You didn't get an A? Okay, I'm burning your toys . . .
Lawyer Amy Chua's book detailing her strict parenting of her two daughters shocked the world. Here, she defends the Chinese approach to motherhood to Alexandra Frean
Published 19/01/2011 | 05:00
Your 12-year-old daughter is jubilant. She got an A-minus in maths, second prize in a regional history competition and a distinction in her piano exam.
Do you (a) congratulate her with a hug, let her off piano practice and take her to a friend's house for a celebratory sleepover or, (b) demand to know why she didn't get an A in maths, berate her for not coming top in the history contest and threaten to burn her soft toys if she doesn't do two hours of piano practice, adding that there will be no sleepover today, or indeed ever.
If you chose (a) the chances are that you are not a Chinese mother and you are certainly not Amy Chua.
I visit Chua (48) at her home in Connecticut, just outside the campus of Yale University, where she teaches law. I'm here to talk to her about her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which chronicles her attempts to raise her children the Chinese way in the United States and to explain why she eventually had to abandon the project, which was founded on a series of rules: her two daughters were expected to be No 1 in every subject except gym or drama, and to be at least two years ahead of their classmates in maths. Play dates and TV were forbidden. Music was mandatory.
The book is not for the faint-hearted and many will be shocked by Chua's screaming matches with her daughters as she attempts to thrust greatness upon them. It is both appalling and compelling.
Take the day when Chua banished her daughter Lulu, then 3, to the garden without a coat when the temperature was -6C because the girl refused to co-operate with her first piano lesson. The punishment was not only extreme, it was also futile because a defiant Lulu had to be bribed with brownies and hot chocolate before she would come back in.
Chua says the anecdote is supposed to be amusing, but it left me feeling uncomfortable.
Similarly when she threatens to burn all of her elder daughter Sophia's soft toys until she plays a piano piece perfectly, it's hard to see the joke, even though Chua insists that she would never actually have followed through.
Although the book will not be published until next month, it is safe to predict an explosive reaction. Book club readers given a preview found her loathsome, yet intriguing.
Interestingly, the book inspires a more positive reaction among immigrant families to whom Chua has shown it. "They relate to it and they don't even see what's controversial," she says.
Born in the US to immigrant parents, she married a Jewish American. She was determined that her daughters would be high-achievers like herself, so, with her husband's blessing, she embarked on hands-on, hothouse parenting.
Chua is at pains to explain that her book is not a "how to" parenting guide, but just her own story. She insists too that when she refers to Chinese mothers vs Western parents, she is talking loosely about a rigid and regimented goal-orientated parenting style vs a liberal, permissive approach.
Chua juggled supervising her children's studies with her own. That meant rising early, sometimes at 5.30am, to work before taking the girls to school.
It seemed, at first, to be working: from a very early age her daughters became outstanding students at school and were hailed as musical prodigies. At age 13 Sophia performed a piano solo at Carnegie Hall in New York. At 12, Lulu, a violinist, became concert master of a prestigious youth orchestra.
I'm unnerved by the way Chua constantly speaks about her daughters' achievements as if they were her own, but she denies that any of it was intended for her own glory. "Western parents say, isn't this all about you? But it's not," she insists.
"Western and Chinese parents both want their kids to realise their potential. The difference is that Chinese parents tend to assume that potential is much higher," she says, adding that Western parents simply give up too easily when things get difficult for their children.
"The Chinese think that hard work can go a lot farther than perhaps Western parents do. It takes perseverance to discover your gifts."
She denies that constantly pushing her daughters to do better ran the risk of damaging their self-esteem. On the contrary, she says, it boosted their confidence by showing them what they were capable of.
"Western parents are extremely concerned about their children's self-esteem, whereas the Chinese, for better or for worse, tend to assume strength in their children and not fragility. They don't worry about their children's psyches," she says.
Chua chose maths and music for her daughters, but it seems likely that she could have made them excel in any field.
"It seemed strangely coincidental when my daughters were playing music and people would say, 'your daughters are so gifted'. I thought, that can't be the case; there's no musical talent in the family. It's just hard work," she says.
She believes this approach works with children of all abilities and uses her sister Cindy, who has Down's syndrome, as an example. Cindy (38) became an accomplished piano player and won two medals for swimming in the Special Olympics.
Throughout all of this, the role of her husband Jed (51) has been to provide balance, insisting on family bike rides and trips to water parks. Although he sometimes had reservations about his wife's strictness, he was won over by the impressive results. Raised by very liberal parents himself, he wished that his parents had pushed him harder to persevere with music and foreign languages.
Eventually, however, Chua realised she was pushing her girls too hard. Lulu had always fought hardest against her mother's demands and when she turned 13 last year refused to co-operate any more, sparking a string of explosive rows.
Realising that she risked "losing" her daughter, Chua finally backed off and agreed a year ago that she could no longer micromanage her daughters' lives. Lulu promptly gave up violin lessons and took up tennis.
"Things are much calmer, and everyone seems happier," Chua says. Recently she even allowed Sophia to go to a rap concert and to start dating.
The girls do not appear to resent their mother. In fact, Sophia has said she wasn't "subjected" to Chinese parenting, but rather that she "went along with it by my own choice".
The biggest surprise has been Lulu's response. She seems to have mild regrets that her mother never gave her any choice when she was younger, beyond offers such as "do you want to practise six hours or five?" but she says that she loves playing the violin on her own terms.
Although glad of her new-won freedoms, she has told her mother: "I'm glad you forced me to play the violin. I'm always going to love the violin."
Chua says she is now beginning to see the longer-term benefits: Sophia (18), has just applied for college on the East Coast. While other parents hired tutors to write application essays and visited 30 different institutions, Chua took a back seat.
"I felt that my work had been done a lot earlier," she says. "I said to Sophia, it's your responsibility -- pick your schools and write your own essay. I have taught you all I have to teach you."
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bloomsbury, £16.99, is published on February 7