[This review is based on the hardcover edition published in 2011.]
Here’s the deal:
Amy Chua is a first-generation American raised by Chinese parents; now she is a married law professor at Yale, and she and her husband have two daughters. Battle Hymn is essentially a collection of anecdotes revolving around the hyper-strict Chinese model of parenting that Chua used to raise her daughters. Her eldest, Sophia, is described as much more accepting of her mother’s forceful technique than Louisa (“Lulu”), the younger daughter. The most prevalent examples of Chinese parenting in the book are those concerning Sophia’s piano and Lulu’s violin, which the girls (unsurprisingly) are forced to take up. Eventually, after an especially explosive argument in a Russian cafe about Lulu’s rejection of Chua’s parenting, Chua allows Lulu to replace the violin with tennis. This actually becomes a turning point not only for their relationship, but also for Chua as a parent: the incident and its aftermath convince her to loosen up and break from the Chinese style and embrace, to a degree, Western parenting.
I really had to give this one a lot of thought. I had heard about this book in passing but had no desire or intention to read it, until the “Tiger Mother” was mentioned by the Honest Toddler (and you can read a bit about that here.)
Immediately after finishing the book, my first thought was, “God, I hate this woman! I hate the way she treated her daughters! I would never do that to my children!” I had to step away from the story for a day or so to collect myself and my thoughts and decide how I truly felt about what I’d just read. This book, after all, is not mindless fiction — it is shocking nonfiction that does, in fact, require a bit of time for thought and reflection.
Once the dust settled and I was able to full absorb the material, I was able to form my opinion, which is that this book — and its author — are widely misunderstood. I can completely understand why so many people consider it controversial, but at the same time it’s not meant to be read as an instruction manual for parents looking to adopt the Chinese style. This is simply Chua’s experience with raising kids the “Chinese way”; you don’t have to agree with it or raise your own children the same way. After the huge fight with Lulu in Russia, Chua’s clear contempt for Western parenting (“everyone is special in their own special way, right?”) softens considerably upon witnessing Lulu’s newfound happiness with tennis.
Much of the book, unfortunately, consists of unpleasant examples of Chua enforcing the parenting style she learned from her own parents. I think there would be much less controversy if there were a better balance of anecdotes. Before writing this review, I went online and read several articles and interviews about Amy Chua and Battle Hymn and, honestly, I just can’t see how she’d be a “Tiger Mother” on a 24/7 basis. It’s virtually impossible and likely exhausting for her to be in Tiger mode as often as she was; I can’t imagine that there weren’t many happy memories being made between all of these not-so-happy ones. For me, that’s all this book is missing. I found myself asking what Chua did between blowouts to maintain loving relationships with her daughters. Although she’s clearly a taskmaster, she’s also first and foremost a mother — how did she care for her daughters when they were sick? Did they ever have conversations about boys? How did she feel about the girls’ fashion choices? Were the girls Team Edward, Team Jacob, or Team Neither (or Team I Haven’t Even Read Twilight)?
Personally, I was happy with Chua’s brutal honesty (even if, at times, I completely disagreed with what she was saying). I appreciated that she didn’t sugarcoat the stories in the book. This is an entirely honest account of a Chinese mother and the way she raised her daughters — take it or leave it. If she wrote another book about her family life, I would certainly be interested in reading it!
So would I recommend this book?
Definitely. You may feel the urge to scream at her via Twitter or just to throw the book out a window, but trust me on this one. Read it for what it is and then really think about it when you’re done. I have a feeling you’ll thank me…if for nothing else, for opening your eyes to a very different style of parenting from what all of us Westerners are used to. Give it a try!