Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Thereare 3.7 million Google hits for “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” abook that is just a few weeks old. There are less than half as many for “Catcherin Rye” (1.5 million)—also know as “Battle Hymn of the AlienatedAdolescent”—and just 1.6 million for “David Copperfield,” thebook and the magician.

I could go on, but thepoint is made. Unless you’ve been locked in a room practicing “The LittleWhite Donkey”—a piano piece that plays a central role in Amy Chua’s anthemto police-state childhood—you’ve likely heard at least something about thisremarkable pop-culture bubble.

Chua has burst on thescene with a shameless and tendentious memoir of parental micromanagement. Shebrought up her two daughters according to plan, and that plan is a relentless,joyless, kick-ass school of Chinese discipline, an approach which sheconsistently, and simplistically, contrasts to the marshmallow, child-centricWestern model.

The examples of Chua’stiger toughness have become instant legends, giant bullet points in ourcultural PowerPoint. No TV, no playdates, no sleepovers. Refusal to accept handmadebirthday cards because the kids didn’t labor long enough on them. A threat toincinerate one of her children’s stuffed animals unless she mastered a pianopiece. She called her daughters “garbage” when angry.

“Happiness is not aconcept I tend to dwell on,” she writes with no overstatement whatsoever.The book makes Chua’s household sound like a highbrow version of one of thoseboot camps for troubled teens. If Chuck Schumer had heard about what was goingon in there, he would have shown up with a camera crew.

Its willful and impenitentoutrageousness is why Battle Hymn of theTiger Mother has captured the public’s imagination, spurringendless and largely unenlightening debate about child-rearing philosophy. Andthat’s exactly what Chua intended. In fact, what she’s produced is not a bookat all, it’s a manufactured artifact strategically designed to ignite a ragingmedia forest fire. This bestseller is as close to literature as McDonald’shamburgers—created by clever food scientists who artificially manipulatelaboratory-bred flavors and aromas to trigger a biological response—are tofood.

According to industryreports, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothersold in the high six figures after a spirited auction. The instincts of thebidders were accurate; the book knows its audience, playing upon our obsessionsand anxieties as confidently as David Mamet’s con men toy with their targets. Thefear of the Chinese eating our global lunch; our anxieties about the economicfuture; our worry about the psychic motivation of our children—they’re allhere. As is a polarizing, fascinating, and infuriating narrator.

Naturally,everyone tows a U-haul of biases to the debate, which began shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an excerptfrom the book. And not just biases, but subterranean blues. Even the mostgoo-goo parents, those who find Chua’s gulag ideology offensive, will concedethat they worry about the long-term effects of our affluent, compliant cultureof easy laughs and jiggly values on their kids. Chua is showing us a mirror; wedon’t like the person who’s holding it up, or what we see.

Beyond the level ofpersonal parental response, the interpretative frenzy largely cleaves alongwell-established lines in the culture wars. If you believe that Americansociety has gone soft, that we’ve lost the hard virtues, that we coddle ourkids and lavish them with over-praise for under-performance, this bookreinforces every cocktail party argument you’ve ever made. Likewise, if youbelieve that children need to be encouraged to find their way, that parentingneeds to be deferential to a child’s psychological vulnerabilities, thatbuilding confidence is a primary task, then have your beta-blockers standingby. (And if you’re David Brooks, and you have a book called The Social Animal coming out in March, you write about the bookthrough that ready lens. He calls Chua a “wimp” for essentiallyisolating her children and protecting them from the demands that derive frommastering the art of group dynamics and collective engagement, particularly inthe toughest jungle of all, the high school cafeteria.)

Yet despite all the coverage thebook has received, commentary about some important aspects of it has beenlight-to-marginal. For example, I find the book to be inherently racist; it’sshocking that Chua is so lacking in self-reflection and fundamental culturalsensitivities that she just forges ahead waving a giant paintbrush. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is aThanksgiving Day Parade of cartoonishly inflated ethnic stereotypes.

Chua’s portrayal of the Chinese ascold, brainy, and vicious feeds into every cliché going back to the YellowPeril, Charlie Chan, and The ManchurianCandidate. By contrast, the West is soft and self-indulgent, in a spiral ofdecline. And her caricature of the Jews—represented by her long-sufferinghusband Jed, and his standard-issue liberal parents—has all the anthropologicalsubtlety of a Jackie Mason routine. If a politician showed up on YouTube mouthingsuch crass stereotyping, he’d be shamed into early retirement.

Besides, there was no reason to makethis an East vs. West polemic, especially since the author’s “evidence”never extends beyond her own personal experience. Does she think it’s goodparenting to encourage your children to make sweeping judgments like this basedon such a limited sample?

When I look around at all theWestern families that fall apart—all the grown sons and daughters who can’tstand to be around their parents or don’t even talk to them—I have a hard timebelieving that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.

Beyond its clumsy and invidiouscomparisons, which are unbecoming to a Yale Law School professor one would hopeis capable of more nuanced thinking, the book is intellectually dishonest. “Thereis no rest for the Chinese mother…” Chua kvetches, “… no time torecharge, no possibility of flying off with friends for a few days to mudsprings in California.” Here, she manages to both play the martyr andskewer her hedonistic Western friends, as if her decisions were forced uponher.

Whenher daughters pipe up with a squeak of rebellion, and complain that she’sreally pushing them for the vicarious rewards, Chua pretends to have a momentof introspection and questions her own motives: “My answer, I’m prettysure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My mainevidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable,exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The woman is a lawyer and her “evidence”for a lack of self-interest in her maniacal pursuit of successful children isthat the quest causes her pain? Freud to Amy: have you ever wondered if yourlack of self-worth is what drives you to live a miserable and exhausting life,and to tear down your children in an attempt to make yourself feel better?

The biggestirony of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,though, is how sloppily written and unimaginative it is. I shudder to think ofthe punishment that would have been exacted on Sophia and Lulu if they playedtheir instruments with the disdain for style, form, and detail that theirmother’s book displays. Chua venerates hard work, but the easy adjectives andlazy language she employs are symptoms of the lack of rigor that she accusesWestern parents of tolerating, if not encouraging.

Ofcourse, it can be easy and unfair to trot out examples of embarrassing proseand preposterous “insights” in a review, but in the context of a bookwritten by a mom who pridefully forced her daughter to do 2,000 math problemswhen she came in second in her class, at least one deserves to be duly noted.Describing Whiggy and Tory, the family’s pet rabbits, Chua writes: “Theywere unintelligent and not at all what they claimed to be.” How did theseunreliable hares make those claims? On their Facebook pages?

Wehave a lot of important issues about parenting and education to discuss today. Thetension between creating self-esteem and encouraging self-awareness, forexample. Or America’s slippage in global measures of science mastery. Or how tomake sure that affluence doesn’t destroy motivation. These are complexsubjects, but none of them are clarified or amplified by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In Texas they say “All hat,no cattle.” The literary analogue here is “All title, no book.” Chua’smarketing masterpiece has provoked a harsh kind of parental partisanship,electrifying both sides of the domestic aisle in a fashion that is ultimatelyas useless to any real progress as the partisanship in Washington.