Author Amy Chua

Yale Law professor clears up misconceptions surrounding her controversial new memoir on parenting.

A lawyer by training and a professor at Yale Law School, Amy Chua is also a noted expert in the fields of international business, ethnic conflict and globalization. She's the best-selling author of three books—the first two on international affairs. Her third, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is a controversial memoir in which she explains her views on parenting. Chua earned her J.D. from Harvard, where she was an executive editor of the Harvard Law Review, and has taught at Duke, Columbia, Stanford and NYU. She's also worked as a Wall Street lawyer.


Tavis: Amy Chua is a professor of law at Yale and author whose previous books include the best seller “World on Fire.” Her latest is easily the most-talked-about book of this year, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” She joins us tonight from New Haven, Connecticut. Professor Chua, good to have you on this program.
Amy Chua: Thanks so much for having me.
Tavis: One has to be living under a rock these days to not have heard about this Tiger Mom controversy. Every television network, it seems every talk show, the cover of all the major magazines.
So let me just start by asking, one, the thing about which you think you have been most understood where this controversy is concerned would be what?
Chua: The greatest misunderstanding is that the idea that I wrote this as a parenting guide, trying to tell other people how to parent. That is – it’s almost backwards. I wrote this book in a moment of crisis, and it’s really a memoir. It’s supposed to be very funny. I would say that’s another misunderstanding.
It’s a bit of a self-parody, and some people really get it and some people don’t. So it’s been – it’s a little bit – it’s been difficult conveying exactly what the book is supposed to be doing. (Laughs)
Tavis: When you say it’s been difficulty, you made a number of media appearances. I’m curious as to why you think it’s been difficult to get the message out that you wanted out, and does the media have any complicity in that?
Chua: Yeah, well, the book was introduced to the public in an excerpt in “The Wall Street Journal” under the headline, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” Gah, not my headline. (Laughter) In fact, as you know, on the cover of the book it says the opposite. It says this was supposed to be a book about how Chinese people are better at raising kids, but instead it’s about how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.
I do think I’ve learned a lot. The media’s interesting and I’m not going to complain. It certainly started a really interesting international conversation. So I’m just trying to view this as this is a conversation that needed to happen, because I feel like it’s taken a life of its own.
Like I was almost the catalyst of something that just had to happen, because I’ll read stuff about myself and my family, and it just seems like people are projecting, and it’s about something else. But it’s definitely some important issues out there.
Tavis: Why do you think this conversation needed to happen, and what do you make now of the conversation that has, in fact, happened?
Chua: I think I just got caught in this amazing perfect storm, right? So I write this book in a moment of crisis, I’m trying to raise my two kids the same way my two Chinese immigrant parents raised me, because I think it worked really well with me.
My parents were super strict, very, very tough with my three younger sisters and me, but I adore them. We have the best relationship. I feel like I owe them everything. I feel like I would not be the person I am today without my parents.
So I tried to do this with my two daughters, even though I’m not an immigrant, and I think that’s part of the story. I wasn’t able to replicate what my parents did, and my husband’s not Chinese, and with one child it worked very smoothly. Then my second daughter came along and wow, fireworks, explosion.
There are a lot of strengths to this kind of parenting, I really stand by them, but the main part of the story is that my daughter really rebelled, my second daughter, and I had to pull back.
But anyway, I wrote this book in a moment of crisis, but instead, the book comes out and it’s this – coincidentally there are all these studies that are being published that the Shanghai kids are testing so much better than the United States, and in fact all of the West.
At the same time, there’s this fear of China rising as the tiger, the U.S. is having a financial crisis, there’s that anxiety. So you couple this anxiety with China rising with everybody’s greatest fear, which is, like, are we doing a good job as a parent? So I think those things all came together, and the rest is history.
Tavis: Is there something – and obviously there is, because you tell it from your own perspective and that of your family – for those who have not read the book, what is the thing or things on the short list that makes parenting different or unique in a Chinese family as opposed to an African-American family or something else?
Chua: Well, I’m using the term “Chinese family” very loosely. I think it’s more of an immigrant thing, actually, but lots of South Asians and Koreans, and actually, immigrants from Nigeria and the Caribbean. I get the nicest e-mails from that population, you wouldn’t believe it.
People who say, “Oh, my God, I laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing; this is exactly how I was raised. My dad was from Ghana, he was really tough, he said all these things, and now I owe him so much.” But the main difference is one, huge emphasis on academic excellence, so it’s pretty tough. It’s like you get the 96 out of 100 and whereas lots of Western kids get rewarded, this would be, “Where are the missing four points?”
It doesn’t sound harsh to me, because that’s the way I was raised, and for me, the message was always – it wasn’t like if you don’t get the good grade I won’t love you. Oh, my God. The message I got from my parents was like, I believe in you. You can do better. That should be a real American theme.
There is a lot of emphasis on hard work and self-discipline, so some of the hours that Asian kids can put in, two hours a day of violin and piano practicing. I did require my kids to do that. I have to say, Tavis, I’m a little surprised that I have had such sometimes angry response to this, because I was – somebody, a friend, actually, just mentioned it.
It’s funny, some Western parents are okay with their kids watching two or three hours of reality TV shows, where you see teenagers, they’re getting pregnant, they’re overdosing, they’re really drunk, and they’re okay, parents are okay with that. You can watch that, no problem.
But if you make your child practice violin or drill math for two hours, that is unacceptable, that’s monstrous. (Laughter) So I’ve been a little bit surprised by that, but it is true. I know you just came back from China, I think. The hours – kids pour in five, six, seven, eight hours, whether it’s on sports, music, academic work.
Finally, I think the biggest difference is self-esteem. I think – again, I’m not speaking about all Western parents, but in general in the West there’s much more of a concern with your child’s self-esteem. Don’t talk too harshly to them, protect them, whereas the way my parents raised me, they always assumed strength rather than fragility.
So the result is they parent a lot tougher. They don’t let you give up. One story I like to tell is my younger daughter Lulu, she came back with a bad math test when she was about 10, and she announced, “I hate math, I’m bad at math,” and I think a lot of more permissive families would say – they’d be worried about self-esteem and they’d say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You don’t need to be good at math; you can be good at something else.”
But I went the Chinese way. I was like, “I don’t believe you.” I made all these practice tests, these math tests, I drilled them with her personally every night for a whole week, I had a stopwatch, and at the end of the week she took the next test and she did really well, and guess what? Her self-esteem went up. Her friends said, “Wow, you’re good at math,” and now math is one of her favorite subjects.
So I do think there’s this kind of real question about what’s the best way to instill inner strength and confidence and ultimately happiness in kids.
Tavis: You’re right about the fact that I was in China not too long ago, headed back in a few months, as a matter of fact, to do a special about my experiences in China, specifically as it relates to these kinds of issues – what makes the Chinese people uniquely different from us, given that we’re hearing so much about China, this tiger country.
So much of the conversation is about the economics, but not a lot about the people, so we’re doing a special for PBS later this year that we’re going back to China for in May to start shooting.
I digress on that point. I want to come back, though, to something you said earlier. You offered, to my ear, if my hearing is good; I think it’s pretty decent. You offered at least three cultures of persons that you’ve heard from vis-à-vis e-mails suggesting and telling you their stories about how they were raised, and those stories that you shared were stories that were really kind of endorsing the way that you were raised and –
Chua: Oh, absolutely.
Tavis: Okay, fine. So what you didn’t tell me, which I’m curious about, though, is who you’re getting the hate mail from. So what culture, what kinds of folk are you getting the hate mail from?
Chua: Well, first of all, I’m getting – there’s a lot of negative stuff out there, and it’s been tough. My daughters are a lot better about it. I can’t even look on the Internet, it’s just terrible. I know that my kids were raised in a loving household. We’re really close. Tougher, but really close.
But I have gotten really supportive e-mails, I would say, from people of any race or ethnicity or background – German-Americans, Irish-Americans, lots and lots of immigrants.
But the angry e-mails, I would say they come from also people of all backgrounds and races. There are some people who misunderstand my book because they haven’t read it, so some people were raised with really strict parents who just maybe read the excerpt and thought that I was saying oh, everybody should parent like this.
You should only demand an A, they should only be able to play the piano or violin, no school plays – this list that was a little bit of a self-parody, because I change in the book. And they write in things, really tough things, and I feel so bad. They were like, “I was raised with these parents and I’m scarred for life, and I know people who committed suicide, and how can you be advocating this?”
That, I just feel heartbroken. I feel like of course, I wish you would read my book, because in some ways the book is about how I came to that point and realized you’ve got to pull back. You’ve got to listen to your child, and if at some point it’s not working you have to convey your love and nothing’s more important than their happiness.
I also get people very angry who I think are – I feel like may be very hostile or fearful of China rising, so these strange e-mails like, “Go back to China, you think you’re so great,” and I want to say that’s not what I’m saying. I also get e-mails from people who perhaps are parents themselves, and it’s very personal.
No matter how much I say that I’m not trying to tell other people how to parent, I truly believe there are many ways of being a great parent, honestly, Tavis, you show me a kid that is happy, self-reliant and sort of strong, and I say that you’ve got good parenting.
I don’t care what race or what – you don’t need to be supervising or play the violin. But people still are judging me very harshly. They’re projecting all these things, like oh my God, I feel so sorry for your children. So that’s a little hard for me to take, because my kids are doing great. They are thriving and they’re huge personalities.
Tavis: Speaking of your children, you’ve raised them a few times in this conversation; let me ask you two questions that are connected. One, how are your children handling all this controversy, number one, and number two, you’re not parenting alone. There are a lot of single parents in this country; you’re not one of them.
You’re not parenting alone. You are married, as you intimated earlier, to a person who’s not Chinese. You’re married to a White male, a Jewish White male at that, so what’s he saying about all of this?
Chua: Well, the second question first, because you mentioned single parents. Some of the nicest e-mails I’ve had are actually from kids of single parents who really get the book. They read the book and they said, “Hey, my mom was a tiger mom too, and I’m so proud of that,” and they say things like – and they’re right, they get my book.
It’s not about having two parents, necessarily, or playing the piano or doing math. They write things like, “My mom carried two jobs, my dad left a long time ago, and she would get home at 8:00, but here’s how she was a tiger mom like you. No matter how exhausted she was, she would check over my test scores, and she would be tough on me.
“She would say things like, ‘You know what? I think you could do better,’ and now I’m in college, I’m doing this.” So there are a lot of single moms that are tiger moms, too, I could tell you.
My two kids are doing great; in some ways, better than me. When I read about people saying terrible things about my family, that really upsets me. About me, I’m okay. I can take that. But when I see them – but they, I don’t know, they’re very strong.
They’ve got tons of friends. They can look through this awful Internet stuff, they find the two nice things out there, and they text me and they say, “Hey, Mommy, hang in there, we love you. See, here’s a good thing.”
My husband is actually a very strong personality and he didn’t want to be a character in my book, so the truth is my kids grew up in a hybrid household, and maybe this is going to be the real lesson of my book. He, as I was being strict, self-disciplined, he was the guy that was always encouraging them to question authority, to be very independent and to kind of bring balance to the family.
We’re going out, we’re going to the park, we’re going hiking – not my thing. We’re going to dangerous water parks and I was always worried, “They’re going to hurt their hands for their instruments.” But I would say that maybe that’s – China, you mentioned China, they’ve got all these strengths – self-discipline. Boy, can they focus. I think our kids should get some of that, again.
But they are actually looking to the West. They’re looking to improve themselves, their education and parenting. They’re like, “We want to be more creative. We want to have kids who are a little bit more innovative and not just rote memorization.”
So I think maybe we in the West, we’re really strong with the independence and challenging authority and creativity, think for yourself, think out of the box, but maybe we’ve lost a little bit in terms of self-discipline and respect – that’s another thing, respect for elders.
There’s a lot of rudeness and sullen behavior and kids that are very entitled and spoiled, just buy me more stuff. I didn’t want to raise kids like that. Not for me, but I don’t think kids who are like that, who are just consumerist and demanding more, more, more, I don’t think those kids can grow up to be responsible people who can have good, loving, happy relationships, which is partly why I was so strict with them.
Tavis: Two things – one, an observation, and then a question. When I got a chance to read the book and read all the stuff about the book, in fact, I kind of laughed to myself because I said to myself I’ve written, what, 15, 16 books and if the way to get to the top of the best-seller list is to write a book about a strict childhood, I could outdo you any day, respectfully. I grew up in a family –
Chua: Really?
Tavis: (Laughs) I grew up in a family –
Chua: I love it.
Tavis: I have nine brothers and sisters. My mom is watching this show right now. She watches every night. The stories that you told, if you think that’s strict, I’m going to write my book and tell you what it was like growing up in the Smiley household. I digress on that point. The point I’m trying to get to, though, is this, and I –
Chua: You’re honest, and I love that.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But here’s the thing, and I want to be frank about this, because when this goes on YouTube somewhere, I said this, not Professor Chua. I think that some of the reason why you’re getting push-back on this is that so many parents these days are failing their kids. I said it, and I mean it.
I think so many parents are failing their – I have a lot of friends, and we have these debates all the time. I’m not god sitting on a throne, but I see my friends who for a lot of reasons are failing their kids, they give them too much, they’re too lenient with them.
Certainly in communities of color, those of us who grew up with nothing now don’t want our kids to have nothing. I could do this all night. But I see, for a lot of reasons, parents failing their kids, and I wonder whether or not you think, having put my own point of view out there, whether or not you think that some of the push-back you’re getting has to do with parents who are challenged, some of them working longer hours and concerned about their own careers.
But for whatever reason, parents failing kids and they don’t want to look in the mirror at how they’re not doing as good a job as they could do, and the last thing they want is some Chinese woman telling them how to raise their kids.
Chua: Tavis, well, thank you first of all for a couple of things, because I have been kind of hurt. I feel like I was very honest in my book, and I’ve put the most extreme cases of what – I could have filled the book with all these loving things I say all the time, which I do. But I think every household, as you say – especially with teenagers or families with lots of kids – who doesn’t have harsh moments?
So I sort of feel thank you for saying that. It’s like wow, I kind of put myself out there, and you know. But on your point, I just don’t want to judge other people so much, but I really like what you’re saying because when people criticize me massively and use terrible words, like, oh, she’s a monster, she’s – I feel like I was trying my best, and the one thing I’ll tell you, I made a lot of mistakes, Tavis.
I’m not proud of everything, but I put in the time. Sometimes I was really tired and I felt like gosh, I wish I could go, as you say, I don’t know, go do a yoga class or go have a glass of wine, but instead I’m going to go yeah, yell at my daughter, I want you, your math isn’t good enough yet, or I’m going to work with you on the violin, argue it, and I can tell you, I know it was for her.
I think it was hard. It’s hard to be hated or disliked by somebody that you love and you know you’re doing it for them. They don’t seem to know that, but that’s because they’re children.
Anyway, I appreciate your words. It certainly resonates for me. It really resonates for me.
Tavis: Yeah, and I appreciate your comment. I wasn’t saying it to pump you up or anything, I just see these debates all the time, and I’m on the road all the time talking to children, I have a foundation that works with children, I’m talking to parents all the time, and I think that the kids that do best in this country in school are the children who have parents who are involved in their lives, and we’ve got to stop making excuses for that, and that’s just the reality.
Here’s the exit question. There’s an ancient – this sounds like a funny line – an ancient Chinese proverb that I once read that says, “Prosperity can never last for three generations.”
I know you know the proverb well. How much of the pressure that you felt to really get your girls on the right track had to do with that notion that prosperity in any one family can only last so long, and you’re feeling pressure that your girls are going to be the ones who are going to throw this family off track?
Chua: You got it. That’s a big part of it. I saw my parents come over. They were immigrants, they had no money. My dad wore the same pair of shoes, I had some ugly clothes growing up, and I never had any privileges.
In some ways, I think the person that I am now, I think it’s good that I had that kind of tough upbringing. I value every opportunity, and I was worried that my kids, they’re not rich, but they have a lot more, and it is like buy me this, buy me that.
I didn’t want to have that generational decline, both for my family’s name, which is a really kind of I guess Asian thing. I don’t know if other families think this way. Like, I have this I want to make my parents proud by their grandkids.
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Chua: My husband doesn’t think that way. It’s just individuals. But also for my kids, for my kids – again, I think that if you’re an entitled person, that you can’t work hard, you’re making excuses for yourself all the time, are you going to be able to survive in this global economy?
It’s a tough world out there. You can have parents buying you stuff, carrying all your backpacks, but at some point you’re going to have to leave the house and I want them to be strong and prepared for the future. So yeah, that’s a big part of my book, you got it.
Tavis: As if you didn’t know, the book is called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” written by Yale law Professor Amy Chua. Professor Chua, thanks for the text and good to talk to you on this program tonight.
Chua: Thank you so much for having me.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm