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In Defense of Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

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“Everybody seems to think art is spontaneous. But Tiger Mom, you taught me that even creativity takes effort.” — Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld

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After publishing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Dr. Amy Chua found herself beset by attacks from all over the U.S., attacks claiming that she was a terrible parent who tormented her children and brought them up to be automatons. And, coming to this text years later for the first time, it was under this sun that I picked up the book for a read.

Now, I’ll admit that there were plenty of times throughout the text that I wrote some choice things in the margins, but, as I read along, I also began to realize that there were more than a few jokes in there that, at first, I simply hadn’t realized for what they were — jokes. In other words, because of the bad press the book had gotten, I went in assuming the text was humorless, that every line was serious — and, under that weight, who could enjoy or appreciate the arguments Chua makes?

Despite this initial rough and prejudicial start, by the end of the book, Chua had — to my own surprise — won me over.

It’s not that I agree with her every decision and action (such as the blanket opposition of “Western” parents and “Chinese” parents, though her disclaimer in the first chapter about what a “Chinese” mother is to her should definitely be kept in mind throughout the book), but there’s definitely a great deal to learn from her observations and philosophy.

For example, consider the following quote (pg. 215) wherein Chua is struggling with her younger daughter, Lulu’s, decision to tone down her violin practice in order to take up tennis:

“‘…it’s good that you love tennis.’

But just because you love something, I added to myself, doesn’t mean you’ll ever be great. Not if you don’t work. Most people stink at what they love.”

This sentiment, that creativity takes hard work and training, that real joy in an exercise or task comes from vigilance and dedication, is one that I fully agree with. How many people dream of being something but never see it fulfilled? How many people plan to write a novel one day? Plan to learn an instrument or another language? How many people want to get into Harvard, Yale, and Julliard? — The only way to make these things happen, to see these goals manifest, is by setting aside foolish notions of riding the coattails of raw, natural talent, and embracing the fact that accomplishing any such goal means sitting down and doing the work every single day. Creativity isn’t simply a thing people are born with. It’s true that there are geniuses in the world and it’s true that most people do have a particular aptitude for some things over others, but neither of these mean that the individual in question will succeed or accomplish anything if they don’t hone those skills, capacities, and aptitudes with constant, constant work.

And, really, that’s the main thrust of Chua’s Battle Hymn. It’s not that she wants to torment children or create an army of kids that can all play Bartók but not think for themselves — she simply wants to do away with the trophies for Participation and the parenting style that says: Let the kid make his/her own way, even though kids can’t possibly know, understand, or have the discipline necessary to pursue the “ways” that lead to their long-run success, security, and joy versus those that indulge their short-run desires.

While I was a student in college, I had plenty of friends with dreams of being rock stars. They bought the guitars and got together to strum boredly with other “rock stars” while discussing band names, but they never, never actually practiced. What’s more, when they did practice, it was never regularly or for more than perhaps one or two hours at a time. In other words, none of those people are even members of a garage band let alone rock stars now. As Sophia wrote for the New York Post, art isn’t spontaneous — art and creativity take intense dedication and do not come at the expense of other studies, pursuits, and responsibilities. And this is precisely what Tiger Moms aim to teach their kids.

Of course, many parents also bemoan the idea of children not having enough free time and thus feeling unfulfilled and lonely. But, as Sophia goes on to explain about how her mother’s parenting style impacted her, it’s not about self-gratification, but about developing an appreciation for hard work.

To me, it’s not about achievement or self-gratification. It’s about knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. … You feel it when you encounter a life-changing idea, and when you do something on your own that you never thought you could. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent.

And for that, Tiger Mom, thank you.

In other words, the Tiger Mother style of parenting isn’t about keeping kids from experiencing the world to forcing them to practice useless things in any series of windowless music rooms and math halls. It’s about ensuring that kids learn the value in always pursuing something new, the value in becoming life-long learners, and that they cultivate an appreciation for learning and hard work for themselves. It’s about making sure that your child never feels like they should’ve worked harder or that they didn’t live up to their full potential or that they didn’t take advantage of their every opportunity to achieve their dreams.

The world is facing an unbelievable number of obstacles today from widespread poverty to devastating climate change.

Why wouldn’t anyone want to give their kids the best shot at being their best for both themselves and the world they’re about to inherit?

Of course, one of the most important (and hardest) realizations Amy Chua makes throughout her book is that not every child thrives under the same parenting style or with the same motivations. While it’s important to continuously push children and perhaps more than occasionally force them to work harder than they’d like to, it’s just as important to recognize when something simply isn’t working and to have honest discussions with your kids about what they need to succeed and why you’re choosing the actions and paths that you’re choosing for them.

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