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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter - Diana Holquist I need a reality check on one thing. What does the title of this book say to you?

I assumed it was a book by the daughter of an Amy Chua-type mom.

It isn't. It's by a mom and her teenaged daughter. Well, technically it's all by the mom, but she interviews her daughter and then weaves her answers together into coherent chapters.

I wasn't sure I'd like it at first. The whole first chapter is a smug, pompous brag about how Diana Holquist totally rejects the tiger-mom ethos and lets her children watch TV and play video games, and those kids are still mad overachievers.


She rattles off examples of her kids' amazingness, giving a looong paragraph to each of them. Then she chides readers for being impressed:

The second reason my kids are awesome is that I don't care about achievement. That dull list of exploits I rattled off a few pages back? Those accomplishments are the least interesting aspects about any of us.

I almost stopped reading right there, but the book's short and I did pay for it. Still -- wow, was that above and beyond the call of obnoxious. Your kids get straight A's; one of them plays elite-level soccer, and also the cello; the other does every kind of handicraft under the sun, plays the viola well enough to be invited to join her school's chamber orchestra, and is already earning scholarships to take classes at "a prestigious art college," as well as running her own business selling handcrafted fashion accessories -- oh, but it's just too boring to focus on these trivial aspects of their lives.

Insert barfy-face emoticon here.

(And for the record, people have aspects. Saying something is an aspect "about" someone is weird and wrong.)

Still, I gave this book three stars, and would have given it four if it hadn't been for moments like this one. Because this book became a lot of fun to read almost immediately after this admittedly painful chapter.

Although first it got kind of misleading. Holquist explains that she read some of Amy Chua's book to her kids. They all got a good laugh out of it. Holquist asks them if they wish she would be tougher on them, like the tiger mother. Conditional yes: each kid wishes Mom would be tougher on the other kid, which is pretty funny, as is her son's suggestion that a book about her should be called Off-key Ditty of the Sloth Mother.

Then Sloth Mother makes a confession:

"You know," I told my kids. "It might surprise you guys, but I used to a tiger mother."

Yes, she left out the word "be." There are a few such minor but irritating errors throughout the book. Later, in an otherwise wonderful passage, Holquist tells her readers, "You have to love your children for whom they are." Some writers think that "whom" is the intelligent version of "who," rather than just another word that it's sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect to use. (For the record, this sentence is the pronoun equivalent of saying "Love him for who him is.")

But I digress. The point of the passage above is that Holquist insists she's a reformed tiger mother. And she really isn't.

Being a tiger mother isn't about believing that your baby is the most amazing baby ever born. This sort of localized insanity is expected, at least in America, and amusing as long as it doesn't get out of hand.

A tiger mother wouldn't spend time watching her baby cooing and decide that her baby cooed the best of all the babies in her play group (as Holquist does, quite entertainingly). A tiger mother would never think her child was the best. She'd tell her child that she'd better be the best – the best when it came to school, and playing the piano or violin, and competing in the science fair, and scoring the highest on all possible tests.

A tiger mother wouldn't tell her daughter, "No one cares if you miss a note" at a violin recital. A tiger mother would have died of shame – or, more realistically, demanded her daughter practice more and be given more lessons – if all the other kids who'd started lessons at the same time were songs ahead of her in the first Suzuki violin book. She certainly wouldn't have let the daughter in question quit violin.

If a tiger mother got the news from her daughter's teacher that the daughter "isn't learning to read as quickly as we'd like," she wouldn't just let the kid learn at her own pace. She'd sell whatever she needed to, including the house if necessary, to hire whatever tutors were needed to catch her daughter up to grade level and beyond. (Or, more likely, she'd sit down and tutor the daughter herself, for hours and hours and hours every day.)

A tiger mother would never say her daughter "can't learn her times tables to save her life." See above re tutoring. She certainly wouldn't smile contentedly as her daughter's teacher taped a multiplication chart to the front of her daughter's notebook. If that teacher told a tiger mother cheerily, "Some kids just can't memorize math facts. No need to torture them," the tiger mother would eat her alive, possibly without bothering to chew.

These are all things that happened when Holquist was supposedly in tiger mother mode.

The thing is, she tells a terrific story. She's passionate about children being given the chance to shape their own lives and pursue their passions, and she makes her argument forcefully and beautifully. The pain she feels when her daughter Hana struggles both academically and socially is wrenching; and the reader wants to cheer as Holquist learns, step by tiny step, that everything's going to be fine as long as Holquist lays off and lets her daughter sort things out for herself, already.

This book would be worth reading just for the story of the birthday spent skating through a frozen forest. I will never forget that, and it didn't even happen to me. I get real live actual chills just thinking about it.

But there are plenty of other reasons to pick up Tiger Daughter. This book is a fast, humorous, often moving read that gripped me a lot harder and left me a lot happier than I'd ever expected it to, given that initial unpromising chapter.

But please let the record state: Diana Holquist was never a tiger mother. Not even once. Not even a little. Worrying about how your kid's doing in school and wanting the best for her doesn't count, or we'd all be tiger moms.

Read this book, especially if you've already read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn. If you haven't, read them both. You'll have a great time, and then you'll have a lot to think about.