I missed this book–though not the 500 think pieces about it–when it was initially published in 2011. But the public library included it in a display of motherhood-themed books and I decided to give it a shot.
A short summary, if you somehow don’t know what this book is: Amy Chua shares her stories of being a “tiger mother”, a mother less interested in shoring up the self-esteem and emotional well-being of her daughters and more interested in honing them into high-achievers. Chua tows a hard-line with her girls–no sleepovers, no playdates, learn a difficult musical instrument and practice for several hours a day–and defends it on cultural grounds.
Important note: this is not a parenting book in the sense of offering advice on how to parent. This is a parenting book in the sense of being one mother’s story of her experience of parenting.
From what I recall of the public discourse at the time, this book surprised me a great deal. It’s a lot more human than I expected. A lot of what I had heard about is there. Chua gleefully recounts bringing one daughter’s violin and begging for access to the hotel piano for her other daughter on vacations. After all, vacation was not a good reason for the girls to miss their two hours of daily practice. She staunchly defends telling her younger daughter that her playing is garbage (because, her reasoning goes, her daughter knows her child is strong enough to hear the criticism and not take it personally). So, yeah, she’s a lot.
But that’s not all there is. Chua also openly shares her daughters’s reactions to her style of parenting, and her husband’s doubts. The subtitle on the book gives the game away: the younger daughter was not having any of it, and ultimately, the relentless drive to perfection pushes their relationship to the brink. Chua sees it coming, though she remains undeterred until the last possible second.
It’s watching this journey that surprised me most about the book, the younger daughter “wins”, but what does winning mean in this context? It’s clear that Chua is unapologetic about the extremes she employed–this is how you give your child the best opportunities in life–and it can be painful to read. So if Chua never apologizes, only passingly admits fault, then what are we left with? How far is too far in the name of good parenting?
While Chua frames this as Western vs Chinese style parenting–and she hand-waves the stereotype right off the bat by claiming that she knows a Western dad who is a “Chinese mother”–it’s less culturally-bound than the title suggests. It’s more a question of what parents expect of their children, and what do they owe each other.
Personally, I wish I had a bit more of Chua’s intestinal fortitude during those moments when I’m fighting for my kid to spend a measly 25 minutes practicing her instrument.
(I would not recommend this book to anyone raised by narcissists, or anyone recovering from parental trauma. Chua is not physically abusive, but the emotional and mental abuse she dishes aren’t fun to watch.)