Almost exactly a century ago, two Harvard professors—Dr. Boris Sidis, in psychology, and Dr. Leo Wiener, in the Slavic literature department—riled America by showcasing their two prodigy sons and the methods that had produced them, both Harvard-ready math marvels. While 11-year-old William James (Billy) Sidis stunned the university’s Mathematical Club with a lecture on the fourth dimension and 15-year-old Norbert Wiener plunged into graduate studies, Dr. Sidis insisted that anyone could nurture such youthful prowess. The only obstacle, he argued, was the American embrace of mediocrity. “Poor old college owls, academic barn-yard-fowls and worn-out sickly school-bats,” he scolded in his 1911 book Philistine and Genius, “you are panic-stricken by the power of sunlight, you are in agonizing, in mortal terror of critical, reflective thought, you dread and suppress the genius of the young.”
Now it’s Yale’s turn. In a book with a title very much in the pugnacious Sidis spirit, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, a professor at the university’s law school, sets out to provoke with her account of raising two precociously talented daughters. Chua, now making the TV rounds, is well aware her methods will make her readers gasp—with horror but also with unexpected envy.
The horror is easy to explain. Here is a mother who subjected her children to an obsessive-bordering-on-abusive level of duress in pursuit of superlative performance, not just in school but in music. Among other strictures, her girls “were never allowed … not to be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama” and also never allowed not to play the piano or violin. Chua presents hers as the “Chinese mother” approach, rooted in a heritage she says will be alien to “Westerners” but familiar to Asian-Americans strictly reared to excel, as she was by her immigrant parents. In fact, her underlying tenets would not have surprised Sidis and Wiener, Russian émigrés themselves. Fierce champions of nurture over nature, these fathers of a century ago didn’t need a Confucian legacy to embrace a similarly demanding agenda: Embark on the talent-building process very early, assume the child is exceedingly sturdy, expect great feats of mastery, don’t indulge youthful autonomy, demand family loyalty above peer popularity and activities. It’s an immigrant striver’s credo.
Chua has no equal, however, when it comes to shocking honesty about tactics. She has written the kind of exposé usually staged later by former prodigies themselves. In his memoir, Norbert Wiener revealed his terror when his “gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood.” Chua might recognize herself in that image—she is a tiger who roars rather than purrs. That’s because no child, she points out, naturally clamors for the “tenacious practice, practice, practice” that mastery demands.
Instead of sugar-coating, Chua champions the revered Chinese custom of “eating bitterness,” which Nicholas Kristof highlighted in a recent column about China’s 16-year-old women’s world chess champion: That is the term for the intensely disciplined labor that fuels high performance, which Chua is ready to push to extremes that she acknowledges might seem almost (her phrase) “legally actionable” in the United States. Taking it upon herself to turn Sophia, her responsive eldest, into a piano virtuoso, and balkier Lulu, three years younger, into a star violinist, she relishes the details of her ruthless program. Even Sophia, duly practicing for hours, has her lapses, one of which prompts Chua to deride her as “garbage,” for which her aghast New Haven friends shun her. In the case of Lulu, we read about an all-out war for control over a tiger cub as headstrong as her mother and soon versed in standard American insolence. After lots of shrieking and music-shredding in one particularly drawn-out battle over a tricky piece, Chua writes, “we worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.” There’s more of this. It’s appalling.
Yet Chua also knows just how to elicit sighs of envy. The obvious allure is that she gets results. Lulu, you’ll be relieved to know, finally learned that piece and was thrilled with herself: “Mommy, look—it’s easy!” And that “virtuous circle” of struggle crowned by achievement brought bigger rewards. At 14, in 2007, Sophia won a competition that earned her a debut at Carnegie Hall, and though Lulu ultimately rebelled by abandoning the prodigy path on the violin, she is no slouch. She’s now avidly pursuing tennis on her own (leaving her mother battling the urge to surreptitiously text the coach to suggest “questions and practice strategies”). These are, in short, girls who fit the supermold that is the acme of child-rearing expectations these days in the United States, never mind China. They are stellar students with far-beyond-amateur extracurricular accomplishments—shoo-ins when it comes to that holy grail of hyper-parenting: Ivy League admission.
But there is more, a source of deeper envy. The overachiever story is old by now. The rarer feat, likely to stir jealousy in just about any American parent, lies in Chua’s supreme maternal confidence and almost complete lack of ambivalence about her approach with her children. As Dr. Spock presciently diagnosed half a century ago, hesitancy is the “commonest problem in child rearing in America today.” Oh, to be a tiger mother free of insecurity—so free she can avoid sanctimony, too! On paper at least, Chua’s adamant certainty unexpectedly goes hand in hand with self-mockery. (“I guess I have a tendency to be a little preachy.”) With her deadpan delivery, adopted with eye-rolling daughters and eyebrow-raised readers in mind, the rigorous taskmaster astutely lets herself look ridiculous—the better to be taken seriously.
Chua’s mindset and methods—bolstered by faith in Chinese family tradition—pose a useful challenge for an era haunted by a helicoptering ethos as hard to shake as it is to like. Here is an alternative to the queasy hypocrisy of typical hyperparents, buffeted by shifting expertise that leaves them anxious about overpressuring even as they push. Chua breaks through all that. She is a crusader invigorated by practicing what she preaches: the arduous work she believes necessary to do anything well, child-rearing included. Her exacting program isincredibly time-consuming and burdensome, for her as much as her kids, and is bound to look outlandish to others. (While teaching, writing her second book, and traveling constantly, Chua types up elaborate practice instructions, which freak out one of her law students when he stumbles on them—and which are to be found on pages 163-165.) But precisely because Chua slaves away as hard as her girls do, one thing her program is not is guilt-inducing. In the end, her ordeal with Lulu teaches Chua humility and proves her daughter’s very healthy autonomy—and inspires next to no regrets.
Let’s hope a furor over the book doesn’t change all that. Boris Sidis lived to regret his boastful diatribe, or at least his wife did, lamenting poor Billy’s interlude in the spotlight, which complicated an already rocky transition to adulthood that ended in a lonely retreat. “Educators, psychologists, editorial writers and newspaper readers were furious” with her husband, Sarah Sidis wrote. “And their fury was a factor in Billy’s life upon which we had not counted.” Norbert Wiener, who battled depression to become the future founder of the field of cybernetics, was devastated as a teenager when, browsing in a magazine, he learned that his father, Leo, had claimed his son’s successes as his own, while blaming failures on the boy. Proselytizing and prodigy-raising are a fraught mix.
In a coda to her book, Chua loosens up, describing how she gave her daughters the manuscript and welcomed them as collaborators. The wise girls are wary about getting roped in. “I’m sure it’s all about you anyway,” Lulu says. As they hunker down to criticize, and make her revise, revise, revise, Sophia, now 17, issues a warning well worth keeping in mind if, or when, the mommy wars erupt over Chua’s provocative portrait. “It’s not possible for you to tell the complete truth,” Sophia tells her mother. “You’ve left out so many facts. But that means no one can really understand.” Let’s not forget that it’s only how the girls themselves understand their mother’s methods that really counts in the end.