Right now the legal world is abuzz about an essay published over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua, a prominent (and pulchritudinous) professor at Yale Law School. The essay’s title, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, pretty much says it all. The piece is based on Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, described by its publisher as “[a]n awe-inspiring, often hilarious, and unerringly honest story of one mother’s exercise in extreme parenting, revealing the rewards-and the costs-of raising her children the Chinese way.”
What does raising children “the Chinese way” entail? It’s not hard to guess. Here’s a good summary from Vivia Chen (one of the many Asian-American females to write about Chua; see also Jen Chung of Gothamist and Elizabeth Chang of the Washington Post): “Chua is an überachiever who’s hell-bent on raising her kids to be at least as accomplished as she is. Chua seems to delight in playing up to the stereotype of the pushy, academically obsessed Asian mom. So much so that I thought (for a moment) that she was pulling our legs. But she’s serious.”
Very serious. Let’s take a look at how Chua and her husband — Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale law professor, overachiever, and certified hottie, just like his wife — raise their two daughters, Sophia and Louisa Chua-Rubenfeld….
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too.
Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
Silly white people. A’s are for Asians!
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
The piano and the violin — more on them later.
Although Chua clearly wants to provoke controversy with her politically incorrect invocation of ethnic stereotypes, she also wants to sell books. “Bad Mommy” Lit is hot right now, and Chua is taking a page from Ayelet Waldman’s playbook:
1. Be a bad mother.
2. Write a book about being a bad mother.
So note Chua’s caveat, which enhances the marketability of her book outside the Chinese-American community:
I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.
All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers.
If Chua is the typical Chinese mother, then this is surely true. In her essay, she describes, in delicious detail, how hard she is on her kids. For example:
[I once called my daughter Sophia] “garbage” in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.
(Okay, “Marcy” needs to get a grip. She sounds like another oversensitive, uber-liberal law professor type.)
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.
(Chua seems to like candor, even at the risk of hurt feelings. We wonder what she’d make of the Above the Law comments section.)
Chua explores possible reasons for the different parenting styles between Asian and Western parents. Her husband, Professor Jed Rubenfeld — who also has a new book coming out now, and who was a law school mentor to Tali Farhadian, by the way — makes a cameo:
I don’t think most Westerners have the same [Confucian] view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
But the “deal” for Asian parents, as set forth in Chua’s article, doesn’t seem that great either. As Vivia Chen notes, “the type of parenting that Chua advocates is exhausting and emotionally draining” — for the parents, not just the children.
Indeed, Chua’s essay contains some incredible anecdotes about the lengths she would go to when forcing her younger daughter to practice her music. For example:
[T]he day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.
“You can’t make me.”
“Oh yes, I can.”
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day.
Also, Lulu, NO… WIRE… HANGERS!!! EVER!!!
It’s easy to poke fun at Amy Chua — she is, by her own admission, somewhat extreme — but she makes some excellent points. Here’s the ending of her essay:
Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t….
Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
1. We don’t know how Chua’s story ends. In her generally favorable review in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Chang (an Asian-American by marriage rather than birth) points out: “Ending a parenting story when one child is only 15 seems premature; in fact, it might not be possible to really understand the impact of Chua’s efforts until her daughters have offspring of their own.”
Asian lawyer turned entrepreneur Adam Nguyen, founder of the test preparation company Ivy Link (profiled here), had a similar reaction: “I agree with the idea of hard work and persistence — and that’s what I always preach to my students and parents. But I wonder about her definition of education and success… and how much therapy her kids will require.”
2. The success of Chua-style parenting might vary depending on your definition of success. Adam Nguyen also offered this comment:
Maybe [Chua's kids will] become lawyers and doctors — which are great professions, but more interesting to me is whether the kids become the next founders of something like Facebook or Google? I doubt innovators and people who make a huge impact in the world had such a narrow and controlled upbringing as what she prescribes.
This wonderful clip on education comes to mind:
3. There might be an unexplored gender angle here. Over at Gothamist, Jen Chung highlights this comment from the over 2,000 reader responses posted on the WSJ thus far: “[T]his type of parenting has caused many young asian males, while academically successful, to become socially awkward, creativity challenged and low self-esteem, which funny enough, were probably the reasons why you didn’t want to date or marry one of them.”
(Well, there might be other reasons, too.)
UPDATE: Read more about Amy Chua and her book over here.
Feel free to argue it out in the comments, and vote in our reader poll:
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother [Amazon]
Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior [Wall Street Journal]
Chinese Mother Explains Why Chinese Mothers Are Better [Gothamist]
Supermom, Chinese-Style [The Careerist]
Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” on Chinese-American family culture [Washington Post]