I have three questions about Amy Chua’s new book:
1. Where’s Dad?
By now, almost everyone knows that Chua followed what she calls the “Chinese way” of child-rearing. She and her husband, fellow Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, agreed to it before the birth of their first daughter. Her book’s most unsettling vignettes demonstrate the technique: rejecting her four-year-old’s handmade “Happy Birthday Mummy” card as inadequate; refusing to allow bathroom breaks from piano practice; threatening to burn a child’s stuffed animals if she didn’t play a recital piece perfectly; calling her child “garbage.”
I was home for family dinners and coached all of my sons’ little league and daughter’s softball teams, so I wondered how Chua’s husband fit into this mess. In an interview with The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/15/amy-chua-tiger-mother-interview), Chua gave this hint:
“‘All the way through, Jed was bringing balance to the family, insisting that we were going to go on family bike rides and to Yankees games and apple-picking and water slides and bowling and mini-golfing, so we socialised a lot actually …’.”
But another passage suggests that he just checked out: “He said, ‘Look, this is your book. I supported you but you were the one that had a strong world-view about how to raise your kids. It’s your world-view, it’s your book.'”
Chua is a high-powered whirlwind who admitted to The Guardian that she loses her temper, is harsh, and yells — so much that she fears her daughters will follow her example. If that misbehavior broke Jed, too, then it explains his absence from the book’s subtitle: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs.”
2. Can Chua think outside her own box?
The mind is fragile. I think individuals at the high end of the standard normal intelligence curve feel most acutely life’s greatest psychological challenges — especially during adolescence. Both of Chua’s daughters are gifted. Like thoroughbred race horses, they merit special handling; not coddling — handling. For a long time, they didn’t get it.
Chua backed off her extreme approach after younger daughter Lulu, then 13, exploded publicly. She smashed a glass and screamed, “I’m not what you want – I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin. I hate my life. I hate you, and I hate this family!”
Now add this data. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic classification in that age group. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range; family pressures to achieve are a contributor. (http://articles.cnn.com/2007-05-16/health/asian.suicides_1_asian-american-families-asian-women-asian-american-parents?_s=PM:HEALTH) Lulu’s outburst opened Chua’s eyes; it also might have saved Lulu’s own life.
Yet in a recent interview on NBC Nightly News, Chua said that she’d make only “small adjustments” in pursuing the same parenting strategy again. Admitting error isn’t her strong suit; maybe additional practice drills will help.
3. What’s ahead?
Chua has published an ongoing, uncontrolled, and incomplete experiment. Unfortunately, other parents might view her — a Harvard graduate teaching at Yale (where they don’t give grades, by the way) — as providing a template for others. Certainly, a parent shouldn’t indulge a child’s every whim, or mischaracterize mere participation as excellence.
But there’s something to be said for parenting, even in tough-love situations, that maintains fundamental respect for the child as a human being. Retrospective reassessment is difficult for anyone, but I hope someday Chua’s kids can revisit their mother’s definition of success to decide whether they want it to be theirs.
How will Chua’s children — now 18 and 14 — ultimately fare? No one will know the answer for decades. Regrettably, their mother has now made them a subject of continuing scrutiny. Chua said that every friend and family member who read her manuscript urged her not to publish it. She ignored that advice and has another achievement — a best-seller whose author embodies the difference between intelligence and wisdom.