano for their lives, as long as they pursue some kind of passion. And, lest anyone worry, I can't imagine any scenario in which I would beat my children, not a failing test score, not even a crappy birthday card.
Most importantly, I realize there's no right way to be a Chinese mother or a Tiger Mother or any kind of mother. Every mother is only human. The best-laid of battle plans will always be works-in-progress, like our children, like ourselves.
Still, I remain grateful for Chua's call to arms. Her manifesto might be reckless on some counts, but what's undeniable is that parenting will often feel like war. And to fight that war, whatever our ethnicity, we need to cultivate a certain fierce spirit residing in each of us. That includes the little creature now growing inside me, these days better known in our house as "Tiger Cub."
RE: Parent and Child Face-to-Face: On the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - starshine - 06-01-2011 12:35 AM
"And as Chua acknowledges, the traits she attributes to Chinese mothers are also found among "Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents"..."
"...she enforced academic success not as an end in itself, but as a necessary foundation for the power to challenge the status quo and the freedom to pursue the passions that can't be decreed, that can only spring from our individuality."
"All I know is that the central way she raised us -- holding us to the highest standards and refusing to settle for less -- is how I want to raise my own children."
Amen, a thousand times over.
What I find rather curious is the absence and/or passivity of the male/father voice in both Chua and Fei's narratives. Also, Chua's husband is white, which means her children grew up biracial and I'm assuming bicultural, which doesn't seem to be reflected in the story of their upbringing, so I wonder what, if any, implications that had on her approach to parenting. (Even just the fact that it's her approach as opposed to their approach just seems odd to me, but perhaps there's something about Chinese culture and the role of the mother in parenting--regardless of the race/ethnicity/culture/presence of the father--that I'm ignorant to...)
RE: Parent and Child Face-to-Face: On the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - trudee - 10-06-2011 02:58 AM
Hi, I find your posts very insightful. I was aware of Chua's parenting technique and while I admire her dedication towards her responsibility as a parent, I can't seem to understand why she should consider applying a very stringent approach towards her children the way she has shown a lot of us. It is necessary to teach our kids discipline and put in punishment depending on the severity of their misconducts but I personally think it's extremely inappropriate to be forcing your kids to be achievers in anything you would want them to pursue. We should consider the fact that no one is perfect and our kids are most definitely not exempted from that fact. She's lucky her kids didn't end up with low self-esteem or troubled from all the physical and emotional punishments that they experienced from their mother. It would be more difficult to be parenting at-risk kids as a result of all those unnecessary discipline. I wouldn't want my kids to experience such kind of torment, putting myself in their feet, I'm sure they would want their parents to support them with whatever field they would want to pursue in. Maybe an adequate amount of tough love is acceptable but not to the point of breaking their spirits in the process. Well, that's just me.