Is the 'Tiger Mom' controversy misunderstood?
February 7th, 2014
06:14 PM ET

Is the 'Tiger Mom' controversy misunderstood?

GPS Digital Producer Jason Miks speaks with Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale, and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, also a professor at Yale, about their new bookThe Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,’ and what it means to be a Tiger Mom. Watch Fareed’s interview with Chua and Rubenfeld this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

Your 2011 book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, sparked an intense debate with its look at the differences between Chinese and Western parenting. What are the key characteristics of a Tiger Mom?

Chua: I would say extremely high expectations, high discipline and definitely unconditional love. And I think high expectations are absolutely consistent with unconditional love. To me, a Tiger Mom is the opposite of a Helicopter Mom – a Helicopter Mom wants to make things easier for her kids, and I think a Tiger Parent is actually thinking about strengthening the child for the future. And so it’s kind of a long term project, and often it can feel like actually putting obstacles in front of your child, whereas a Helicopter Parent is someone who is wanting to do everything for their child. A Tiger Parent is basically saying “Let me put some obstacles in your way so you can train, so that when you go out into the real world, it will be easier.”

Is there a Tiger Dad?

Rubenfeld: I know it’s a cliché, but I think as a father I was very interested in communicating to the kids that they should challenge authority, think for themselves, not just accept or do what everyone else around them is doing or saying. I think this is an interesting contrast with my wife’s approach, but maybe there was something beneficial about the combination.

Chua: Yes, the best of both worlds. It might have been that combustible combination of him saying to challenge authority all the time, and to question everything, worked with my more high discipline approach.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother created a lot of controversy. Were you surprised at the reaction? Do you think some readers misunderstood the points you were trying to make?

Chua: Well first of all, the book was meant to be a funny, almost farcical or satirical pseudo memoir. That is, it was all true, but it was also filled with exaggeration. I mean, I have my dogs talking in it. So to me it seemed obvious that it wasn’t an academic book. And it also has a real arc to it – if you read to the end you see that my younger daughter rebels, and so I am confronted with all these important questions. And I actually pull back.

So yes, I was very startled to see people taking the book as a sort of parenting manifesto, which it wasn’t. And in retrospect I think the book tapped into two of America’s deepest anxieties – fear of parenting, and fear of China. And this was partly because there was a headline slapped on to an excerpt in a newspaper that said “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” which is something I absolutely do not think and didn’t write. But that really started the firestorm.

So that book and your new one, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, should be treated quite separately?

Rubenfeld: Yes. In some ways they are polar worlds apart, although they do have some overlapping topics. So this is not a memoir – it is an academic work that is data-driven. Every statement in it is backed up by statistical or sociological research. For example, we draw on the United States census. And it’s also not a parenting book – that’s not the book’s focus. So in those ways it’s totally different.

But I think in a way, both books are also still about sources of strength, of motivation, character, perseverance, and how one generation transmits those qualities to the next generation. So maybe there is some overlap in that sense.

You’ve suggested that there is a problematic aversion to comparing some kinds of data, for example between cultural groups. Is this a problem, do you think, in America today?

Chua: I think it’s a terrible problem, and I actually didn’t realize it was quite this bad until this latest book. Of course I knew it would be somewhat controversial and thought provoking. But I think there’s not a single statement that we make that is not backed up by a study. So when we say that Asian-Americans have SATs scores 140 points above the average, that’s just a fact. Or when we say that X, Y and Z groups have median incomes almost twice the national average, then it’s from the U.S. census.

So I think the idea that you can’t give a statistic or say that a group is exhibiting a certain characteristic at any given point – for example, that they are studying 70 percent more hours – without being accused of chauvinism and stereotyping is a problem. And I think it’s going to make it very difficult to devise really good policies on education or poverty reduction policies. Of course we need to fix our institutions. Of course it’s not a level playing field out there. Of course the priority should be eliminating structural barriers to getting jobs. But why should it be mutually exclusive? We should also be able to look at what some cultures are doing, and if we say that this is an area that we can’t talk about, then we are tying one hand behind our back.

Rubenfeld: We’ve actually been called a lot of names because of this book, and it’s astonishing how much people are willing to misrepresent or misunderstand what we have written just because we touch on these sensitive subjects. So, for example, over and over you can find in the media the statement that we claim some groups are better than others. But we actually never say that. We simply point out that in this moment in time, some groups are doing better than others. That’s simply a matter a fact that anyone can look up. And the information comes from the U.S. Census, so are they saying the Census is racist?

We state facts in the book, and we also point out that the groups that are doing better change over time – it is very dynamic. Twenty years ago the groups would have been different from today, and 20 years from now the groups will be different again. It’s a very dynamic story that couldn’t be more opposed to the claim that some groups are better than others. In fact, among the most successful groups we note in the nation are some Hispanic and African American groups. So we’ve been accused by some of being racist, but it’s actually just the opposite – we show that racist stereotypes are wrong.

You say these books shouldn’t be treated as parenting manuals. But do you think there are perhaps any policy lessons from our research?

Rubenfeld: I would say that our research supports those like Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, who have shown that our education dollars are best spent when trying to help out the disadvantaged through early intervention programs, even before kindergarten. Heckman has shown that the dollars spent at that early age, when motivation can be taught, when perseverance can be taught, are actually more efficient and more effective than spending the same number of dollars at the college level.

You both say that by the third generation, achievement among different groups largely levels out. Why?

Chua: All three of what we call the Triple Package elements for success get eroded over time. So, in the case of immigrants, the first generation of immigrants often feel a sense of exceptionality – that’s the first thing in the package and it’s related to their heritage. By the time you get to their children, it is already very dissipated – they are Americans, and a lot of them, correctly, have distaste for their parents’ sense of difference and exceptionality. So by the time you get to the second and third generation, they may not relate to this at all – they can lose the language and the connection.

Secondly, there is insecurity. But as soon as a group starts to rise, then naturally that sense of insecurity diminishes – you are no longer as afraid that you can’t feed your children, you are not as afraid that you won’t be accepted socially.

The third element, impulse control, erodes for the same reason. If you’re growing up in a comfortable house, you don’t fear for your survival. So why should you be so disciplined? Whys should you work all the time? So success has the seeds of its own decline within any group or arguably nation or family.

Are these elements specific to immigrants coming to the United States?

Rubenfeld: That’s something we talk about. The experience of coming to America is liberating, and it has a dynamic of almost creative destruction in respect of the cultures of the immigrant communities that come here. And one of the great effects of this can be that the kids of these immigrant parents, although they get drive and hunger and a good work ethic instilled in them, can turn around and say that they don’t want to do the things that their parents or society or culture expect them to do. This is a very typically American experience, and this is one of America’s great virtues. You see it again and again with second generation communities, breaking away from the traditional cultural restraints. And ultimately this is a wonderful thing because people are pursuing success as they define it.

Chua: Institutions are crucial. Jews who may have had the triple package in spades, but were in Eastern Europe, obviously they were not rising. And that’s because you need institutions that reward hard work and deferred gratification. So the answer to the question is that it all depends on the institution of a particular country.

Rubenfeld: Having said that, we have started to look into the possibility that immigrants in the U.K. are undergoing the same kind of phenomenon and dynamics. And interestingly, our preliminary research suggests there is a great deal of commonality.

Chua: Yes, in fact with some of the same groups – not all, but with some South Asian groups, East Asian immigrants, Nigerians – they are doing disproportionally well, including some much lower income immigrants whose children do just as well as privileged Asians and Whites.

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Topics: China • Education

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Unga Ramires

    “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” From a Famous man,,,, WE ALL HAD OUR TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS AS A CHILD... Slavery, Education, thugs on the block,,,,, It is THESE tribulations that we get "ourselves" from..... So continue to try.... For it seems that a better life is all that these parents want for thier child,, Educated in lit, or "other" fam values

    April 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  2. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE

    buncha big talking americans on money, as their country borrows another 700 billion for 2014, to keep their high standard of living

    April 17, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Reply
    • Unga Ramires

      So true..

      April 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • danny rivera

      Really? The thing is pal is that we as a government have always paid our debts. Hence the reason when the economy starts getting scary investors look to U.S. government bonds you idiot. Check your facts, no get some facts before you decide to mentally vomit on another website.

      May 12, 2014 at 11:06 am | Reply
  3. Julie

    Successful is measured in many ways. But if your talking high paying jobs and noted universities then some aspects of a tiger mom accompanied with love and two ears is advantageous. First, is expectations. Home, zip code, your own DNA, your own drive, your surroundings and their expectations all play a part. Keeping family size small, avoiding divorice, and thinking in terms of raising this child till 23 or 24 and hopefully you can be a grandma of their kids instead of a mother of their kids all over again. Now the unspoken half is speaking, The only way your going to reach those most need of help, is to discourage having children until they can afford them. Government gives more for more kids . Definitely not enough to offset the price of feeding and clothing, but few see beyond the notion of getting more. If the government wants to really see improvement, reward more for sticking to less kids and require them to work x number of hours when the kids reach school cleaning the parks etc. I have done volunteer work at a soup kitchen. The volunteers at the church brought baby clothes and love and attention to a family with 4 children and multiple Dads when newborn number 5 just days old arrived. Meanwhile there was an eighteen- twenty year old, brings his studies to work, occasionally talks to you about his life although shy, and he doesn't get any fanfare or encouragement. If this guy ever made it regardless of pay, he is ranked in my books very successful. Even more so than someone who had everything and going to Harvard.

    April 20, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • Cap Lee

      Tiger mom and helicopter mom are useless extremes. Yes, kids have to learn to think and do, not just follow a self imposed dictator in an over zealous educator or tiger mom.. And no, the test scores are not an indicator of academic achievement, just testing achievement, giving answers that someone else wants. Yes get into the community and make it real!

      May 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  4. GREG

    So... she's a Chinese woman claiming the superiority of Chinese parenting and pretty much Asian culture in general, but she married a white guy and had kids with him. What a joke. She's an embarrassment and personifies everything wrong with these types of self-hating Asian women

    April 20, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      You are completely mixed up about this. You only see things from your narrow perspective.

      I'm an American man that married out because I didn't want the social troubles of American culture, such as having one of the three highest divorce rates and highest prison incarceration rate out of 200+countries in the world. I let my wife know this and encourage her not to become Americanized. It works. The kids know two languages and do well in school and...look for marriage partners of their mom's culture.

      My wife doesn't self hate as you suggest.

      April 20, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply
    • Raquel

      Great artecli, thank you again for writing.

      July 5, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Reply
    • Mary

      It's a real pluseare to find someone who can think like that

      July 21, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  5. MattD

    You don't have to be a Nazimom to have successful kids. My sister was always pretty smart, but decided to be a housewife/stay at home mom. Her kids are incredibly gifted but normal. That is, in addition to being great students, they are calm, creative and socially functional. My sister was firm but gentle with them. She and her hubby left it up to them to succeed or fail, but subtly pulled the levers to help them make the correct decisions. That's parenting. Being a dictator isn't.

    April 20, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  6. LFP2012

    Ah, the truth comes out about Amy Chua. We already knew she was a violent and hateful child abuser from her previous book. Now she comes out as yet another ignorant and hateful racist. I wonder if there's a connection between the two ideologies..... I wonder...

    April 21, 2014 at 1:19 am | Reply
    • Ted Striker

      U mad brah?

      April 21, 2014 at 5:13 am | Reply
    • OLittman

      I agree. What shocked America about her first book was the abusive, cruel, stifling parenting she tried portray as being good. Let's not forget that young Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate in our country. One happened just last week, when the young Asian college student left a suicide note stating that she hadn't met the expectations she was supposed to meet! But the other, everyday side of this childhood stuffing approach to parenting is that it kills individual creativity, it hurts the critically necessary ability to socialize and emphasize with other human beings, as a child is forced to spend most of his or her childhood cramming into books and taking prep classes.

      April 21, 2014 at 6:17 am | Reply
      • LoveYourChild

        The thing that puzzles me is just how does a Tiger Mom get a child to agree to give up their childhood, the regular playing and socializing with other children, and to spend hours on end cramming into books and taking prep classes? Since physical punishment is illegal in our country (as it should be), a Tiger Mom must use enormoous psychological pressure on a small child, perhaps having them feel guilty if they don't agree to go along with this brutal regiment. Poor little things.

        April 21, 2014 at 6:48 am |
  7. timkanejd

    American exceptionalism: thinking your are superior when in fact you are inferior. You don't have to be a dumbed down American of European heritage to qualify.

    April 21, 2014 at 7:19 am | Reply
  8. BVS Prathap

    How can "Unconditional" Love be consistent with High "expectations". Unconditional basically means without any expectations. Expectations are the only conditions in love.

    Since i found this inconsistent, I did not go through the whole article though.

    April 21, 2014 at 8:12 am | Reply
  9. Dee

    Um, Tiger moms is a myth. Look at all the Asian countries, all run by white men who were brought up by none other than white women who are not even close to the description of tiger mothers.

    April 22, 2014 at 9:24 am | Reply
    • Al

      Not sure which Asian country youre talking about...mMost Asian countries seem to have Asian heads of state.

      April 28, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  10. Unga

    Itz good to see Moms take such strong actions in thier childrens future.... That should be commended... Well done Ladies..

    April 25, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  11. manny

    Tiger mom should be appointed as Secretary of Education, to rescue our decaying education in America.

    April 26, 2014 at 1:08 am | Reply
  12. Nelson Flavius

    Am currently studying in Taiwan. And trust me there is nothing superior about the "Asian Way" of raising children. Kids go to school seven days a week. They cram like hell to pass exams and reach university. They excel in Maths but cannot think for themselves. Asian students have one of the lousiest reputations when it comes to plagiarism. Because their cramming which passes off as education means they cant think for themselves. But their way of teaching Maths may deserve to be studied or even emulated.

    May 4, 2014 at 3:03 am | Reply
    • timkanejd

      Ditto in Korea. Kids spend their afternoons at private academies cramming. 12 hour study days are not unusual. When they hit the University level, they drink their brains out.

      The pressure to perform to an external measure is overwhelming throughout the Confucian cultural region. Celebrated director Ang Lee is from Taiwan. Almost every single one of his movies is about a person whose inner self is totally different from an outer self that they play to conform to society.

      Tiger mom is not Chinese. She's Filipino-Chinese. That means for about 20 generations her antecedents have been distinguishing themselves from the surrounding population by overemphasizing their Chinese cultural characteristics in order to maintain their role as a market dominant minority. She's just doing the same with her kids. Even Chinese Americans, a relatively successful immigrant group, are not as overarching as Tiger mom and I've read many ethnic Chinese accounts criticizing her.

      Imagine if Shakespeare's mother had forced him to stick to his piano lessons. He might have been a remarkable piano player, but he wouldn't have done the thing he loves, and he wouldn't have done what he was truly uniquely brilliant at. Same way with, say, Jerry Seinfeld. He could have been another ethnic Jewish kid at an ivy league school with a tiger-like mom, instead he gave us incredible comedy.

      Seems like, if you can be who you are, live a productive life, one with wonderful relationships, you will have lived a good life.

      May 11, 2014 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • timkanejd

      Also, when a kid fails to meet expectations, quite often they kill themselves.

      May 11, 2014 at 8:51 am | Reply
    • danny rivera

      I don't want to disagree with you but you just presented your opinion, and your opinion only. Facts? Studies? Articles? Hell anything? I will make a statement as well to dispute your comment, I work out of Malaysia and have only seen the highest degree of learning possible given their resources. Please don't ask me for factual data links, I'm like my friend here who's just spouting out things to make their point.

      May 12, 2014 at 11:14 am | Reply
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