MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
And now a conversation about pressure, a very different kind of pressure: the pressure to perform. Earlier this week, we spoke to the secretary of Education Arne Duncan about efforts to reach agreement on a new version of the Bush administration's signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind. We talked about the perception that the U.S. is falling behind on many key international indicators of academic performance. And a lot of critics blame No Child Left Behind for squeezing the creativity out of education, for too much emphasis on rote learning, for making school all about tests, for amping up the pressure.
Today we have a very different conversation, a provocative one, that pressure is good, that demanding perfection is good, that nothing is fun until you're good at it, even if you have to take what other people say are extreme steps to get there.
Yale law professor Amy Chua calls it the Chinese parenting model. She's written a book about her adventures in parenting that's getting a lot of attention and some rave, very conflicted reviews. And she's with us now. Amy Chua, thanks so much for joining us.
AMY CHUA: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: Now, let me just say up front, I think this book is very brave. I think you are very brave because you are opening the door to something that I think a lot of people talk about privately. But let me also say, I'm not going to ask you any tough questions that you have not already asked yourself.
MARTIN: So with that being said, these are some of the things that you say you did: Threatened - threatened - to put your three-year-old out in the winter cold for being disobedient, rejecting your children's hand-drawn birthday cards because they were not thoughtful enough, not letting your kids have play dates or sleepovers, threatening to burn your older children's stuffed animals if she didn't improve on the piano, keeping your younger daughter from dinner, getting water or going to the bathroom until she perfected a piano piece. Just give us the logic of all of these tough love measures.
CHUA: OK. Yeah. You know, well, all the examples are a little bit different. And some of them actually are not so tough, you know, like, the birthday card example. This story is when my kids were, I don't know, maybe four and seven, my husband had forgotten about my birthday and we went to a mediocre Italian restaurant and he said, OK, the girls have a surprise for their mom. And my little daughter Lulu handed me a piece of paper folded in half with a smiley face on the front.
And I knew that she couldn't have taken more than three seconds to make this thing. And I said, you know, Lulu, this isn't good enough. I want something better than this. You know, when you have a birthday party, I take my whole salary and I hire magicians and I make the cakes and I buy party favors, and I deserve better than this. And people are saying, oh my gosh, did you damage her self-esteem?
You know, I've talked to my daughters about this, and they're - they, well, first of all, they find a little bit comical, but they also said, you know, we felt much better after we made you better cards.
MARTIN: Which leads to the point, I mean, part of your point here is that you say in the book that the Chinese model seems harsh to Westerners but your argument is that self-esteem comes from actually doing something. And that's part of the premise of the question here.
CHUA: I think you're right. I am critical. If you just tell your child, you're great, you're great, you're perfect, I'm not sure that's the best way, because eventually your child's going to have to go out into the real world. You know, suddenly they don't do well at school or they don't make the sports team, or God forbid, you know, Westerners - I'm using these terms loosely, as you know - Westerners talk a lot about, I want my children to have choices and to pursue their passion.
Well, I used to resent my parents when I was little, but I feel like they're being strict and having high expectations in me coupled with love, always love, that's what allowed me as an adult to have these choices. I felt like, oh my gosh, I get to pursue my passions now, right? So, and when you can't get the job you want, I think that's when you really lose self-esteem.
MARTIN: Well, part of it is you're talking about raising your kids loosely the way you were raised. And you talk about how in the book when you were 14, your dad made you dig a swimming pool with a pick and a shovel and you emphasize it wasn't a really big swimming pool.
CHUA: Oh, it was so fun.
MARTIN: But you said that you enjoyed digging that. And you go on to say, look, I know people with kids who don't do chores, they can't even carry their own bags. I grew up working, I had a paper route. And that you feel that you got something from it and you wanted to carry forward what it is that you got from that.
CHUA: Yeah. You know, I think it's also funny, you know, that some of the things that I'm talking about have been kind of labeled Chinese or Western, because, you know, if you go back to Western parenting, 100 years ago or even 60 years ago, people did chores. People were proud of building things. And you know, my favorite books are "Caddie Woodlawn" and "Johnny Tremain." Boy, those families were a lot like mine, you know?
MARTIN: Well, you didn't apparently demand that your kids do hard physical labor, but one of the things you strongly demanded was that your kids master the piano and the violin. Your daughter Sophia ended up playing at Carnegie Hall. Your daughter Louisa, or Lulu, got into a very competitive program at Juilliard. She was taught by a very - a teacher that was very hard to get into. You made them practice for hours a day. Why was it so important to you that they master these instruments?
CHUA: You know why? I've seen this track where people will start with a hard instrument, and three months later maybe one will say, oh gosh, the violin was hard, I'm switching to the oboe. But three months later you'll discover the oboe's hard, too, so I'm going to the guitar. And sometimes I just worry that what we're calling, oh, it's my child's choices, is really just kind of letting them take the easy way out.
Once when my daughter Lulu did poorly on a math test, I think she was about 10, she came home and she said, I hate math, I'm bad at math. Well, I went the quote-unquote "Chinese way," I made tons of practice tests. We drilled. I had a stopwatch. And guess what? A week later she did really well on her math test and she came home and she liked math. So I think in some ways a part of the parent's job is to help their child see what they're capable of.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Yale law professor Amy Chua about her new memoir of her journey as a tiger mother. It's called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." And she talks about her - what she calls her Chinese-style parenting techniques and how sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't work so well.
One of the interesting things about your story is that you're part of a mixed marriage (unintelligible) call a mixed marriage, and your husband is a white Jewish American. And one of the things I was curious about is you point out, he was raised in a very different way, but you both ended up in the same place. You're both professors of law at Yale. Both successful, doing very well. But you were adamant about - at least initially, about doing things your way.
And I was curious, the data would suggest that you had an equally good chance of showing up in the same location doing things very differently. He did have that kind of more relaxed upbringing where if he didn't want to do something, he didn't really have to do it.
CHUA: Yeah, you're right.
MARTIN: So why do you think it is you were so insistent on doing it your way?
CHUA: Yeah, well, my husband supported me always, but he was so crucial all along in bringing a kind of balance to the family, like insisting that we go to these dangerous water parks while I was horrified.
MARTIN: We could be practicing now.
CHUA: He's a huge Redskins fan. Sports, you know, apple picking, hiking - so, you know, we did have a lot of fun.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, I want to go back to some of the comments you have gotten for your book. On the one hand there are people who are saying, you know, right on, about time somebody sort of says enough with the whole empty self-esteem. On the other hand, there are those who really think your behavior was abusive, and have said so.
CHUA: I completely agree, Michel, that some of the same things, some of the same practices in other contexts, where there's not a foundation maybe of love and respect, could be abusive. But that is one thing I will not accept. My household was not abusive. You should meet my daughters. I'm just very proud. You know, there are a few things I would change, and probably a little bit more choice, including choice of instruments.
MARTIN: Well, how did - you came to that realization in kind of a painful way. And I just want to ask you to tell us that story.
CHUA: When Lulu was 13, she rebelled. She was studying with a Juilliard teacher. She was practicing three hours a day. We were driving into New York. There was no free time. She just started to hate the violin.
MARTIN: She threw down. She threw down. She threw down, and it came to a head in a confrontation, which was very painful for you both.
CHUA: Oh yeah. And painful, disrespectful, and she threw a glass on the floor. And, you know, here I am, so proud of my kids and I just - I could not control her. And I just...
MARTIN: Threw a glass on the floor in public...
CHUA: Yes, absolutely. And it was kind of cold turkey. I walked back and I said, you know, after years of fighting I said, OK, let's stop the violin. And you know, Michel, it was the best thing I could do. I mean, you know, I just didn't want to lose my daughter and I saw that, you know, this method I thought I was so confident about wasn't working here.
So I let her play tennis, which is what she wanted to do. Even though, you know, you can't start tennis at 13 and - but she loves it and she's applying the same values I instilled in her, which is whatever you choose, that you're applying dedication and tenacity, don't give up. You can do it. And I think she applies that to herself.
MARTIN: But to that end, though, you are tough in the book. And I do want to emphasize, again, as you have here, that it's funny. It's self-mocking in a lot of ways. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I just want to clear that up for people who might not be clear on that. But you are pretty tough on these different sort of cultural styles.
And even though you did come to a place of feeling that, you know, maybe you could sort of bend on some things, you do ask some really tough questions that a lot of parents are asking themselves, which is kind of rigor and sticking to a plan and sticking to kind of a program versus kind of a lot of choice, a lot of freedom and a lot of kind of creativity.
For example, here's one of the lines from the book a lot of people are passing around and repeating to each other. You talk about how your kids went to this kind of progressive school where the educators made learning fun by making the parents do all the work, which I think a lot of parents found very funny. But what do you think is the broader lesson here?
CHUA: There are, of course, broader implications. To me, I'm still struggling, right? I mean I don't have the answers. I don't think - I think that's what's causing so much anxiety, in some ways where there's a furor, because it's tapping into something. We all want to do the right thing for our children. We all don't know what that is and we all - you know, you won't know until the future.
I guess my own, where I'm coming at now is, it would be great if we could combine, let's just call it Western, but it's, you know, it's sort of this emphasis on sort of independence and challenging authority with a little bit more rigor and self-discipline, instilling those things that will create people who can be self-reliant in the end.
MARTIN: You know, you are, though, tough again on this whole question of the Western style as you experience it. You know, the West hasn't done too badly, you know, come up with the Declaration of Independence, you know, the U.S. Constitution. Bill Gates. You know, we have a lot of things to show for the Western style.
CHUA: Michel, this...
MARTIN: I don't know, I just...
CHUA: I'm with you here. I want to turn it around on you. You know, 'cause you know the last lines of my book. Last lines in my book I'm on a rant. I say, you know, I don't think the Founding Fathers had sleepovers and play dates. I think the Founding Fathers had Chinese values. And of course, my oldest, funny, smart daughter says, Mommy, if the Founding Fathers had those values, then they're American values. And that's really one of the points of my book.
You know, I think it's so ironic that we're calling hard work, striving for excellence, don't blame others, you know, don't give up, that we're calling these, quote, "Chinese values," 'cause I always thought of them as American values.
MARTIN: But American values also, you know, value, you know, choice, you know, freedom.
CHUA: And that I could not...
MARTIN: Not having the piano chosen for them if they want to play the oboe, or tennis.
CHUA: You know, there are so many ways to end up in a good spot. You know, so I don't think you should say I'm promoting this way. But there are a lot of kids that are raised with more strict, rigorous, loving immigrant parents who come out pretty well too.
MARTIN: Amy Chua is the author of a new book called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." She's a professor of law at Yale Law School in her spare time. She's also the author of a number of other books and she was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Professor Chua, thank you so much for joining us.
CHUA: Thank you so much for having me.
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