Amy Chua: Tiger Mother Without a Plan

My inbox has exploded with links to articles about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Everyone was asking me what I thought of Amy Chua’s controversial new book.

Amy Chua is a marketing genius.

I wanted to pop off about the posted excerpts of her book. I wanted to talk about how miserable her daughters must be, how lonely and socially inept that sort of child must be. My instinct was to question the manliness of her husband, and wonder how she had time for a career. I found that press was more than willing to make those leaps for me. No one seems to want to print the full text of the front cover:

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.

The book is good. It’s mostly well written and I was able to read it in a day. It’s extremely uncomfortable to read. The lack of perspective is unnerving. As Amy Chua talks about her relationships with her daughters in a matter of fact tone, I was waiting for love and tenderness to peek through. It is only in the occasional line that Ms. Chua talks about loving her daughters. It is a strange read for this Western Mother.

It is clear through Amy Chua’s incredible actions and her unwavering focus that she loves her daughters. It is just as clear to me that this isn’t the sort of love I’d like to pepper on my two children.

According to the book, the Chua-Rubenfeld household decided before the children were born that they would be raised the Chinese way. In the many swipes Chua takes at the Rubenfeld family we learn that her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, was raised in a very permissive American home. Every time she writes about his psychologist parents with her trademark unemotional tone the reader winces. Sometimes I was left wondering how this marriage could last, and other times imagining how my husband would explode were I to treat the children he loved in such a callous manner. The reader is left to wonder if Rubenfeld ever could have understood just what Chinese parenting meant to Chua.

The book is good until page 222. It is an engaging light read about a mother who is driven to ensure that her children succeed. As you turn each and every page Chua’s unreasonableness escalates, and just as it’s about to hit a crescendo she has glimmers of self awareness, and moments where she realizes that her daughters (and the rest of the world) do not like her. These chinks in her armor are all that keep the reader’s blood from running cold. For a moment Chua self reflects and you think there is hope, but then she gets back into gear and becomes the brutal taskmaster for her daughters once again.

When I started writing I asked a screenwriter friend of mine what the secrets were to crafting a good story. He told me this:

Your outline is everything. It’s a map to the story you want to tell. When you draft your outline you are essentially creating a map as you would for a trip, only it has to have every single detail on it. If you have to go to the bathroom after four hours you need to know exactly where you’ll stop. If you chose the wrong offramp there’s a very good chance that you will never get back on track. Most writers have a difficult time ending their books, not because they don’t tell a good story, but because they didn’t have a good plan. They wanted to go from Los Angeles to New York, but they didn’t know that they were going to have to drive through Pennsylvania.

Amy Chua knew she wanted to raise her daughters the Chinese way. Amy Chua believed in her heart that it was the best way her girls to be raised. One daughter played Carnegie Hall while in the eighth grade, and then had the unusual insight to write an essay that included the phrase, “Carnegie Hall. It didn’t seem right. This was supposed to be the unattainable goal, the carrot of false hope that would keep me practicing for an entire lifetime.” Sophia Chua shows more intuition in her three sentences than her mother shows in 229 pages.

Amy Chua’s book and her mothering share some undeniable traits. They are void of outward loving emotion, but incredibly passionate. Her book, like her mothering is laborious and tidy, it is the perfection she is striving for, but careens out of control. She is unable to write a good chapter to end her otherwise well written book, just as she is unable to control her teenage daughter.

On page 223 the chapter entitled Coda begins. A Coda is the concluding section of a musical composition. This chapter is awkward at every turn. There’s an uncomfortable family photograph, and a confession that the bulk of the book had been written in just eight weeks. She mentions that her husband and her daughters had helped her edit the stories, and that is why we see so little of her husband.

After reading about Sophia and Lulu and the childhood they were denied, I was looking for a chapter that would pay tribute to them and to their talents. What I got instead were a few words about the family loving her in the awkward way we’d glimpsed throughout the book.

Our children love us because we are their parents and we needn’t be anything more than Mom and Dad to get that adoration. They look up to us and work for praise, love and hugs. I have always believed that childhood is worth sanctifying, and that play is the work of children.

Today I asked my son what he wanted to be when he grows up. “You always ask me that.” He said. As he sighed and put his hand to his forehead, he looked up at me and asked me, “What do you want me to be when I grow up?”

“A good father and a good husband.” Was my only reply.

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26 Comments

  1. “These chinks in her armor…..”

    Way to be racist, Jessica.

    • shana

      my first giggle of the day, thank you!

      • Traci

        whew! I waited to add in my chuckles. You never know they will be read. ;)

      • OMG-that made me laugh so hard I almost dislocated my hip again!

  2. I once read that a reading of your parenting through your childs eyes before they are 5 is to ask them what they want to be in adulthood and see if they say they want to be parents. I also remember reading that even the kids whose parents put cigarettes out on them, love their parents. Love, in both parenting and being a child, isn’t a gauge of how well either went.

    • This is so true. “I love you” is just about as indicative of good parenting as “I hate you” is. Children will say anything to protect the only parents they have even when those parents are abusive to the point of gravely injuring them. And when kids express strong negative feelings, well, it could be strong feelings which are justifiable, or it could be that they know their parents do love them so much that they can bounce their growing pains off them and know that it won’t affect how much their parents love them.

  3. I want my children to be the best people that they can be, that is it. If it all works the way I want they’ll be productive, responsible and HAPPY people.

  4. fabulous post jessica.
    i read the NYT interview and was just sad for this automaton-mom and the offspring that she denied the simple pleasures of being children.

  5. You are the only person whose post on this subject so far who have actually read the entire book. For that, my hat’s off to you m’lady!

    1. Maybe because I am Chinese myself (?) I read the WSJ article as a sarcastic indictment of her own parents.
    2. How do you know that she did not help her daughter with that essay? ;-)
    3. After I was over my first reaction, I questioned myself whether my negative reaction to her parenting style did not come from my envy of her children’s success. “They are so successful but oh my god they had a miserable childhood.” And then I felt better about myself and continued my easy parenting style.

    • The first sentence is grossly ungrammatical. Zoink. Well, I hope you understand what I was trying to say…

  6. I have waited a while to comment on any of this and I thank you for a)reading the book and b)posting this reveiw. I am married to the son of a Chinese “Tiger Mom”. We have debated the WSJ article a few times in this house. Our children are not being raised ‘the Chinese way’, but their cousins (DH’s sister’s kids) are and I do worry about them. DH and his siblings are the products of an unemotional, incredibly driven (but not unloving) mother. There are 2 doctors, an OT and a med school drop out/music producer (he is the black sheep!) and they each have their own special neuroses. I can’t ever agree with this unwavering drive to push your children no matter what, but DH did appreciate one thing from the WSJ article. He liked Amy’s take on approaching children from a point of strength versus weakness and I tend to agree (we don’t like the words “I can’t do it” around here).

    My MIL (the Tiger Mom) is an enigma. She sees the way we are doing things and I think it has changed her. She hugged DH last year for the first time that he could ever remember. She will PLAY with my kids (but not so much with her other grand kids) and she hugs me ALL the time. So my point (my END to this very long comment!!)….. Don’t abandon the Tiger Moms out there. There is hope for them yet!!

    • “He liked Amy’s take on approaching children from a point of strength versus weakness and I tend to agree (we
      don’t like the words “I can’t do it” around here). ”

      I thoroughly agree on this. Emotions should be respected, but instilling the value of hard work and discipline is also to be respected and can be done without completely screwing up someone’s childhood. But yes, if you’re the type of parent who’d rather be good buddies than put up with whining and complaining in getting kids into the habit of hard work and discipline, then even Tiger Mom Lite will seem Dickensian. I think Amy Chua takes it too far, but honestly, I don’t think many parents go far enough in trusting in their children’s resources for inner strength and getting through difficult jobs, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional.

  7. I have known one too many mothers who have had to experience out-living their children. Not one of them would rather have a world-class pianist instead of a child who knew with unwavering certainty that she or he was loved every minute on this earth.

    Thanks for the candid review. I’ve read enough 1st-hand accounts of friends growing up that way in the U.S. and being torn as to whether or not hating it was being disloyal. I think I’ll just take your review and pretty much every other one I’ve read and skip the experience myself.

  8. I’d so much rather let my child find out for herself what she wants to do. There’s a really fast way to taint true talent and passion and that’s to turn it into a battle and a chore. No thanks.

  9. I saw The Tiger mother on one of the morning shows. Today maybe? Anywho…I totally get it. You love your children so much, you know they have the potential and CAN SUCCEED, so you push them to do it. There’s only so much child-led shit I can handle. My kid wants to run around naked…sorry, it’s -4*F outside, I don’t think so. My child wants to skip homework? NO.

    And Lucretia, I think that’s like a drive-by post jack. What is someone supposed to say to that? Oh yeah…My kids might die…I should be nicer & not make them do things they may not like? Throwing dead kids at people? That’s just wrong.

  10. But she IS a Western Mom, imitating what she perceives as “the Chinese way” without any of the perspective of an immigrant struggling in a new country for her kids.

    I read a great take on the article at The Last Psychiatrist blog- why does she get all the credit for their success? Why does the Jewish father get no blame or credit, too?

  11. Today people change the decisions about their future almost every day so I think children needn’t be worried about what they want to do when they grow up. Anyway the book seems to be full of practices that may have a damaging impact as far as the natural development of children is considered. There needs to be a certain balance between the aspirations of parents and the actual capacity of their children to do well in different areas of their lives.

  12. I taught AP English for a while and coached basketball, Amy Chua’s Chinese parenting is only different in method from the madness I encountered in the parents of the kids I taught. Western parents come at it from a different direction but their need to mold children, who are not clay by the way, into someone who can “succeed” in X, Y or Z is the same kind of disregard for who their kids are as Chua’s.

    In the end, she is just another version of the bad parent that most of us actually are.

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