Do Asian Mothers Know Best? An Interview with Amy Chua
By Sara Nelson
January 14, 2011
Do Chinese parents know the secret to raising high-achieving kids?
In her memoir, Battle Hymn of of the Tiger Mother (Penguin), Yale law professor Amy Chua wrestles with that provocative question. Among the rules she had set for raising her two daughters, Lulu, now 15, and Sophia, 18: no playdates; two to three hours of practice daily, only on the approved musical instruments (the piano or violin); no coming in second—A minuses don't warrant praise. Confident that her system was "right," Chua was nearly undone when Lulu rebelled, in a furious, public tantrum on a family vacation in Russia. We talked to Chua about her philosophy and experience, as chronicled in this hot-button book.
O: Some readers may be offended that you seem to consider Western parenting too permissive. Are you concerned about ruffling feathers?
Amy Chua: The most important thing I want to say is that this is absolutely not a book about how I think other people should parent. I wouldn't be so hubristic as to tell other people what to do. But I do think there are real differences between the Chinese model and the Western one. The Chinese model calls for giving your kids very little choice—and I've come to see that you can go too far with that. On the other hand, I also believe that Western parents sometimes give their young kids too much choice.
O: You think Western parents are too lax with their children?
AC: Well, I do believe that when your child does poorly on a test, your first step should not necessarily be to attack the teacher or the school's curriculum. It should be to look at the idea that, maybe, the child didn't work hard enough. I'm calling that a Chinese value, but I wonder if in some ways those are just old-fashioned American values: You know—hard work. That's one of the fundamental American values, one that made this a great country.
O: Yes, but what about letting kids find themselves by trying lots of different activities?
AC: There's something suspicious about saying, "I'm just going to leave my child alone and let her pursue her passions." You know what? I think most 13-year-olds' passion is sitting in front of the TV, or doing Facebook, or surfing the Internet for hours. I really feel that most things are difficult at the beginning and they become fun, something you love, only after you've worked at them. Making children do something hard can, in the long run, be a great parental service.
O: At age 13, Lulu made a scene in a restaurant, threw things, told you she hated you and her life and that she refused to follow your rules anymore. But she'd been complaining for years. Why did you finally back off this time?
AC: I don't think it was quite an epiphany. I don't think the way I'd been was all a mistake, and in the end, I'm very proud of the two girls I raised. But I did loosen up. I regret that it came to the point where I felt like I was almost going to lose my daughter. Nothing is worth that, so whatever adjustments I had to make, I did.
O: What is the single thing you wish you'd done differently?
AC: I wish that I'd paid a bit more attention to the individual personalities of the girls, their temperaments and needs. I wish I'd realized earlier that parenting cannot just be one size fits all.