Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua published a controversial article Jan. 8 titled “Why Chinese Parents Are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal. The article — excerpted from her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — garnered thousands of comments online and inspired dozens of articles in reponse to Chua’s controversial take on liberal Western parenting and the benefits of strict Chinese parenting. In an interview with the News on Sunday, Chua discussed how her article has been misunderstood, why she reformed her views on parenting and her daughter’s recent slumber party.
Q How do your daughters feel about your Wall Street Journal article and book? What about your husband?
A I wrote the book at a moment of crisis after my second daughter [Louisa, 15] rebelled against my strict parenting. We had always been very close; we have very similar personalities. But when she was 13, everything turned dark. My sister got really ill, and my daughter became increasingly alienated and seemed to turn against everything I stood for. After one terrible blow-up, I realized that if I didn’t change, I would lose my daughter, and nothing is more important to me than my daughters. What’s completely not conveyed in the Wall Street Journal article is that I actually pulled back from the strict immigrant model. The day after the blow-up, I started writing, and I actually wrote the whole book in just two months. I showed every single page to my daughters and my husband. They read every single word. I would never have published the book without the complete endorsement of my whole family. Writing the book was very cathartic, like family therapy.
Q What responses have you gotten from students, colleagues and strangers? The New York Times reported that you have received death threats. Have you been surprised by these reactions?
A I feel like I’ve been going 24/7 to clarify the excerpt. The book is not a parenting guide. I don’t think Chinese parents are superior. In fact, my book says the opposite, right on the cover. The book is about my own journey and transformation as a mother. The person who is talking in the beginning of the book is more tongue-in-cheek, the type of person I was 18 years ago. It is meant to be a little bit comical and satirical. I’m just happy that the book is out there now. People can really dislike the book, but I much prefer discussing the book to the excerpt.
Q How well does the Wall Street Journal article reflect your book as a whole? Do you really believe that Chinese parents are superior to Western ones?
A I knew the book was going to be provocative. But now I’m getting a flood of emails from people who have read the book to the end, saying, “Oh my God, I read the book, and it was the complete opposite of what I thought it was.” I see the book as a love story: It is all about my love for my daughters. At the end of the book, I’m saying you really have to listen to your kids, and the happiness of your child must come first. It’s been a bit frustrating because a lot of the hatred is based on a complete misunderstanding. But I’ve also had many lovely emails of support. My colleagues have been extremely supportive and nice. Students have been incredibly understanding, at least the ones who’ve reached out to me. Anyone who knows me would know I would not write an article called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Anybody who knows me knows I don’t think that.
Q In a follow-up Q&A with the Wall Street Journal Jan. 13, you said much of your book is about your “decision to retreat from the strict ‘Chinese’ approach” after your younger daughter [Louisa, or Lulu] rebelled at 13. How did she rebel, and how did your parenting change?
A Lulu was a fiery spirit from the moment of her birth. We always had clashed, but it was really when she became a teenager that things became different. This is something universal: It is hard to parent a teenager, no matter what culture you are from. When she turned 13, she started asking why she couldn’t have sleepovers, or go shopping or hang out with her friends more. At the time, she was concertmaster of her orchestra, studying with a Julliard teacher, just a beautiful player. After that terrible brawl, I let her give up the violin. Now she plays tennis, and I’m not allowed to be very much involved, which is painful, but I know it’s the right thing. It’s mostly about more choice. I have not retreated in terms of always requiring academic excellence. For me, the “tough immigrant” approach is really not about achievement, or gold medals. That was a joke. It’s really about helping your children be the best they can be, which is usually more than they think. When successful, this approach can provide children with tremendously high self-esteem and a loving relationship with their parents. There is no simple formula for parenting, and this is not a parenting book. It’s a memoir. It’s about the strengths I see in the model, but it’s also making fun of myself. Ultimately, it’s about finding a balance, putting the happiness of your child first.
Q This Saturday, you hosted a slumber party for your daughter’s fifteenth birthday. Does this mean you’ve backed away from your “no sleepovers” rule?
A It’s funny, the list [of prohibited activities in the Wall Street Journal article] was applied pretty strictly to me when I was growing up. But when my kids were really little, I did allow them some play dates and slumber parties, though probably less than other people. I do believe in socialization. But it is true that between the ages of nine and 14, they went to very few sleepovers. Certainly they complained about not having enough play-dates, but I held fast partly because they had to practice their instruments and partly because I think people often romanticize what is going on in these play dates. Especially when they’re older, play dates are often just playing computer games or Facebook stalking for six hours. But after I pulled back, I had a heart-to-heart discussion with my daughters, and I agreed to be socially more liberal. In the last couple of years, things have been looser. The girls who were over for the party just left, actually.
Q How will your parenting change or adapt once your oldest daughter, Sophia, goes to college next year?
A I’m just going to let her go completely free. One of the virtues of the tough immigrant model — coupled with love and compassion, of course — is that it is about very early child-rearing, instilling a work ethic and teaching them not to give up. But it’s not forever. When my daughter started high school, I was not a helicopter mom. I would never dream of doing my kids’ homework for them, and I taught them not to blame their teachers or school for their mistakes. When Sophia goes to college, I’ll just give her total freedom. I’ll check in occasionally. I’m praying she’ll want to stay close to me because I’m very close to my parents still.