It’s been a few months since the furor over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The most interesting thing about it isn’t the book itself: It was hastily written (Chua says that she wrote most of it in eight weeks), and it shows. Chua, although occasionally a keen cultural observer, lacks the power of self-reflection (not to be confused with egocentricity) that a great – or even a good – memoir requires. She tries to fit her tale of extreme parenting into the conventional narrative arc, which requires her to receive a comeuppance. Yet this form is a difficult fit with Chua’s self-certainty and lack of introspection. As a result, even when the narrative ends with one of her daughters rebelling against her parenting style, Chua isn’t sure of the point to be drawn from the book. (In the conclusion, Chua tells us that she pondered for months after writing her tale what message to convey to readers. She finally decided that the message is that children should be reared Chinese style until age 18, and Western style after that. In response, her kids pointed out that this means Chinese parenting throughout childhood. Chua concedes this, and concludes with no explicit resolution of the message to be drawn.)
For anyone who’s been cryogenically frozen these past months, the book is a memoir by Yale law professor Chua, which contrasts her “Chinese mother” parenting style with “Western parenting.” As Chua frames it, Chinese mothers push their children to succeed. This requires endless, punishing hours of study and practice on the part of the child. To make the time, Chinese mothers don’t let their children go on sleepovers, have playdates, be in school plays, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade other than “A” (except in drama or gym), not be the top student in all academic subjects, or play any instrument other than the piano or violin. In contrast, Western parents push their children less and are more inclined to accept mediocrity. They “consider themselves strict mak[ing] their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.” Chua herself didn’t grow up in China, but in Indiana and California. Accordingly, she uses the term “Chinese mother” loosely to apply to any parent who uses a tough, success-driven parenting style like her own, whether of Chinese descent or not.
More interesting than the book itself is the furor it has created. In the weeks after the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua received hundreds of emails about it. The excerpt reportedly generated more than 4,000 comments on the newspaper’s Web site (a record), and more than 100,000 responses on Facebook, as well as countless blog entries. Some agreed with Chua that American parents need to push their children harder. Many saw Chua’s parenting methods as self-centered, narrow, and abusive. So why did such a mediocre memoir kick off such a national furor?
One possibility is that Chua hit the nerve sensitized by the increasing economic insecurity that most American families face. During the last three decades, the gap between the