The first thing I’d say about this book is that it’s much funnier than I expected and a much more enjoyable read. I initially read it because of all the publicity, both positive and negative. I wanted to be able to talk about the book instead of just what I had heard someone say about it.
Even after all the publicity, I was surprised by the book. As I said, it’s much funnier. It’s well-written and just fun and quick to read. I was also surprised because I felt like it was a much different book than all the publicity advertised. I wrote here about it when it first came out and I made the somewhat cynical statement that Amy Chua had a great publicist who knew how to get her book a lot of attention. I still think that might be true, but now I’m not sure if the publicity served her well.
Chua has said in many interviews that the book is not meant to be a parenting how-to or really even her story of “how Chinese mothers are better”. It’s meant to be her family’s story. With the first Wall Street Journal article titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Better” it was hard to believe that. However, after reading the book, I think she’s telling the truth. The cover page itself states:
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
In the climatic scene of the book, Lulu, her thirteen-year-old daughter, has a breakdown of sorts in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s a breaking point for Chua also and calls into question all of her beliefs about parenting. When she got home from the trip, she started writing this book. In my mind, one of the most important things to realize about this book is that she started writing it in June of 2009. That’s less than two years ago. The book is more a form of therapy (something she admits) than a how-to on parenting by an expert.
I’m not trying to defend Chua so much as to say that I think it’s a shame that the book got characterized as one woman’s prescription for parenting rather than one woman’s story of her own family. I think people wouldn’t be so vitriolic about the book if that was the case. Of course they might not be reading it at all if that was the case.
As for the book itself, other than being funny and often brutally honest, it also raises some interesting questions about culture. Chua has been criticized for being stereotypical in her portrayal of Chinese-Americans and being divisive. At one point in the book she mentions that she has always had an interest in cultural differences. As a non-Chinese married into a Chinese-American family I found these discussions of cultural differences fascinating and often insightful.
Finally, the book raises some interesting questions about what we think makes for a successful life, how we get there and what we ultimately value. Chua obviously values a very particular form of success and believes in sacrificing a lot to get there. I’m not sure for all the criticism of her that most of society disagrees with her about what is valuable although they might disagree with her methods to get there. Look at the value people place on things like the U.S. News college rankings. Is she really all that much different from the parent who pushes their child to specialize in a particular sport hoping for that elusive scholarship or at the very least that it will look great on the college application? And although Westerners like to say “I just want my kids to be happy”, how many really have a picture of that happiness that ultimately is pretty similar to Chua’s picture of success?
As a Christian I read this book with a particular worldview. For us the ultimate goal in parenting is the same as the answer to the first question of the Westminster catechism:
What is the chief end of man?
To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
I don’t mean to imply that we have that figured out, just that the goal is different. We’re not dismissive of academics, in fact we homeschool primarily because we think we provide a better education than traditional schools. I do hope that my kids are happy, but its not our end goal.
I can’t figure out how to end this review. I’ll just say that if you’re at all interested in culture or parenting or just want a funny interesting book to read, I’d recommend this one.