Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: What is the War For?

Today, on the recommendation of the parent of one of my students, I read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, which "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."

It's really the story about how she forced her two children to practice music for hours every day, and how her younger daughter rebelled.

Chua, whose daughters are still teenagers, is too close to the story to know what conclusions to draw from her experiences. It is only on the very last page that she asks, "...what does it mean to live life to the fullest?"

I believe that the role of a parent is to help her children explore the answer to this question.

Chua's children have accomplished great things, if what you value is winning. If you call into question whether being the best is important, life gets a lot more confusing - but infinitely more interesting.

Chua's legacy is that she has instilled in her children her tenacity and work ethic; unfortunately, her own efforts were focused on the single-minded pursuit of musical virtuosity on behalf of her girls, without regard for the cost - financial, emotional, personal.

She has modeled for her children the value of determination and sacrifice, admirable virtues. However, I don't think her daughters' sacrifices were as beneficial. If you are not given a choice about what you are sacrificing and why, are you really learning what it means?

I applaud Chua's strength of conviction and her sense of parental responsibility. "My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future - not to make you like me," she tells her kids.

Chua, at least in the stark way she describes in the book, takes this too far. She loses the battle and the war.

The mule who's been whipped into submission too many times becomes insensitive to the whip. The punishment must be continually escalated, which is no fun for anyone. Eventually, the relationship breaks down completely.

Rather than bulldozing through another tearful, conflict-laden practice session, what about a more focused approach that leaves out the guilt, shame, and criticism, replacing them with self-evaluation, strategic use of self-talk and visualization, appropriate rewards, and frequent breaks?

You could say that my recommendations are way too soft and "Western." But the tactics I propose are sustainable and allow the student to be a partner in the process. She won't have to be constantly flogged.

In some ways, I'm eager for the cultural pendulum to swing a little further toward the less-permissive Chinese approach. I believe in the very Western idea that children should be taught how to think for themselves and how to identify their own emotional states, but I also think they should learn how to to stick with something even when it's tough, and that it's not mean to make them do things they want to do.

I appreciate Chua's honesty and willingness to share a controversial perspective. Her book gave me a lot to think about as a teacher, musician, and potential parent. Ultimately, she's a lot more ambivalent than a lot of the press surrounding the book would have you believe, which makes the book a thoughtful one. I feel a new clarity about my own perspective on the issues of education, success, virtuosity, and mentoring.

I also, oddly, was inspired to play classical piano.