In parenting (and war), do the ends ever justify the means? If your eighth grader gives a piano recital at Carnegie Hall, does that accomplishment justify the 6–10 hours of practice daily with a mother who says things like “Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse”? Does it justify never allowing your daughter a play-date, unstructured time or a trip to the mall?

Amy Chua would say yes, emphatically. A tenured professor at Yale Law School and a respected author of books on law and ethnicity in the developing world, Chua turns to the differences between Chinese and Western parenting in her provocative memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Unlike the “weak-willed and indulgent” Western parents she criticizes, strict Chinese parents create a “virtuous circle” of achievement by insisting that their children memorize, practice and repeat. As her book graphically demonstrates, a Chinese parent (most often a mother in this book) must force the child to work; once the child begins to excel, self-confidence follows.

Fortunately for the readability of this memoir, Chua meets her foil in the person of her younger daughter Lulu, whose indomitable will and rebellious nature challenge her mother’s certainty at every turn. Unlike the pliable older daughter Sophia, whose success at the piano justifies the “virtuous circle” theory, Lulu’s own achievement on the violin comes at the cost of vicious arguments and tears. Chua’s Jewish husband Jed plays only a small part in this story, as an “American husband who believed that childhood should be fun,” and it would have been enlightening to get his perspective. Nonetheless, Chua is unafraid of portraying herself in a less than flattering light, and this honesty serves her purpose well, dramatizing the sacrifices involved with this model of parenting.

Sure to generate controversy, Chua’s candid family memoir offers valuable insight into larger cultural debates in children’s education, such as the place of testing and rote repetition. By demonstrating both the successes and the unvarnished personal costs of Chua’s method, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother leaves the reader wondering about the feasibility of some middle educational way, where discipline and self-expression unite. Perhaps it is up to Sophia and Lulu to write that book.

 

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