Tough Love, Chinese Style

Amy Chua's daughter Lulu, age 13. Courtesy of Penguin Press

Amy Chua’s email in-box has become the latest front in the mommy wars. Ever since Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her warts-and-all book on parenting the Chinese way, inflamed the mommy-blogger universe with its publication last week, Chua has been under attack. “Oh. My. Gosh,” she says, when asked how many messages she gets each day. “I don’t know—300? 600?” Many of them are notes of praise and thanks, she says. But many are vicious. “There are death threats. And ‘Go back to China, you abusive monster.’ It’s much more overwhelming than I thought it would be.”

Broadly speaking, Chua’s book is about how she endeavored to raise her two American girls, now teenagers, the way her Chinese-immigrant parents raised her. For Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, the Chinese way includes lots of rules and high expectations—and disciplinary techniques that can come across as cruel and unusual. She makes one daughter stand outside in the frigid winter weather—at age 3—for not practicing the piano as instructed, and she berates both for the sloppiness of the handmade cards they created for her birthday. The book has come to be seen as an indictment of the kind of permissive parenting that permeates the country’s affluent neighborhoods, where kids get trophies even when they lose and ice-cream sundaes just for making their beds.

Now it’s Chua who’s enduring the admonishments. On Internet discussion boards (prompted by a piece in The Wall Street Journal with the headline WHY CHINESE MOTHERS ARE SUPERIOR) her critics say that she has no regard for the plight of working families, that she values achievement and status above all, and that the parenting strategies she advocates produce weak-willed, self-loathing robots destined for the therapist’s couch. Chua, whose daughters enliven nearly every page of her book, tries not to take these attacks personally, but they upset her. Her girls are confident and happy, she says, but “I keep calling in, worried about them.” She’s glad her own mother, who advised against publishing the book and is on vacation in England, “doesn’t use the Internet very well.”

Chua wants to set the record straight: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not a how-to book. It’s a memoir about her struggles with child rearing. She passes no judgment on anyone else. “I believe that there are many ways of being a good parent,” she says. “My husband”—who is Jewish American—“was raised in a very permissive, liberal family, and he came out great.” The chatterers, she says, fail to understand that her book acknowledges the limitations of the Chinese way. The narrative centers on Chua’s efforts to make musical prodigies out of her daughters by forcing them to practice three hours a day, minimum, starting in nursery school. With Sophia, the elder daughter, this authoritarian approach works beautifully: she begins winning competitions at 10. But Lulu, despite her musical gifts, rebels.

The climax of the book occurs in a restaurant, with 13-year-old Lulu screaming, “I hate the violin. I hate my life. I hate you, and I hate this family!” She throws a water glass to the floor, where it shatters. The tiger mother relents and gives Lulu permission to quit so she can spend more time playing tennis—a non-Chinese-mother-approved activity. “If there’s a takeaway from the book, it’s about a search for balance,” Chua says. “And maybe the dominant mainstream permissive Western model is not ideal, but nor is the extremely strict ‘only violin or piano.’ ” While she’s at it, Chua would also like people to know she’s funny and fun. “My kids actually quite like me,” she says.

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