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Amy Chua on high-stakes parenting

The author on the evils of sleepovers, the benefits of practising and how discipline builds self-esteem


 

Photographs by Steve Simon

Amy Chua is a professor of law at Yale University and the author of two acclaimed books about globalization and free-market democracy. Her new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, recounts raising her two daughters, now 15 and 18, using what she calls “Chinese parenting” methods.

Q: So, are you ready to be pilloried as the ultimate tough-love mum who threatened to burn your daughter’s stuffed animals if she didn’t perform piano practice perfectly?
A: I’m not sure. I did not write this book as a parenting book; and it’s not about promoting the Chinese parenting model, although some people will take it that way. I was raised by extremely strict, extremely loving Chinese immigrant parents whom I adore and feel I owe everything to them. By instilling a work ethic and self-discipline my parents allowed me to have choices as an adult and be who I wanted to be. I tried to raise my daughters the same way. With my first, Sophia, things went smoothly, but then Louisa [Lulu] came along and I got my comeuppance. At 13, she rebelled. I wrote the book seeking catharsis.

Q: You were an obsessive taskmaster, demanding your girls be top of their class, be fluent in Mandarin, practise classical music for hours every day and do chores. You also banned TV, computers, play dates and sleepovers.
A: I didn’t want my kids to fall into a familiar pattern as the granddaughters of immigrants. I was fighting the tendency for them to be entitled and consumerist.

Q: In the book you write “I’m using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too.” So why call it “Chinese parenting”?
A: It’s Chinese people of a certain demographic, along with other immigrants. And there are patterns; it’s not just stereotypes. I also say Western parents come in all varieties. I have Western friends who are very strict. But I think the current dominant Western parenting approach is much more protective, much more permissive. Western parents are shocked by some of the things that Chinese parents say and do, it seems so harsh. But a lot of immigrant parents are horrified by many aspects of Western parenting: how quickly they let children grow up, how much time they let them waste, and how poorly they prepare them for the future.

Q: You insisted your girls also have hobbies so they wouldn’t become “weird Asian automatons.” So you chose classical music. You didn’t want them doing crafts which “go nowhere” or playing drums which “lead to drugs.”
A: For me classical music symbolized refinement and hard work and delicacy, and a certain depth. Both the piano and the violin are capable of producing such beauty, something more meaningful than watching TV or doing Facebook for 10 hours.

Q: You believe rote repetition is undervalued in North America.
A: Yes, and this is where my book is really against stereotypes. I hear people saying, “Oh, Asians are born good at math, or good at music.” That’s ridiculous. So much of it is just hard work. When Lulu was 10, she had done poorly on a math test, and said, “I’m bad at math, and I don’t like math.” Some Western parents might have deferred to that and said: “That’s just her . . . she doesn’t like math.” But I made all these practice tests, and we drilled them and on the next test Lulu did very well and some of her friends called her a math whiz, and now math is one of her favourite subjects.

Q: You’re a critic of play dates and sleepovers, which you describe as “punishment parents unknowingly inflict on their kids through permissiveness.”
A: Westerners romanticize the sleepover: they say it’s about self-actualization and letting the kids explore. From my experience what that means is you go over to your friend’s house and the two of you do Facebook stalking or you watch reality TV for five hours.

Q: You maintain Western parents believe in choice; Chinese parents don’t.
A: Yes. Many things kids choose for themselves don’t bring happiness. I feel kids actually feel unhappy on Facebook because it seems everyone else has more friends and is having more fun. You’ll hear, “Oh, I want my children to pursue their passion.” Well, if you give a 10-year-old her choice to pursue her passion, it’s not going to be playing the violin for three hours, it’s going to be computer games. I think Westerners defer too much to their children in the name of respecting their individuality. There is a common pattern you’ll see: an Asian and a Western child will start with a violin; six months later the Western child will want to switch to the clarinet because the violin sounds terrible, and then four months later the clarinet turns out to be hard so their choice is the guitar, and then you’re at the drums.

Q: As you present it, the Chinese approach engenders more self-esteem because it focuses on mastery and accomplishment.
A: Yes. The techniques may sound harsh, but the Chinese parent is saying: “I believe in you so much that I know you can be excellent, and I’m going to be in the trenches with you for however long it takes and I’m not going to let you give up.” Now, eventually if your child says, “I don’t like math, I want to be a poet,” you have to let them.

Q: You also point out that in assuming their children are strong, Chinese parents often appear brutally critical.
A: It’s really important to put things in cultural context. When I won second place in a history contest once my father said, “Never, ever disgrace me like that again.” When I tell my Western friends they think, “What a horrible man!” But that’s not how I took it at all. For me, what he was saying is, “I know you could do better. I believe in you.” But I do understand why Westerners react the way they do, because not knowing my family, these things sound harsh.

Q: You were a closet Chinese mother; in public you’d say things like, “Good try, buddy.”
A: That’s another reason I published the book. After I wrote it, I showed it to my sisters and some Chinese friends and they totally related to it and thought it was hysterical. But they all said, “You can’t publish this! You’ll be attacked!” And I thought, “Why?” I certainly learned a lot from what I call the Western model. That’s how the book ends: I become more of a Western parent than I thought possible. I loosened up. Sophia has a boyfriend. Lulu did just get a sleepover. They still aren’t allowed to watch TV, but they can use Facebook, with limits. Where I did not give one inch is academically. I’m still the tiger mom on that front. There is a strong theme in favour of rebellion in the book. I identify with Lulu. Even though I was the obedient Chinese child, I disobeyed my father too. I married a white Jewish guy and now my father adores my husband. And writing this book is a completely non-Chinese thing to do, it’s a rebellious, very Western thing.

Q: Discussing ethnic differences has become a taboo, yet it’s your favourite topic to write about. Why?
A: The world right now is one in which there are definite cultural and ethnic differences. I heard the way my parents talk at home, and I know the way my colleagues talk at Yale law school, and it’s night and day. I’m against stereotypes, but I think not being able to talk about ethnicity or cultural patterns is worse. I was also trying to puncture a stereotype— there are all of these books portraying Asian mothers as callous people who don’t care about their children’s interests. My book is the opposite: it’s a heartfelt memoir about me as a Chinese parent trying do the best for my children because I love them.

Q: Given the focus of your previous books, I wonder whether you see parents as having a larger social responsibility to raise self-reliant, productive citizens.
A: I’ve taught students of all backgrounds for 18 years, and it’s not my experience that kids raised in permissive families are happier than kids raised in strict families—it might be the opposite. We have some serious issues in the West—very high rates of teenage depression and falling behind in terms of education. So it’s going to be hard for our kids to compete and to get jobs when they’re adults, and not being able to get a job is not a recipe for feeling fulfilled with their lives.

Q: Many people will think your parenting regimen was all about your agenda, and not for your kids.
A: That accusation is so hurtful. When I talk to my Chinese friends, we feel it’s the opposite: how easy would it be to say, “Oh, in the name of my child self-actualizing and socializing I’m going to leave them at their friend’s house for six hours and I’m going to a Pilates class and then go have a glass of wine.” So many times I’ve felt, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to practise today?” I hope people know that when I write, “I don’t care if my kids think I’m like Lord Voldemort,” I really do care.

Q: Your daughters were raised in the Jewish faith. What’s your husband’s child-raising role?
A: My husband was raised in a liberal family. He adores his parents, but wished somebody had forced him to learn an instrument and speak a second language. And because I was willing to put in the time, he supported me. But from day one he insisted we take family bike rides and go to Yankee games, all things that I thought were a waste of time, but they helped bring balance to the family.


 

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