Not about tigers. If tigers were pushed to succeed in a tough modern world and cared about their offspring’s academic excellence, and could play the piano, then yes. Maybe. Kind of.
Amy Chua’s biographical book describes the tough, often fraught challenge of being a ‘Chinese Mother’ in decadent Western society. As a second generation immigrant to American, she married a Jewish college Professor and they had two little girls. Chua soon decided that her girls would not become soft and overindulged, the way she perceived many American kids, and that they would learn excellence and work hard to better themselves. Fulfilling this ambition involved putting them through intense music and language lessons, and maintaining a strict schedule of endless practice and homework.
Steely nerves and apparently almost no need for sleep mean that her daughters both excel while she holds down a tough academic position. Chua does a terrific job of narrating how and why she did it this way, often making herself the bad guy as she guilt-trips and cajoles her daughters into doing what she wants. In some cases, her actions seem awfully extreme, particularly when she tells them to make her a better birthday card. She even manages to find pianos for her girls to practice on every single night when the family is on exotic foreign holidays. She is dedicated, unbending and at first, she can seem like a bit of a bully.
While having a mother like this would be utterly terrifying, I am completely torn between equal amounts of admiration and outrage. This book and Chua are really asking why we shouldn’t pushing children to better themselves, to make the extra effort and become great at something, instead of coddling them and letting them quit when it gets a bit tough. The Chinese theory goes that if the child becomes very good at something, like music, then it is no longer a chore to do it and the confidence and satisfaction is its own reward.
Chua is surprisingly even handed and incredibly self-critical, and she slowly realises that not all children need to be continually pushed to breaking point to excel. She finally hits on this realisation when one teenage daughter rebels against the ‘regime’ and chooses her own path. I especially liked the chapter where Amy understands she does not have to turn her two unteachable dogs into high achievers, and I think the section with the pets and was a very valuable part of the book. The animals really open up discussions in the family.
While this is in no way a self-help story, and was not sold as a guide to raising your own children, I took a lot of inspiration away from this book. It acts as insight into the mindset of towards making yourself do the work, to see how much you can actually do before you quit, seeing if you too can push past the pain and the ‘resistance’, a little like Pressfield’s War of Art. She understands the value of practice and to that often a lot of work is needed to successfully learn a new skill.
It’s a pity that Chua’s husband isn’t involved in the story more as I wondered how the high-achieving pressures affect him and how he reacted to daily tensions between Chua and her daughters. He’s painted as the ‘easy-going’ one who nonetheless supports his wife almost all the way. A little more insight into him would have been useful. She did establish that he wasn’t interested in being a big part of the book and had consulted her family on every page of the story. Perhaps it would have been a longer book if he had been more involved. This was a very quick read – in fact I finished it in one evening to get it back to the library on time! But I enjoyed it and found it very interesting. Its clear, concise style kept me zipping through the chapters.
Reading it for inspiration, I settled on a viewpoint where some moderation of ambition is the key, but her ideas of excellence and hard work were well worth holding onto.
Also, my overall impression of the book was somewhat like this picture. Which IS of tigers. Tigers are awesome. Obviously.