Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published a month ago to howls of indignation in the US. In the book, Chua, a professor at the Yale Law School, describes how she brought up her two daughters in the strict Chinese style instead of taking the lax Western approach. As a second-generation Chinese-American, Chua says she was determined not to raise “soft, entitled” children. Here are excerpts from an interview with Sumana Ramanan...
You’ve said Western parents “respect their children’s individuality…” Do you see any virtues in the Western model?
Oh yes, tremendously. My husband is Western, and my daughters were incredibly lucky to grow up in a hybrid household. I was so lucky that I had a husband who was always saying, “You should question authority, you need to be independent and think for yourself.” I don’t have all the answers. The memoir is a self-parody. I’m making fun of myself and my mistakes. But I do think we need a balance between the overly strict, “only piano or violin and only science or maths”, Chinese immigrant model and the overly permissive “do whatever you want” kind of Western model. If you give a five-, eight- or ten-year-old a choice, it would probably be to sit in front of the TV and eat candy all day.
You write that in law school you weren’t naturally questioning and that you wanted to memorise everything the professor said. Do you think this had something to do with your Chinese-style upbringing?
Yes. This might be a real weakness in “the Asian model.” Understandably, immigrant parents, like mine, want their kids to have a very secure and stable future. A lot of Asian immigrants also have language issues, so they want their children to be mathematicians or engineers or go in to the sciences.
But it should not be all or nothing. It’s a false dichotomy to say, “Should we go for rote memorisation or should we go for independence and creativity?”
In retrospect, Is there anything you’d do differently?
There are some things I regret. Like all parents, I wish I hadn’t lost my temper so much. I wish I’d paid more attention to my daughters’ individual personalities — the focus on the individual is a more “Western” thing. But I would pretty much do the same thing, with minor adjustments. But, knock on wood, I’m good friends with my daughters, in a way that I wasn’t with my own parents. Young children will not always make choices that are in their best interests. But as they get older and, certainly, when they become teenagers, it’s absolutely crucial that you know your child and listen to her.
Have your daughters ever thanked you for your parenting?
They often do, when I least expect it. I don’t think it’s about achievement and getting ‘A’s; it’s about having a parent who says, “I believe in you so much that with hard work you can be excellent. I’m not going to allow you to give up.” It’s a false dichotomy to say it’s all about success and not happiness.
Some of the debate over your book seems to be fuelled by Western anxiety about a surging Chinese economy. Did you expect that?
Absolutely not. This was a complete shock. The book is just my story; not a parenting manual. I knew it would be provocative, but how provocative can a memoir be? There are many ways of being a great parent. There is no one formula. You have to know your child and your culture. Second, my book came out co-incidentally around the time the Chinese president was visiting and when these articles about Shanghai kids testing so much better than Western were all over the news. It was a kind of perfect storm, where I was swept up in the controversy.