I was determined to hate “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” I was also determined to hate its author, Amy Chua, the domineering parent who forced her children to practice their instruments for up to six hours a day, demanded perfect grades at the expense of sleepovers, and outlawed participation in school plays or sports.
I’d always been scornful of parents who keep their children on tight leashes. It’s likely because my parents were exceptionally hands-off, perhaps to a fault, and that tactic always suited me just fine. They hardly ever bothered to ask if I had done my homework throughout high school, and I was allowed to dabble in any activity I chose, academic or extracurricular, until I felt like quitting. They did not know my grades unless I chose to tell them, and I don’t think they ever knew with total certainty which classes I was taking any given year. I pitied my classmates with strict parents who called their children’s teachers every semester to check on their progress.
“Wow,” I would think to myself. “They must have so little faith in you.”
The fire of my annoyance stoked, I cracked open Chua’s book with a glass of ice cubes by my side to crunch on when my tension got the better of me. But by the time I finished the book later that day—it’s a quick read, funny, and fast-paced—the ice cubes had melted and the glass had turned to water. The book is wonderful.
It’s also incredibly easy to misunderstand. Chua does have faith in her kids, and a lot of it. Perhaps the best-known example of Chua’s parenting is her response to the handmade birthday cards from her daughter Sophia, who was a child at the time. Chua rejected the cards due to their shoddy craftsmanship and told her daughter that, for Sophia’s birthday, she put in time and effort to make things nice; shouldn’t she expect the same in return? To the American ear, this retort is extreme at best, abusive at worst. Children are to be protected from their inevitable inadequacy at all times, and they are never to be told that their best isn’t good enough. It’s a given that any miserable specimen they offer will be cooed over and praised as though it were a Rembrandt.
Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, Chua’s older daughter and a current college junior, remembers that particular incident in a recent article, “Why I love my strict Chinese mom,” penned for the New York Post. Sophia admits that the birthday card she handed her mother years ago sucked, and she doesn’t blame her for requesting one that showed some thought.
“Let’s face it,” Sophia writes to her mother. “The card was feeble, and I was busted. It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me.”
I read those words with a sinking heart. My mother, I knew, would have thanked me for the card regardless of its sloppiness. She surely did thank me, over the years, for all of the terrible little gifts I gave her: plastic bowls containing mashed bananas and covered by a lace doily; useless, neon-colored lanyards that just made keys more confusing; knitted scarves with so many holes that it looked like someone had taken bites out of them.
My childhood was fun, sure, and low-pressure, at least when it came to pleasing my parents. Chua’s daughters’ childhoods, on the other hand, were certainly not low-pressure.
The bar was high. Very high.
Most Americans, of course, think childhood should be fun. That’s where Easter egg hunts and stores such as Toys “R” Us come in. Chua, however, tells us that nothing is fun until you’re good at it, and being good at something takes hard work. She also says that children will not inherently want to work, and that letting them quit is the absolute worst thing parents can do for children’s self-esteem. To Chua, being a demanding parent doesn’t show a lack of faith in children, but just the opposite: it takes an enormous amount of trust in someone to point out their inadequacies, because it implies that they are capable of fixing them.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like had I been raised by a tiger mother. I was allowed to give up playing the cello in seventh grade, stopping before I ever became good at it, because my initial enthusiasm petered out and I became unenthusiastic about practicing. I’m not blaming my parents for letting me be a quitter, but…O.K., I’m blaming them a little bit for letting me be a quitter. As much as I hate nagging, I hate thinking about how well I could have played had I played the cello more.
I’ve grown curiously protective over Chua, pausing the interviews with her that I watch to verbally abuse the hosts who ask her dumb and unfair questions. The snarkiness that people direct toward her is understandable, given that so few people have actually read the book. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is, notably, a story of transformation: Chua began writing the tale at a moment of crisis, when her daughter Lulu had created a scene in Moscow, screaming that she hated her violin, her mother, and her life.
After Moscow, Chua grappled with her once-firm belief in super-strict parenting, going so far as to question its validity and eventually concluding that tiger parenting is effective in early childhood, to lay the groundwork for excellence, but that parents should be cautious about maintaining those tactics in adolescence. That approach seems to offer the best of both worlds: Lulu applies the same diligence to tennis, a new hobby, as she once did to violin.
Maybe mother does know best.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.