Amy Chua: Mother superior

Children need inner strength to survive in a tough world, says‘Tiger Mother’ author

Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother


Even parents undergoing a media blackout during the Mommy Wars surrounding Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother must have absorbed some of the shrapnel. The author, 52-year-old Amy Chua, a tiny, feminine and formidable Asian-American law professor at Yale, crashed into the parenting debate a couple of years ago, with what appeared to be a book on how to torture your children into disciplined perfection, the Chinese way.

So if say, your child wasn’t sufficiently focused on a difficult piano piece, you might threaten to burn her toys or withhold toilet breaks, or food, or presents, birthday parties or sleepovers for oh, three or four years.

It all seemed a tad harsh, frankly – especially to those who hadn’t fully read the book, which was almost everyone. Which failed to prevent an explosive global debate about parenting and culture and everything that the Western liberal holds dear. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson suggested that Chua’s philosophy of child-rearing might not be for the faint-hearted – “but ask yourself this – is it really more cruel than the laissez-faire indifference and babysitting-by-TV which too often passes for parenting these days?” Ouch.

Meanwhile, Chua – herself a child of “incredibly strict” but adored Chinese-born parents – was trying desperately to explain that Battle Hymn was not a how-to guide. “It’s a memoir, a story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother . . .”

On the phone from New Haven, Connecticut, in advance of a trip to Dublin next week to speak at The Gloss magazine’s ‘Look the Business’ event, Chua is wry, funny and nuanced. Her father – a Berkeley professor – has been here many times while she was here on a family trip and attributes one daughter’s college admission to an Irish maths tutor.

Meanwhile, the chastening of Amy has become a compelling public affair.

“My first kid was very easy, self-motivated, and I practically never had to force her to do anything. My second was both absolutely rebellious and difficult and very similar to me. And in a way, the book is about how I had to adjust my own ‘pushing’ because although most of the book is supposed to be funny, towards the last third of it, my daughter turns 13 and it becomes incredibly not funny. She grows incredibly angry and rude and alienated and the fights are no longer just little fights. They’re explosive. But I was not going to give in. It was a test of wills; Lulu’s way or mine.” It caused havoc in the family. She and her husband of 30 years had major disagreements about her approach. Even her parents thought she was going too far.

The tipping point came in the mother of all face-offs in Red Square, Moscow. “Lulu just said the worst things to me . . . Only then did it hit me in the face and I thought she hates me – and oh my God, I really could lose my daughter . . .”

At the same time, she feared she might be losing her much-loved sister to leukaemia. “It was the worst moment of my life and it was at that point that I wrote Battle Hymn . . . It poured out in three months. So it’s about when to stop pushing. I adjusted. I can’t say I gave up altogether but with Lulu, I just said, ‘OK, you’re right. You want to give up the violin, we give it up; you want to do the sleepover, OK’. Lulu’s just an incredibly social, kind of a magnet for trouble,” she says laughing, “everybody will do it, but Lulu is the one who’ll get caught”.

The one non-negotiable was what Chua calls “the academics”. “That may be from my own parents, my own culture – so it’s a very tricky idea when to stop pushing”.

Rebellious adolescents are not just a western phenomenon. “I’ve given many talks in China and Korea and it turns out that it’s universal. This is when Asian parents have the most trouble too. I think that it’s something Asian parents tend to be very poorly equipped to deal with and there are probably more tragic stories over there of complete alienation, where parents absolutely refuse to budge.”

Those who were angriest with Battle Hymn were children of strict Asian parents, “often the ones for whom the method did not work”. They believe far from loving them, their parents were using them for bragging rights, or as an “investment good” on which the child had to deliver.

But most of these very strict parents adore their children, Chua believes. The message they convey might just be different to the one the child is hearing. “They don’t have the psychological tools and often just completely lose the child . . . Korea has the highest suicide rate of young people of that age and I think that’s quite a problem for them.”

In the West, by contrast, we fear our children are so fragile, we place almost no expectations in them. “Parents let them do whatever they want . . .”

Much of Chua’s philosophy comes back to the scratchy nature of self-esteem – which is not the same, she insists, as real inner strength. In fact, a little nagging lack of self-esteem can do you good. “The way many parents or educators in the West think, it’s almost too easy to instil self-esteem, too easy to tell somebody ‘you’re fantastic, you’re the best’. But the world is tough out there . . . The only way you can really have confidence is by overcoming a challenge, mastering something.”

To her, the challenge is to show the child unconditional love and belief in them, while saying, “you have to strive because that’s what I believe to be the best avenue for fulfilment and happiness”.

This dovetails neatly with the thesis of Chua’s latest book, co-authored with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a 54-year-old professor of constitutional law at Yale. The Triple Package has triggered another furore, where the couple have been commended for bald courage and also been accused of racism. In the Guardian, Emma Brockes wrote they “draw on eye-opening studies of the influence of stereotypes and expectations on various ethnic and cultural groups . . . The authors’ willingness to pursue an intellectual inquiry that others wouldn’t is bracing.”

Chua believes that once again, outcry has come from people who haven’t even read the subtitle, never mind the book. Subtitled “How 3 Unlikely Traits explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”, the book lists eight cultural groups as examples of successful performers – the Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban exiles and Mormons, all of whom possess the three unlikely traits. These are: 1) a superiority complex; 2) insecurity; and 3) impulse control.

“It’s more of an immigrant phenomenon. It’s about the rise and fall of cultural groups. Success always contains the seeds of its own demise and that’s why one of the ingredients we suggest is a little bit of insecurity. Insecurity combined with the sense of exceptionality that generates the drive that says, ‘I’m going to show everybody’.

“One of the things we found in all of these groups that are succeeding disproportionately is that the parents give their children a sense of exceptionality but simultaneously make them feel they haven’t done quite enough yet. So the idea of high expectations actually includes both a sense of superiority and a sense of insecurity. The message you’re sending is not, ‘you’re perfect, you can sit back’; it’s ‘you have so much potential, you can be the greatest, you have no idea how exceptional you are – but you’re not there yet. You need to work hard’.”

While Asian-American students have the lowest reported rates of suicide, they also have the lowest reported self-esteem. “They feel they’re not good enough yet – even in the US. Yet they have far and away the highest test scores. So this [THESIS]is intended to be a nuanced idea, not some superficial celebration. It can be very painful to be driven. Both books are meant to be a way to explore that.”

As for her own children, She “pushed” Lulu so successfully in the academics that she gained admission to Harvard. It looked like a happy ending until last week, when Lulu phoned, distressed and anxious. “Now she doesn’t think she can do it. As a parent, I just think you’re never off the hook,” says Chua, a bit wearily. “Maybe this wasn’t a good path for her. Maybe I’ve spoiled her, I think sometimes. I was raised by immigrant parents who were very poor and whereas we’re not wealthy at all, my children grew up in a much more comfortable atmosphere and Lulu always got what she wanted. So when she’s stressed out now or calls me, sometimes I can’t tell if she’s being a baby or if she really is feeling agitated . . . I’m just trying to find out if these are just first-year jitters or if she’s just trying to give me a heart attack.”

Meanwhile, Sophia, now a Harvard senior, the “easy kid”, the one characterised as the obedient one in the book, has just given her anti-Vietnam-war era parents, the shock of their lives. She joined the army. “I think she found the one thing where no one can say that her parents wanted her to do this. But what she says is very noble – that we shouldn’t be sending just the under-privileged people to fight these battles. So she’s much more civic- and community-oriented – and of that I’m very proud. But as a mom, I’m terrified”.

The Gloss Look the Business event – about the power of fashion to make women feel good at work – is sponsored by Vodafone and takes place on October 22nd