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

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

There’s something about success that’s irresistible. But actually figuring out what leads to it, or even how to define it, is tricky business. Just ask Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University, who sparked a heated debate with her 2011 best-selling memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” about the driven approach she took to parenting her daughters Sophia and Lulu.

By the time Chua and her husband and fellow law professor Jed Rubenfeld co-wrote the newly released “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” critics were spoiling for a fight.

Her demanding parenting approach has been both blasted and praised. The couple’s assessment of the three cultural traits that lead to success — feeling superior, feeling insecure and having strong impulse control — has been praised by some and labeled racist by others.

The Deseret News interviewed Amy Chua last week and found her likeable, humorous and more than a little puzzled by the volatile reactions to her work. Following are excerpts of that conversation.

Deseret News: You have gotten both praise and criticism for your ideas on parenting. What do you think the attention has contributed to people who are trying to figure out how to be good parents?

Amy Chua: Now that it’s been about three years since "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" first came out, I feel that it’s actually overall been a very positive contribution; there’s been a real arc in the conversation. When the Wall Street Journal article that excerpted my book with a crazy, misleading title first came out, it was just all negative. It felt like I was going to be expelled from the country. As people started reading the book, there was an enormous shift in the emails and perceptions. Even people who disagreed with me, who finally read the book, said, “You know, this is really thought-provoking. I am definitely not going to do all the things that you do, but I respect your position and I might even go 30 percent.”

I actually feel that, ironically, it may not have had that much to do with me, even though it felt very personal. I feel like I accidentally hit this weird nerve where I just tapped into both tremendous anxiety about China and tremendous anxiety about parenting. I kind of hit that moment, and I feel like the country may have been wanting to have that conversation anyway and I provided the catalyst, because the reaction was so explosive. I feel like it can’t just have been my book, which was supposed to be a funny, half-satirical memoir.

DN: Was that part of the problem — the fact that some people tried to read it as a how-to, instead of reading it as a memoir?

AC: I think that was probably 90 percent of the problem, and my students helped me understand that. Some of my students said, “You know, when I first read it, I was pretty startled, but then I had you for a professor and I reread it, and I thought it was so funny and I got all the parts that were kind of hyperbole and jokes and satire.”

DN: I’m wondering how the way (you and Jed) were parented contributed to how you decided to raise your daughters.

AC: I think that it was actually of tremendous benefit, and that my daughters got the best of both worlds. You know, I had it straight one way — my parents were both Chinese immigrants, and all the things that were semi-satirical in my “Tiger Mother” book were applied to me literally. (Laughs.)

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.

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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