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

To my husband and me, the most interesting feature of this thesis is the way the first two elements interact. How can a person or a group feel simultaneously insecure and exceptional? I think the Mormons illustrate this so interestingly. There is a very strong “chosen people” narrative, very similar to the Jews. A sense of exceptionality, also in terms of moral exceptionality. The historian Claudia Bushman described it as: “Mormons see themselves as an island of morality in a sea of decay.” They are very proud of their strong families. That’s part of the sense of exceptionality. ...

Based on all our research, at the same time, there is a sense (among Mormons) that “we’re not quite accepted by mainstream America.” We cite polls. Certain other Christian denominations are skeptical. Mitt Romney had to listen to his sons, who are incredibly decent, clean-cut kids, being described as “creepy” for absolutely no reason. In that combination of feeling exceptional and special and in some ways superior, and being kind of looked down on, almost not fully respected — that combination creates almost a chip on the shoulder. I think Dave Checketts actually used this term talking about himself. That really can often create a sense of drive: “You know what, we’re going to show everybody. We’re going to work 20 times harder and we’re going to earn people’s respect.” That is a characteristic that ties all of these groups together.

Cuban-Americans came over. They were very respected people in Cuba. They came to this country, they had had their property confiscated, they had only $5, they had to work as janitors and they had to face discrimination. There were signs that said, “No dogs or Cubans allowed.” And the testimonials — they are amazing. You hear these people say, “I was determined that my children would thrive and be middle class. Education became the most important thing. I was going to do anything it took to regain that respect.” That’s kind of common.

DN: In Bloomberg’s Business Week, Matt Bowman wrote about your triple-package theory. The LDS Church has a theological teaching about eternal progression that creates a sense of superiority, but there’s also an ethic of sacrificing for your family and community. Is there anything else in the way of balancing out that you see happening with these two competing traits?

AC: ... In terms of balance, one thing we see as almost a downside in a kind of triple-package combination is that it tends to push people in these groups into very conventional forms of success. If you want the respect of the rest of society, you want your children to go to big-name schools. You want them to be in corporations or to be doctors or to be lawyers. That’s the best way to earn respect, not to be in a garage band or be a jazz singer. So it can have, for some people, an imprisoning effect, where you feel like you’re forced to be narrow.

I know that a lot of Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans feel this way. Their parents are so afraid that they can’t survive and be socially accepted in this country, so they always want their kids to be doctors or in businesses or lawyers, and they don’t want their children to be poets or stand-up comics or film directors. That’s too risky. So in terms of balance, I think we write about how the interaction with America can actually be very positive because America has a streak of individualism. In these triple-package cultures, the ideal may be to take these values but then to kind of break free and try to apply them to your own passions.

DN: Were you surprised by the reaction to "Triple Package"?

AC: I was surprised at how heated it was. I thought "Triple Package" would generate some controversy because so many already felt strongly about "Battle Hymn." I did not expect it would be called racist. If you read the first page, you see it is the opposite of racist. … That struck me as being incredibly unfair. We took pains to show this is nothing genetic or biological, but that there are certain behaviors, commitments, and outlooks available to anyone of any background that tend to produce disproportionate success.

These qualities are available to anyone, but at any given point in time, certain groups seem to instill it more than others, and these groups may be different 20 years from now. Even people who didn’t agree with our conclusions who read the book agreed it’s unfair to say it’s racist. That came from out of left field.

I feel like I haven’t even seen the discussion I expected. This book is a new way to look at success and its psychological underpinnings and costs. It tries to be honest about what it means to be driven, pushed, the pressure. It’s not always a pleasant feeling. I’ve heard people — certainly in Asian-American communities, Jewish communities, Mormon communities — who feel they’re not quite good enough.

I would like people to know that the book is much more subtle, more nuanced about the balance between success and happiness. It doesn’t say (success is) to just make a lot of money. It’s the opposite of that. … It raises much deeper questions about what it means to lead a meaningful life. I do believe actual fulfillment and happiness have to be part of a long-term project, and that’s different from material, corporate success.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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