In this book, Amy Chua details how she raised her two daughters Sophia and Louisa, using methods that might be considered unconventional by today’s standards. When I read about it in The New Yorker in January, a lot of people were blogging about it, and there were quite a few harsh comments on her methods. Someone even suggested she be arrested for child abuse. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book, it’s my turn. I’m not a parent so far be it for me to tell her how she should have raised her children, but I will say this. Looking back on how my younger brother Andy and I were raised compared to the upbringing of Sophia and Louisa, Amy Chua didn’t hold a candle to our mother.
After reading the book, I can understand why Amy raised her children the way she did. It’s no different from the pattern of the abused child who grows up to abuse her own children. Amy was the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she and her siblings were raised in a strict environment. They were required to speak only Chinese at home and whacked with chopsticks for every English word accidentally uttered. They were expected to get straight A’s in school, and heaven help them if they came home with a B on a report card. When Amy won only second place in a school contest, her father said she had disgraced him. Amy’s husband isn’t Chinese, but Amy decided to raise their children in what she calls the Chinese way as opposed to the Western way which I’m assuming means the American way. Her husband went along with it, although he tried unsuccessfully to intervene when she was especially harsh with the girls. Sophia and Louisa were forbidden to participate in sleepovers, play dates, and school plays. They also were not allowed to watch TV or play computer games. All their free time was taken up with practicing the piano and violin. They were expected to receive no less than an A in most school subjects.
On the other hand, Andy and I were raised in a less restrictive environment. We could have sleepovers and play dates and do a lot of other things that kids did. I took piano lessons and tried the violin. Andy learned to play the drums. We were never forced to play any musical instruments like Sophia or Louisa. Our parents were proud of us even when we got B’s.
Sophia and Louisa were born three years apart with Sophia being the older. When both girls were five, they started formal musical training. Amy was present during all their lessons which was actually required by the Suzuki teachers. At home, she sat next to them when they practiced and gave pointers. At times, she told them they were getting worse and threatened to burn or give away their toys and deprive them of food if they didn’t play a piece correctly. The girls were forced to practice five or six hours a day and sometimes not allowed to leave the piano to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom. When they were teen-agers, Amy left strict instructions on how to practice certain pieces in the event she couldn’t be home to supervise them.
Andy and I are seven years apart. I started lessons when I was five. Andy started taking drum lessons when he was about eight. Mother rarely stayed with us during our lessons. At home, she showed me how to play the pieces because I couldn’t see well enough to read the music, and I never learned Braille music. Andy could figure out drumming on his own without help from Mother. We were never threatened with serious consequences if we didn’t play correctly, but Mother lost patience with me from time to time when I didn’t get the pieces right the first or second time. Once I got the hang of the pieces, I was left to my own devices, but Mother was always nearby since the piano was in a central location. There was no set amount of time for us to practice. Once we had gone through our assigned practicing, we could do what we wanted.
Sometimes, I stayed at the piano and made up songs. When I was older, I sang popular songs I heard on the radio or records and accompanied myself on the piano. Andy often played the drums with me. I’m glad Amy wasn’t our mother because she would have frowned on this. Although she encouraged her daughters to play together, she insisted they play strictly classical music.
When Sophia and Louisa were seven and four, they gave her birthday cards they’d drawn on construction paper with crayons. She rejected them, telling her daughters she wanted something better. She claimed that since she went all out for their birthdays, buying fancy cakes and party favors, she expected the same in return.
My mother never reacted in such a way to any gifts we gave her. Dad often took Andy and me shopping for Mother’s birthday and helped us pick out stuff he thought she would like: shampoo, lotion, and other cosmetics. Mother always expressed appreciation for the things we gave her, and I think she tried to instill in us the idea that it’s the thought that counts.
As a result of Amy’s rigorous schedule of practice and lessons, Sophia played at Carnegie Hall when she was thirteen, and Louisa became concert master for a youth orchestra and recorded a CD when she was the same age. I never made it to Carnegie Hall, and Andy never recorded a CD, but I won second place in a talent contest when I was in high school with my piano and vocal rendition of “You Light Up My Life,” and of course, my parents were proud. I had hoped to be the next Debbie Boon or Olivia-Newton-John, but that didn’t happen, either. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy with my life, and I’m glad that when I was growing up, my mother taught me to enjoy it. I hope that when Sophia and Louisa grow up, they will learn to enjoy life as well, and when they have children, perhaps they will break the vicious mother daughter cycle and raise them in the Western way.
Amy Chua tells a compelling story, weaving incidents of the girls’ musical exploits with other family events: the acquisition of two dogs, the loss of Amy’s mother-in-law, and her sister’s bout with leukemia. In the end, she describes how Louisa rebeled against the strict regimen and her decision to retreat from Chinese parenting tactics. I purchased the book in recorded format from audible.com and was lucky to hear the author read it. She did a terrific job. This book is available in print anywhere Penguin books are sold. I recommend it to anyone who likes a heartwarming family story. For more information, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Hymn_of_the_Tiger_Mother#Summary
Abbie Johnson Taylor
Author of We Shall Overcome