I read this a few years ago, when it first came out. I'm glad I reread it now that everyone's done screaming about what a horrifying monster Amy Chua is.
All I remember about that first reading is feeling really, really ticked off about something that isn't even Chua's fault. My family homeschools on a single income, and my husband's been laid off twice in the past decade, which made paying off some medical bills we'd racked up even more fun than it already was.
No, that's not what ticked me off. At the time I first read "Battle Hymn," I was the editor of the late lamented "Secular Homeschooling Magazine." I'd started the magazine myself and we had almost no advertisers, so basically anything I made was handed straight over to the printers.
As a sort of unofficial spokesperson for weirdos, I had to deal, often publicly, with a lot of silly ideas people have about homeschooling. Top of the list of ridiculous stereotypes is that homeschooling is a "Rich Peeps Only" club.
Right around the time Chua's book came out, I was asked to speak up in response to an online article whose gist was that homeschooling *must be nice if you can AFFORD it*. There was at the same time a *lot* of buzz about whether Chua's ideas about education were intriguing or appalling. Was this good parenting or child abuse?
Which *infuriated* me, because if you've read her book, you know how many buckets of money Chua poured into her children's education. At one point, she had a violin teacher coming to give her younger daughter lessons two or three times a *day.* She paid that same teacher to accompany the family on a trip to an important audition. She paid that teacher by the hour, including transportation time; and to sweeten the deal, she put the teacher and her boyfriend up at a really nice hotel for three nights. That part of the daughter's audition ALONE cost three thousand dollars.
I do not have three thousand dollars. Now that I'm in my forties, I could not get my hands on three thousand dollars on short notice even if the naval base were open and I had the address. And this was by no means the only aspect of Chua's driven, dedicated parenting style that cost a bleep-ton of money.
For the record, seeing money as something you make in order to be able to furnish the best possible education for your children is *admirable.* It's refreshing. Chua mentions being on the verge of cashing in her retirement fund in order to get a really good violin for her younger daughter, even though that daughter had no intention of becoming a professional violinist (and Chua probably would have been very unhappy if she *had* wanted to be a musician). I find that honorable.
But it really bugged me that *nobody* was talking about the money when they discussed the pros and cons of Chua's parenting style even though she made no secret of the fact that she is *seriously* wealthy; but plenty of people wouldn't engage in a genuine debate about the merits and difficulties involved in homeschooling because, hey, that's just for rich people.
I'm not homeless. I'm not in any danger of starving to death. But I'm definitely broke. And so are a LOT of homeschoolers I know.
So I had a bitter taste in my mouth when it came to this book, through no fault of the author. It was just a case of bad timing.
It turns out that reading a controversial book *after* everyone's done shouting about it can be very good timing, indeed. Amy Chua is a brilliant, hilarious writer. She is baffled and often alarmed by her younger daughter Lulu's fierce resistance to being told what to do. Here is Chua's response after a preschool interview is initially almost ruined, but is finally redeemed, by Lulu's insistence on doing things *her* way:
"Thank God we live in America, I thought to myself, where no doubt because of the American Revolution rebelliousness is valued. In China, they'd have sent Lulu to a labor camp."
If Chua had stopped at one kid, her faith in her own ideas about education and parenting would never have been shaken. Sophia was her dream daughter: intelligent, diligent, conscientious yet questioning, obedient with a mind of her own. A recent short article in the New Yorker mentions that Sophia is currently a junior at Harvard, with a double major in philosophy and Sanskrit, and "hopes to be a military prosecutor, with a focus on sexual assault."
I was delighted to see that update. But I also want to know: how's Lulu?
Lulu is the one who shook up Amy Chua's world:
"It's hard to find the words to describe my relationship with Lulu. 'All-out nuclear warfare' doesn't quite capture it. The irony is that Lulu and I are very much alike: She inherited my hot-tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving personality."
This book "was *supposed* to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones," Chua explains before the first chapter even begins. "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."
This book's great strength is that Chua's jury still seems to be out when it comes to her parenting ideas. She understands that even her most passionately-held ideals are taken to extremes at times, and she's not afraid to make herself look ridiculous:
"One evening, after another shouting match with the girls over music, I had an argument with Jed [her husband]. While he's always supported me in every way, he was worried that I was pushing too hard and that there was too much tension and no breathing space in the house. In return, I accused him of being selfish and thinking only of himself. 'All you think about is writing your own books and your own future,' I attacked. What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever even think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?'"
For the record: Coco is their dog.
Jed cracked up, as any sane being would, and then kissed Amy and told her not to worry, because they'd work things out somehow.
This exchange reveals two things about Amy Chua: her humor, and her boundless generosity. She worries about *everyone* in the household. She loves her daughters so much that she cares more about their welfare than she does about how they feel about her. "I'm willing to put in as long as it takes," she snaps at Jed at one point, "and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."
Or, as she so often put it to her daughters, "My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future -- not to make you like me."
Which worked fine, for Sophia. But Lulu wasn't having it. And she was every bit as strong-willed as her mother.
This short, funny, brilliant book attempts to answer the old question of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.