Chinese vs Western Mothers: Q&A with Amy Chua

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“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies,” writes Amy Chua in her provocative new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. “Well I can tell them because I’ve done it.”  With those words she set off a storm of controversy.

Chua’s book, which she wrote as a memoir of her conversion from authoritarian Chinese drillmistress to marginally less authoritarian drillmistress has led to people calling heartless and worse. She makes one daughter, Lulu, play piano late into the night until she gets the piece exactly right, with no water or bathroom breaks. She never lets her girls have sleepovers or do drama at school or get less than A on report cards. Result: one daughter gets to play a piano recital at Carnegie Hall. The other, Lulu,  rebels, drops violin and takes up tennis.

An excerpt under the headline (which Chua did not write) “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal led to howls of outrage, accusations of abuse and entreaties not to buy the book. But it’s also led to a deeper reflection on the different styles of parenting and whether Western, more child-centered practices are always the best way. Here, Chua gets to make her case.

It’s a brave woman in this day and age who writes a parenting memoir. What made you want to do it?

I didn’t write this book to tell people how to parent. In fact, I wrote this book in a moment of crisis. I was raised by extremely strict but extremely loving Chinese immigrant parents. To this day I adore them and I feel I owe them everything. I tried to raise my children the same way. My daughter rebelled against this kind of parenting and I felt like my family was falling apart.  So the book is about many of the strengths I see in that kind of parenting but it’s also about the mistakes.

What has provoked the most reaction?

The story I’m getting most flak for her is one I stand by. My daughters find the trouble I’m getting in for it incredibly funny. My kids were maybe seven and four and my husband had forgotten my birthday so at the last minute we went to this mediocre Italian restaurant and he said “O.K., girls you both have a little surprise for mommy.” And my daughter Lulu pulls out a card, but the card was just a piece of paper folded crookedly in half with a big smiley face and it said Happy Birthday Mom. And I looked at it and I gave it back and I said “This isn’t good enough. I want something that you put a little bit more time into.” So I rejected her birthday card. People can’t believe I rejected this handmade card. But she knew as well as I did that it took her about two seconds to do it. That’s the story that’s coming off as the most outrageous, which in our family is like a standing joke.

What are the chief differences between the western style of parenting and the Chinese style of parenting?

I think the biggest difference is that I’ve noticed Western parents seem much more concerned about their children’s psyches, their self-esteem, whereas tough immigrant parents assume strength rather than fragility in their children and therefore behave completely differently. I know some of the examples seem very harsh—I’ve had a lot of emails about that—but I think it goes without saying that love and understanding have to come first, without that it’s nothing.

At its best I think it’s not about achievement, but about trying to help your child be the best they can be and it’s usually more than they think. It’s saying “I believe in you so much that I know you can be excellent, and I’m going to sacrifice everything and be in the trenches with you and I don’t care if you hate me while you’re a kid and I’m just not going to let you give up.” That’s, I think, a positive message.

What does that kind of parenting look like?

It’s much less deferring to the child’s wishes. The westerners want to respect their child’s individuality and to pursue their passion and to provide positive reinforcement. The Chinese are much more comfortable overriding their children’s preferences. I talk about the virtuous circle: most things are not fun until you’re good at them and to get good at them, you have to work extremely hard, and kids on their own will not want to work hard at something. My husband adores his parents but he wishes someone had forced him to learn a musical instrument.

Another thing is total respect for parents. I was raised never talking back to my parents. I once won a second prize in a history concert. My parents came to the ceremony. Somebody else had won the prize for best all-around student. Afterwards my father said to me, “Never, ever disgrace me like that again.” When I tell my western friends they are aghast. But I adore my father. It didn’t knock my self-esteem at all. To this day my father is my greatest source of strength. Words said in one cultural context may not mean the same thing as words said in another cultural context.

Having said that, there are a lot of moments I’m not proud of. This book is making fun of myself.

One of the things that working mothers wanted to know, was how on earth did you have the time to do all that with your kids while having such a successful career?

I read my own book and I’m exhausted. I do think it’s very difficult. But what I’m calling  tough immigrant parenting is not the same as being a helicopter mom. As I understand it that term means the parent is hovering over the child and talking to teachers and principals. When I was little, my father used to say that if something doesn’t seem fair, you prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good. Now I think if a kid in school does badly on a test you rush into the school, you question the teacher and the curriculum. I think the kids are strong to be able to hear “Start with yourself, maybe you didn’t work hard enough.”

Do you think one of the reasons the reaction has been huge, is that parents fear they’re maybe doing something wrong?

I think it’s partly the suggestion, maybe, the Chinese way is better. I really just don’t believe that. I think there’s many ways of being a good parent. I find it very striking that we’re calling the values of hard work and be the best you can be and stick with it— that we’re calling those Chinese values because I always thought of those as American values.

Parenting is such a personal topic. Everyone is reacting against or in favor of the way they were parented or defending the way they’re parenting now. It’s so emotional. I completely understand it.

Is this kind of parenting an immigrant thing or a Western/Eastern thing?

I think the Asian approach emphasizes hard work. But you cannot believe how many emails I’ve had from people whose parents emigrated from Sierra Leone and Nigeria and Ghana and Jamaica and Haiti, who say “I was raised exactly like this. I’d never be the person I was without my mom.” My kids grew up more privileged than I did. I tried to recreate the immigrant experience. I didn’t have the same authenticity. My parents never spent a penny on themselves, so when they said 99% is not good enough, I never questioned it. My kids do.

How have your children felt about all the controversy?

They’ve been really really supportive. The thing that hurts me most is this idea that if you practice this strict parenting you’re going to get robots. My children are not robots. They have the biggest personalities. They’re always putting me in my place.

What did your parents think?
Thy were cautious, but completely supportive. We’re very close. But I want to spare them any pain, so I hope they don’t know how to use the internet.

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