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The Toxic Tale of the Tiger Mother


Written by Maria Gaura

Arts and Review

SANTA CRUZ (February 2011) - Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is the strangest of parenting manuals.
In one slim volume, Chua details the methods she used to transform her elder daughter into a piano prodigy, and humorously recounts the misery she heaps on her girls, on her extended family, and on herself, in her quest to create the perfect child.
In the Tiger Mother’s world, maternity is not for the faint of heart, and childhood resembles an 18-year stint in a Marine Corps boot camp. Chua believes in pushing her children to their limits and beyond, and even infancy offers no respite.
Chua’s basic techniques are borrowed from her strict immigrant parents – high academic expectations and long hours of study, enforced by scolding, shaming, and humiliation. But Chua takes her parents’ methods to cult-like extremes by forbidding social contact with other children; withholding food, sleep and bathroom breaks; threatening to burn or give away her children’s toys; and constant surveillance.
Insubordination is a high crime, and Chua cheerfully describes shoving her three-year-old daughter outside in sub-freezing weather when the child resists her first piano lesson.
“You can’t stay in the house if you don’t listen to Mommy,” Chua says, and is surprised when the toddler stubbornly stands outside, and begins to freeze. Sure, it’s cold out there. But it’s pretty damn chilly inside that house, too. 
“Battle Hymn” intends to provoke, and it is tempting to dismiss this book as a cynical marketing concept. But Chua’s story feels authentically creepy, especially the jocular tone she employs to describe the process of reducing little girls to despair.  
There is a kernel of truth, or truthiness, to Chua’s polemic against “Western Parenting.” Sure, some parents allow their kids to slack off and fail. Yes, American teenagers are frequently annoying and undisciplined. But why does discipline have to be degrading and punitive? Why is fear the preferred motivator? Chua is an academic – why does she dismiss the entire field of child development research as irrelevant?
Even more baffling to lenient “Western” parents (like myself), and really, mothers of every stripe - how does any normal adult take pride and pleasure in the bullying of small children?
Chua knows that her methods are viewed with alarm by other parents, her in-laws, and even her Jewish husband, who by Chua’s account steps in periodically to shield his daughters from the worst of her hectoring. But Chua stands behind her methods because, she insists, they work.
She mocks a parent who is moved to tears when she hears that Chua calls her daughter “garbage.” The slur “worked great with Sophia,” Chua says. When Lulu can’t immediately master a piano piece, Chua forces her to remain at the piano for hours, and berates her for being “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.” Her husband finally demands that she stop insulting the child, “which I wasn’t even doing,” Chua writes. “I was motivating her.”
These incidents are not few and far between. Chua writes of epic nightly battles, screaming and threats, missed meals and toxic household tension. Her family hates it, but Chua sneers at her husband and takes a macho stance. “I’m willing to be the one they hate.”
Chua revels in the role of contrarian, and numerous reviews have referred to her views as being “politically incorrect.” But this isn’t a political book – it is a personal vindication, and a gleeful payback to all those people who warned Chua that she was harming her children.
Those people, incidentally, include her husband, and her mother-in-law, who Chua punishes by never once allowing a full day with her granddaughters. Even Popo’s lingering death by cancer is not enough to change Chua’s conviction that endless drills on piano and violin are more valuable than a day with a beloved grandparent.
As for effectiveness, however, the details in Chua’s narrative don’t add up. Most glaringly, only one of Chua’s daughters succeeds in meeting her expectations. The younger girl, Lulu, rebels at her mother’s micro-managing and is finally allowed to play tennis, and to practice the violin somewhat less obsessively than her mother demands.
(Though the child is still quite accomplished, Chua makes it clear that this daughter will never measure up. “Not a second goes by that (Lulu's decision) doesn’t cause me pain,” she writes.)
And while American-born Chua constantly talks about what “Chinese” parents do and don’t do – her own immigrant parents eventually join the chorus in warning that she’s gone too far.
Finally, Chua claims that everything she’s done, she’s done for the benefit of her children. But she appropriates their efforts as her own. “We went to the lesson,” she writes. “Then we went home to practice.” Other stage moms hover. But Chua is a Black Ops helicopter parent - a more oppressive creature altogether.
Unfortunately for Chua’s daughters, despite the years of grueling work, their achievements will always come with an asterisk. Could they have succeeded on their own? Nobody will ever know. And in "Western" culture, accomplishments are cheapened when they are compelled.
“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is a toxic little book, brimming with self-righteousness, contempt, and offensive racial stereotypes. Naturally, it’s a bestseller, and that fact alone is more of an indictment of “Western” culture than anything Chua can throw at it.