Friday, September 21, 2012

Why I loved Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I just read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, aka "The Tiger Mom." You all must know of her, the Yale Law professor mother whose eldest daughter was accepted at Harvard and Yale, who makes scores of American parents feel insecure whether or not they've read her book, right?

That's what I used to think anyway, until I actually took the time to hear her out. (Thanks, book club and local library!)

I loved the book.

I can also see why her ideas are extremely confronting for folks.

Before I dive into some of those ideas after the jump, my basic take on the mass hatred of her book is that in large part the hate is about anti-intellectualism; if she had instead used her intense methods to help her daughters win Olympic gold, I can guarantee you people would be applauding her instead of reviling her.

The hatred is also in part about our general reluctance to even question our closely-held beliefs about What Kids Really Need. As if every kid needs the exact same things at all times.

As I see her so much more clearly now, Professor Chua was trying to be vulnerable by examining her parenting and her own family of origin - all of it, in context, the good, the bad, and the ugly - while also attempting to be funny and humble about it. However, like certain ex-nerds of the emotionally-not-always-terribly-bright variety (i.e. yours truly), she often misses her mark and comes across as painfully tone deaf. She struggles to find her authentic voice within the memoir form. After her second child "rebelled" against her methods, she says, "I got my comeuppance." But in the end, I think her honesty and vulnerability save the day. This is a deeply honest, searching book about both successes and mistakes.

By the way, MBTI shout-out (yes, I know there's no peer reviewed research to back it up, but I like it) I'm guessing she's either ISTJ or ESTJ. My own mom is ISTJ, and I had similar educational outcomes as Prof. Chua's daughter S, without nearly as much in-your-face parenting, so that makes me on the one hand sympathetic to Chua's approach, but also I'm never going to be One True Way about pretty much anything. So I can read a book like this one and I'm able to take or leave the ideas, without prejudice. I get that not everyone is so inclined, and that's fine too.

I kept wishing she had said more about how she actually made her parenting choices, particularly in terms of the way she describes her kids, and about how she so carefully structured their time.

Why didn't she use a word like "gifted" to describe her two daughters S and L? I got the sense they'd probably test profoundly gifted, based on descriptions of their unusual behaviors from ages 1-3. But she never called them "gifted" or anything even like it. That's perhaps in line with the old school Eastern beliefs with which she was raised (by her Chinese-diaspora immigrant parents) that says talents aren't innate or fixed -- diligent behaviors create talent over time. (She was certainly prescient about the 10k hours requirement to be an expert described Outliers, as well as Carol Dweck's research urging us to focus on effort.) I got the sense she saw her daughters as "gifted," but to her mind that probably meant "They can start very young, they will be able to meet my extremely high expectations, and they can tolerate a lot of feedback and pushing because they are more naturally inclined to thrive under my tough but loving set of challenges."

How did she decide S would devote herself to of all things, piano, while L would devote herself to violin? I wanted to hear more about how she decided that a musical focus, and these two instruments specifically, would be a fit. Music and school were their only activities. Wow. The older my kids get, the more shocking that idea becomes. Talk about confronting. Most of my friends have their 5+-year-olds in about 8 different activities in a given year. I think the ideological difference boils down to the question of would one rather be a jack of all trades with many interests in the hope that one or two of those interests eventually becomes a deep passion, but at the risk of never finding that elusive flow? Or would one rather set it up so one could virtually guarantee to become an expert at one main thing and hope that the lessons gained while on the journey to expertise create the lifelong ability to cross any finish line in life, but at the risk of having no true passions at all? I don't know the answer so I'll of course say "both." I can see the benefits and detriments of both approaches. "Depends on the kid" I think (not much of a conclusion, but I think that's closest to the truth.)

I also wished she had said more about being a working mother, and how they pulled off all of the amazing international travel they did as a family, and also where in the hell was Tiger Dad? They had essentially the same job demands as law professors. Why did it seem like the childrens' educational burden was 100% on their mother? I was surprised she didn't engage in any kind of quasi-feminist analysis other than the unsatisfactory, hey, I'm Chinese, he's Jewish. Different worlds. I care more about hands-on helping the kids succeed, he's more about protecting them from psychological harm, etc etc. He reportedly "supported her methods 99%," while not seeming to lift a finger.

So why read this provocative, controversial book that pretty much everyone else hates? If your kid is gifted you might learn something about how to help her cope with perfectionism, and hear about at least one way to help her attain a state of flow in something. If your kid is not intellectually gifted in all areas all the time, or you don't know yet, I would submit this book is also for you, especially the bit about how Prof. Chua reinforced math at home with drilling and flashcards. I loved the idea that math is learnable, no matter how you self-define. Don't limit ourselves thinking we're "bad" at math because it doesn't come easily - that's a bunch of b.s.! I love the idea to believe in your ability, and to put your time in, and to work closely with someone who truly cares about your success in life whether that's a parent, a teacher, a peer, or a mentor.

Enough said. Don't believe all the silly hater hype that the Tiger Mom sucks. Open your mind. Give her ideas a shot. And by all means, please don't make the mistake of taking her so damn personally.


Mrs. 5C said...

I devoured this book in two large gulps while 7 months pregnant, sitting in Katherine's unfinished nursery. And I LOVED IT. I think she's brilliant. I don't want to push my daughter like that, but I don't think she's wrong for having done so.
I think often about the scenes where her sister in law is having cancer treatments. I don't know why they stuck with me so much.

Haley said...

Even though I have no kids (yet) I've started to read some parenting books and articles that are not how-to manuals so I can get an idea of what I should think about, and this book is def going on the list.

My husband and I both had white middle class Texan upbringings, but I had far stricter parents (Cheetah Mom?) who believed that if you weren't succeeding at school or a team sport you needed to try harder and we would fix the problem with extra practice time, etc.

My in-laws, on the other hand, did not push their kids as hard and I can foresee some friction in the future when I'm not satisfied with a B at school. I'm sure some compromise is best/possible, but it will be interesting for sure.

In other news, I feel bad for little kids who have jam packed 12 hour days and no freedom to just play and catch bugs in a jar. :(

Nataliya said...

oh, where to begin...

I haven't read the book, but I've read reviews. The bad reviews actually gave me the impression that I would like the book. And from YOUR review, I get the same feeling.

We're of the immigrant-struggling background. And one thing I would love to instill in my child is the value of hard work and dedication. And the only way I feel we can successfully do that is to set high (for us) expectations and push her. Not force, but push. Without the negative connotation associated with the word.

Also, having married a very mathematically gifted man, I can already see how our daughter took after him in her logic and lighting speed decision-making. And it is our job to direct her talent into something that will engage her talents.

Speaking of multiple activities for kids, we, as a family, are against many activities for kids. We are choosing music or art + 1 summer and 1 winter sport. For example, piano lessons twice a week + skiing on the weekends. That's it, that's all. I feel kids need time to be at home, to read, play dress-up, bake cookies with mom, or reach ahead in class (ha ha).

Just my 2 cents. Thank you for such a great review.

Got It, Ma! said...

Good for you for reading the book. I confess, all the hoopla put me off a bit. I think in my mind I equated Chua with all the affluent parents in our extended community who seem to be professional resume developers for their kids, carefully tracking the optimum number of extra-curriculars to appeal to admissions officers at the Ivies. You make me think I might have gotten that wrong...

Nevertheless, I struggle with how much I should really be involved in the minutia. Is it really my job to stand over my kids and make them practice piano? Or is it better to help them come up with a sensible goal and achieve it or not achieve it on their own. Don't they learn more by embarrassing themselves at their piano lesson than if I stand over them cracking the whip so that they get the piece right? Who exactly is doing the work then?

More than anything I want to teach my kids to have healthy work habits, to know the benefits of diligence. At some point they have to fly without a net or they'll never learn why it's best not to fall. Eventually, they'll go off to college and I won't be there to tell them to do their reading before class tomorrow or else the prof will make a fool of them. Better that they've learned that lesson themselves by that point.

Bottom line, the research tells us that once you make enough money to cover you expenses, save a bit, and have a bit of fun, more money doesn't make you any happier. So the goal of getting your kids into the "best" college so they can meet the "right" people and get the "best" job afterward just doesn't seem all that sensible to me. We seem to get so hung up on measuring achievement in our kids, but in the long run, what they achieve seems not nearly as important as how they achieve it. Kind of a process oriented rather than goal oriented approach, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I could use some more tips on combating perfectionism.

I'm far too lazy to force extracurriculars either in number or in depth at this point. I would do swimming lessons if we had someplace that taught swimming during the school year, but that's more of a survival thing. We keep *meaning* to start piano but never actually get around to it.

hush said...

@Mrs. 5C - Yes, like you, I also do not want to push my kids to that degree, but I don't think she's at all wrong for having done so. There were so many poignant , memorable scenes: her sister's cancer treatment, her other sister's disability, her strong relationship with her MIL Popo. I could go on and on.

hush said...

@Haley - Prof. Chua and her husband also seemed to have a slight stylistic mismatch in the educational expectations their families-of-origin, which they "solved" by Prof. Chua taking on all of the kids' "education" duty. Not what I would recommend. Glad it's a concern on your radar in your own marriage.

hush said...

@Natalyia - You would enjoy the part of her book where she talks about the Chinese immigrant pattern she sees. 1st gen immigrants are strict disciplinarians. Their children, the 2nd gen, will typically be high-achieving but less strict with their children. And the 3rd gen will have adopted an individualistic, disobedient attitude (in line with USian culture) that ultimately leads to relative financial decline (and to her the financial piece is really important).

hush said...

@Got It, Ma! - Sounds like the school culture where you live is all stocked up on Tiger Mom-like intensity, and it ain't all unicorns and rainbows for the kids who don't measure up.

Your sense about the book is not far off. On its face, Prof. Chua's general position is substantially similar to what I imagine (based on my long-time reading of the NYT) to be that of the supposed Ivy-parent-wannabees who reside "in the leafy suburbs" (to borrow a neat phrase from the @kitchen table math blog). The child's future financial success/ independence/ ability to care for elderly parents is a deeply desired outcome, from which happiness is assumed to follow. (And in theory, they're not per se wrong about that up to a point. As you mention, research now says at least $75k-ish per annum = happy enough.)

Your comment reminds me that SES/geographic perspective matters. Here in Podunkville, we actually need more high-expectation-having Tiger Parents who give a damn about literacy and numeracy (instead of putting athletics first, cough cough). A balance between those two extremes would be lovely.

hush said...

@nicoleandmaggie - I worry I may have just oversold the book's usefulness as a source of perfectionism tips. (We need more of those tips, too. Where the hell are they?) Cliff Notes version of Chua's so you don't have to read fruitlessly: work with the perfectionism, not against it. Embrace it. Don't try to change the kid. Accept their desire to be perfect, then find a way (to push/cajole?) to channel their desire for greatness into the behaviors that will lead to excellence at something. Easier said than done.

Lack of motivation is an issue for me as well. Plus introversion and needing lots of time alone away from people/my kids. The idea of needing to be up in my kids' face to help them excel = no bueno. Good idea, but so very much NOT for someone wired like me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I haven't the slightest idea how to channel the perfectionism that keeps DC from wanting to try into excellence. I guess we'll keep at the mindset stuff and keeping him challenged as best we can.

Re: motivation. It probably also helps that I genuinely think Harvard (and related ivies) is over-rated and no better for undergrads than many of our better state schools. There are schools I think my DC would get a better education at that are less of a crapshoot to get into.

hush said...

@nicoleandmaggie - Ha, so true. I agree that when you really drill down on the skills/takeaways Harvard undergrad and its ilk are often overrated. I say that based on the corporate recruiting I used to do - really opened my eyes about school rankings etc. In general, they don't teach many basic white collar job skills like how to use Excel (which obviously can be learned elsewhere). If my kids pursue engineering, I'd point them to the virtues of many, many other programs first. Though there is nothing like the door-opening power of the Princeton and West Point alumni networks.

Giving my kids the freedom to find their own authentic fit when/if they pick a college is just super important. That's something my parents totally got right - "go wherever you want" with absolutely no commentary.

Anonymous said...

The Princeton network is kind of insane, but it's also the #1 alumni network according to one of my colleagues who studies such things. I'm not sure it's worth spending 4 years in Princeton, NJ though!

My parents also did "go wherever you want" with no commentary or strings other than the purchase of a Fiske Guide and USNews. Well, my mom did think that a SLAC would be a good fit for me, and she was right (though I picked the SLAC). And with my sister we did a lot of comparing of how the engineering programs treated their female students before she settled on her school.

Cloud said...

Interesting. I had decided not to read her book, because it seemed from the excerpts that she was more interested in making sure her kids "succeeded" in her particular definition of success than in making sure her kids had the tools to live a life that made them authentically happy. (By that I mean- happy in a deep and meaningful sense, not a hedonistic sense. Gah. I don't think I can explain.)

Anyway, I decided we were after such different end states that it wasn't worth reading her book.

But- I think learning how to take advantage of and grow your skills is probably essential for true happiness, so maybe there is more overlap between me and Chua than I initially credited.

Still not going to read her book right now, though. I'm off parenting books, at least for

On the "intense effort in one activity" vs. "trying lots of different things"- I think you're right. Different things will be right for different kids. We have settled on a rule of 3 activities per kid (outside of school) at any one time, and that seems to be working for us. Of course, now that Pumpkin is at school and they have after school clubs, we'll probably let her add activities if she wants- as long as they are after school and don't require any extra driving from us.

paola said...

Like @Cloud, we too are doing the 3 activities at a time for each child, but it still feels like an awful lot at this age (5.5,7.5), especially when you think they have homework most nights and weekends and early bedtimes. Not to mention all the running around and hanging around I have to do, but anywya. Thing is that they want to try something new each term, so we are getting up to 10 or so activities a year. I figure, they will hone down their interests over the next few years and then they can concentrate on those. Then again, they might find something they love and are good at, in later years, which I can relate to.

The Chinese are an interesting case study though. I was reading that here in the UK, Chinese students have the highest academic results of all ethinic groups, both in the upper income and the lower income brackets. Certainly due to the way they are pushed at home.

I am often reminded of my daughter's Chinese friend back in Italy, who at the age of 4 was able to write and read 1000 Chinese characters. Mine OTOH, was barely writing her own name and was still getting the Z back the front.

Lisa F. said...

I opted not to read the book, but am interested in your review. I was a perfectionistic bright child, possibly gifted, but pushed to Go To College from early years. I only knew that I had to achieve at school, I was good at taking tests & getting good grades. When I got to college, the pressure was off, however I had no sense of what to do next, what MY hopes & dreams were, where my gifts lay, what I wanted. We were poor & didn't do activities or sports until I was in high school where I played sports.

With my now 7 year old, we're just settling in to a new school, and weekly swim lessons are our only activity. It's hard to find kids to have playdates with & to develop friendships with because everyone else seems so scheduled.

Thanks for the review, this stuff is so interesting!