The Tiger Mother's Bite 'A Story in Favor of Coercion, Chinese-Style'
Law professor, mother and author Amy Chua's memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," has touched off an angry debate in the United States on parenting styles. In an interview with SPIEGEL, Chua talks about drilling her daughters and threatening to burn their stuffed animals in order to motivate them to learn.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Chua, according to your book, your daughters Sophia and Louisa were never allowed to attend a sleepover, have a friend over to play or choose their own extracurricular activities. Do your daughters hate you?
Chua: I hope not! I required Sophia and Lulu to be fluent in Chinese and in English and to be straight-A students. Sophia knew the alphabet at 18 months. In nursery school, while the other kids were learning to count from one to ten, I taught her addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. By the time she was three, she was reading Sartre. Of course, I also wanted my kids to have hobbies and activities -- not just any activities, like crafts, which can lead nowhere, but rather something meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity.
SPIEGEL: You insisted, for example, that Sophia and Lulu do classical music and learn to play the piano and the violin, which is, in your own words "the opposite of decline, of laziness, vulgarity and spoiledness." Do those words describe your view on Western education?
Chua: It wasn't the intent of my book to teach other people. It is a memoir and not a parenting book. But I do think that Western parents sometimes take things too easy. It's too simple to say to your kid: "I just want you to be happy. Make your own choices." You can't tell a six-year-old: "Today, pursue your passions." I think it's sort of a romanticization. Of course, you're hoping that they will suddenly pick up the flute or, you know, write poetry. But I think they'll just sit in front of the TV or play computer games.
SPIEGEL: Your methods to keep your kids on track are controversial to say the least. For example, you said to Sophia while supervising her piano practicing: "Oh my god, you are just getting worse and worse; if the next time is not perfect, I am going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them." You are currently being demonized in the United States for using such methods to keep your kids in line.
Chua: In restrospect, the coaching might seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, it was highly effective. When Sophia was nine she won a local piano award.
SPIEGEL: Later on, she even played in Carnegie Hall ...
Chua: Exactly. And she loved it. "Nothing is fun until you're good at it" is one of my lines. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude because the child will resist. Things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.
SPIEGEL: So, what are the ingredients for successful Chinese motherhood?
Chua: I think it's love and listening, coupled with having high expectations. Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. They demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong.
SPIEGEL: Why can't the mother just be happy about it?
Chua: Because Chinese parenting is about helping your children be the best they can be -- which is usually better than they think. It's about believing in your child more than anyone else. If done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence. Rote repetition is underrated in the Western world. Western parents give up too quickly.
SPIEGEL: There is this episode in the book where Lulu worked on a piano piece and couldn't do it. You hauled her dollhouse to the car and told her you would donate it to the Salvation Army. You threatened her with no Christmas presents and no birthday parties for years. Finally, you practiced with her into the night, and you wouldn't let her get up, even to go to the bathroom. That sounds almost like torture.
CHhua: I know. It's so funny. People exaggerate that so much, they say: "Oh, my God, it's like Guantanamo Bay!" This is actually a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. After all that struggle, out of the blue, Lulu suddenly did it. Her hands suddenly came together. A moment later, she was beaming. "Mommy, look -- it's easy!"
SPIEGEL: You come from a traditional Chinese immigrant family and were clearly raised in a similar way. One time your father even called you "garbage."
Chua: My father called me "garbage" exactly once, and I know exactly when it was. My mother said something, and I said: "Shut up. I hate you." And my father jumped in. But people get it wrong. Really, what he meant was "shame on you," and he was right. It was exactly the same with my daughter Sophia. I said it only once to her in exactly the same circumstances.
SPIEGEL: You say that the book is actually a love story. How can you talk of love when you are drilling your children all day?
Chua: I am sure that my kids always knew that I love them. If the message you sent is "if you don't get an A, I won't love you" -- that's the worst parenting. That's not what I am talking about. The message is really, "I think you can get the A because I believe in you. You're a strong, smart, great kid." Once a child starts to excel at something -- whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet -- he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence, and I do think that that can produce happiness.
SPIEGEL: Do you really think happiness comes only through academic acheivement?
Chua: I think the key is creating true self-esteem. I am very skeptical if you just keep telling your children: "You're great. You're perfect. You're No. 1. Don't worry." Eventually, they have to go into the real world. And if they haven't excelled at something, they probably won't be able to get the job they want. I don't think that's a formula for happiness. I wanted my daughters to learn that through hard work and not giving up, you can actually be good at things.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that high expectations can also be harmful? Asian-American girls aged 15 to 24 have above-average suicide rates.
Chua: Well, first, that's just tragic. But I've been bombarded with these statistics from all sides, and I would really want to get some solid evidence. It just seems very anecdotal to me. I truly don't believe that Western kids are happier than Asian kids. I think it's even, maybe even the opposite. However, pressuring your kids so much that they feel they can't take it is terrible.
SPIEGEL: Did you place to much pressure on your children? Your daughter Lulu rebelled in an extreme way at the age of 13 ...
Chua: ... yes, she inherited my hot-tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving personality ...
SPIEGEL: You were sitting in Moscow in a restaurant close to Red Square and you got angry at her because she didn't want to try the caviar.
Chua: She screamed: "I hate you! You are a terrible mother! I hate my life! I hate the violin!" She got really upset. And it suddenly felt that everything was falling apart. I thought: "Have I done everything wrong? Am I going to just lose my daughter?" I got up and ran as fast as I could, not knowing where I was going. Finally I went back and said, "Lulu, you win. It's over. We are giving up the violin."
SPIEGEL: She chose to play tennis instead.
Chua: Yes. And it was painful for me. She loved music and she was very good at it. And I knew that you can't be a great tennis player if you start at 13. But I know it was the right choice for her. And what's fun about Lulu right now is that her coach says she doesn't give up. She is hard on herself. She drills.
SPIEGEL: Many Western educators believe that drilling kills creativity, and that it's more important to develop children's imaginations.
Chua: I do focus a lot on creativity, but rather than playing with wood or sand, I expose them to more ideas and more differences. I travel with them to foreign countries and take them to museums.
SPIEGEL: Your book has produced angry protests in the US, and you have been called "Monster Mom."
Chua: Yes. I knew, of course, that the book would be provocative. But what has happened is surreal. People don't realize that the book is about the journey of one mother. In the end, I completely questioned what I had done. I guess there might be a geopolitical dimension to it. Shanghai just got this very good test result in the Pisa study of the OECD (an educational survey of countries conducted by the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development). The Rising Tiger worries a lot of people.
SPIEGEL: You say that in the meantime you have become more Western. Are your daughters allowed to have sleepovers?
Chua: I will tell you a secret: Today is actually Lulu's 15th birthday. And last Saturday we just had a sleepover for seven girls.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Chua, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Philip Bethge