Slate's Audio Book Club will discuss Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother at the end of January—details here.
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.