Tiger Mothers: Raising Children The Chinese Way

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Amy Chua may well be nuts. What kind of a mother hauls her then-7-year-old daughter's dollhouse out to the car and tells the kid that the dollhouse is going to be donated to the Salvation Army piece by piece if the daughter doesn't master a difficult piano composition by the next day? What kind of a mother informs her daughter that she's "garbage"? And what kind of mother believes, as Chua tells readers she does, that: "an A- is a bad grade; ... the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and ... that medal must be gold"?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua
Hardcover, 256 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $25.95

Read An excerpt

What kind of a mother? Why, a mother who's raising her kids the Chinese, rather than the Western, way. In her new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua recounts her adventures in Chinese parenting, and — nuts though she may be — she's also mesmerizing. Chua's voice is that of a jovial, erudite serial killer — think Hannibal Lecter — who's explaining how he's going to fillet his next victim, as though it's the most self-evidently normal behavior. That's the other gripping aspect of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: There's method to Chua's madness — enough method to stir up self-doubt in readers who subscribe to more nurturing parenting styles. Trust me, Battle Hymn is going to be a book club and parenting blog phenomenon; there will be fevered debate over Chua's tough love strategies, which include ironclad bans on such Western indulgences as sleepovers, play dates, and any extracurricular activities except practicing musical instruments ... which must be the violin or piano.

Hear An Interview With Amy Chua On 'Tell Me More'

The back story to Chua's memoir is this: She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and is now a professor at Yale Law School and the author of two best-selling "big-think" books on free-market democracy and the fall of empires. When Chua married her husband, fellow Yale law professor and novelist Jed Rubenfeld, they agreed that their children would be raised Jewish and reared "the Chinese way," in which punishingly hard work — enforced by parents — yields excellence; excellence, in turn, yields satisfaction in what Chua calls a "virtuous circle." The success of this strategy is hard to dispute. Older daughter Sophia is a piano prodigy who played Carnegie Hall when she was 14 or so. The second, more rebellious daughter, Lulu, is a gifted violinist. Chua rode the girls hard, making sure they practiced at least three hours a day even on vacations, when she would call ahead to arrange access to pianos for Sophia in hotel lobby bars and basement storage rooms. Chua also rarely refrained from criticizing her daughters, and in one of the many provocative passages that fill her book, she explains:

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. ... Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Amy Chua is the author of two books on globalization and democracy and is a professor at Yale Law School.

Amy Chua is the author of two books on globalization and democracy and is a professor at Yale Law School. Courtesy Penguin Press/ hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Penguin Press/

As Chua admits, though, the Chinese model doesn't dwell on happiness, nor does it deal well with failure. (Some of the most hilarious parts of her memoir deal with her attempts to apply Chinese parenting methods to the family's two dopey Samoyed puppies.)

I was on my living room couch, reading the end of Chua's memoir, when my 12-year-old daughter came downstairs and announced that she had "done enough reading" for one day and that since she had also practiced flute (for 15 minutes) she was going to kick back and watch TV — in this case, a made-for-TV Disney movie. Chua tartly sums up the stereotypically "Western" Disney plot this way:

"In Disney movies," she says, the [studious kid] always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that's just Disney's way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that's freedom — not running into the ocean."

I looked over at my daughter and had mixed feelings about her just chillin' in front of the TV, rather than plugging away in that virtuous circle of enforced practice. I guess we won't be sending out the invitations for Carnegie Hall anytime soon.

Excerpt: 'Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother'

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua
Hardcover, 256 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $25.95

This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It's also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.

Part One

The Tiger, the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect.

The Chinese Mother

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
- not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin.

I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I recently met a super-successful white guy from South Dakota (you've seen him on television), and after comparing notes we decided that his working-class father had definitely been a Chinese mother. 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 notChinese mothers, by choice or otherwise.

I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that Westerners are far more diverse in their parenting styles than the Chinese. Some Western parents are strict; others are lax. There are same-sex parents, Orthodox Jewish parents, single parents, ex-hippie parents, investment banker parents, and military parents. None of these "Western" parents necessarily see eye to eye, so when I use the term "Western parents," of course I'm not referring to all Western parents — just as "Chinese mother" doesn't refer to all Chinese mothers.

All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job." Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

This brings me to my final point. Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western over-scheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.

Excerpted from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Copyright 2010 by Amy Chua. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press.

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