National Edition

'Tiger Mom' Amy Chua defends controversial parenting style, new book in Q&A

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 8:00 a.m. MST

Jed was raised in a very liberal household with really strong emphasis on morals and questioning authority. You don’t just follow the herd. It was much more individualistic. I think that aspect of it was a nice counterbalance to my parenting. I will say that Jed, although he adores his late parents, was somebody that sort of wishes that he had been forced to do a little bit more, that maybe a little bit more discipline had been applied to him. He doesn’t play a musical instrument. He was given a lot of choices as a young boy. I think that’s partly why we were largely in agreement, because he also saw the benefits of very early discipline in your children. ... Early discipline in whatever aspect of your life just has these far-reaching benefits as we get older that you can apply to all kinds of realms.

DN: In Triple Package, you (theorize) there are three cultural qualities that account for success or failure of groups: impulse control, feelings of superiority and feelings of insecurity. Can you explain that, as well as why you chose those particular eight groups?

AC: There’s a bit of a misunderstanding. It’s being mischaracterized in the press as, “They say these eight groups are superior.” Actually, that’s totally not right. We’re taking a snapshot of America right now and looking at the groups that at this moment are hitting it out of the park, i.e., being disproportionately successful in terms of conventional metrics like income or upward mobility and educational attainment. We are fully aware that success cannot be measured solely by these measures. But these are things we can measure, and also a lot of people do care about these things — and we of course know that happiness and material success cannot be equated.

There are dozens and dozens of groups that are outperforming the norm, and we focused on the ones that were most strikingly disproportionate in certain respects. We first started noticing this at Yale Law School as professors about six or seven years ago. We looked around at our students and said, there seems to be a shift of demographics. For example, Jed had one class, 16 students, three of whom were Mormon — incredible, just fabulous students. And we noticed, wow, there are a lot of South Asian students — that was not the case 10 years ago. I don’t think there were as many Mormon students 10 years ago, either. A lot of Persian-Americans, so many Cuban-Americans. And we started thinking, what's going on? Is this something just true of Yale Law School? You know, of our African-American students, 16 out of 18 were immigrants or immigrants’ children.

So we put together a research team. ... We have over 100 research assistants. We went through Census data. We tried to be as rigorous as possible, and we basically found that our impressions were corroborated at the national level — these same groups were really outperforming the rest of the country.

We were very careful and transparent in our discussion of Mormons. We say that in terms of per-capita income, they are not at the very top of the list. For us, the Mormons represent perhaps the most upwardly mobile group — that is, a group that really, in a way, emerged in the last 30 years from being barely a presence on Wall Street or in D.C. to being leaders in corporate America. We were very, very careful. I ran my data by many, many members of the church and there’s a footnote for everything.

With others groups, we just looked at the Census. Indian-Americans are at the very top; their household median income is almost twice the national average, and Iranian-Americans and Lebanese-Americans are just below. ... Asian-Americans are maybe 5 percent of the U.S. population, but they are maybe 20 percent of the population at the Ivy League, and most people think that quotas are being applied to them. It would be even higher. Their SAT scores are 140 points above the national average. I could just go on and on. We document all of this in the book.

So we said, “What do these groups have in common? What could Nigerian-Americans and Jews and Mormons possibly have in common?”

You know, the book is in some ways just the opening of conversation. We noticed that America's disproportionately successful groups all are outsiders, in a sense, and that they all share three qualities: first, a sense of exceptionality, a sense of being special. Secondly, seemingly the opposite of that, a sense of insecurity, which for us is the opposite of complacency. It’s kind of this feeling that "we need to prove ourselves; we’re not quite respected enough yet." And the third is impulse control, which is essentially discipline and the ability to resist temptation and to persevere.

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