The Truth About the Tiger Mother’s Family
Amy Chua has been accused of many things – a cruel approach to parenting, gratuitous use of cultural stereotypes, a talent for sensationalism – but cowardice isn’t one of them. She provoked uproar with her 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, charting her unbending rules for raising her daughters, and spent two years dealing with the fallout, including death threats, racial slurs, and pitchfork-waving calls for her arrest on child-abuse charges.
She might, therefore, have been expected to take an easier road with her follow-up. Instead, she and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have written The Triple Package, which is devoted to one of the most inflammatory subjects imaginable – why some cultural groups soar ahead in the US (while others, by implication, fail). The book charts how three specific qualities, which they argue are essential to success, are passed down through the generations, often through the family.
Chua has said she just wants to be liked, that she doesn’t aim to be controversial, and in person, if not her work, this is obvious. In the living room of her family’s large New York apartment, light streaming through the windows, she is every bit the effusive, encouraging professor, just what you’d expect from someone who has won a teaching award for her work at Yale Law School. Rubenfeld, also a Yale law professor and bestselling author (his thriller The Interpretation of Murder reached No. 1 in the UK), is quite different. Where she is enthusiastic, he is dry and sardonic; where she is clearly keen to ace this interview, he is witty, but much more guarded.
His suspicion isn’t surprising. “Jed’s so much more sensible and prudent,” says Chua. “I kept saying: ‘I don’t think this book is going to be controversial, because it has so many studies in it …’ But Jed said: ‘Amy, it’s going to be controversial!’”
“She kept imagining it wouldn’t be,” says Rubenfeld. “She felt like the last [book] wouldn’t be either, so …” He lets this notion linger a second.
Chua’s memoir might have been more nuanced and self-satirising than some critics suggested, but the firestorm it prompted was completely predictable. It began with a list of child-rearing edicts, including the fact that the couple’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, were never allowed to attend a sleepover, get any grade less than an A, fail to come first in any class except gym and drama, and had to play the piano or violin. No exceptions, no excuses. It continued through the time she called Sophia “garbage,” and threatened to burn her soft toys. They were pushed to spend so much time practising musical instruments that Rubenfeld once found Sophia’s teeth marks in the piano.
With The Triple Package, says Rubenfeld: “I said, the first headlines are going to be that we’re racist, and it’s ridiculous, because the book is the opposite. Nothing to do with skin colour, groups from every possible skin colour, religious and racial background … Nothing to do with genetics. But I said, ‘You’ll see, they’re going to say that, just to be sensational.’”
Rubenfeld’s prediction proved accurate again. The book began generating controversy before it was even published, with an article in the New York Post last month calling it “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes and it’s meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people.”
That article was headlined “Tiger Mom: Some cultural groups are superior,” an echo of the Wall Street Journal headline that whipped up such a storm around her memoir: “Why Chinese mothers are superior.” Much of the anger around Chua derives from this idea that she considers herself and her culture better than all others – in her memoir she played constantly on perceived differences between Chinese and western parents, tapping into deep anxiety and insecurity about a rising China and the slide of the west.
Ideas of superiority are central to her new book too, but she says she hopes after reading The Triple Package, people “don’t think we’re saying some groups are [inherently] better.” She points to the book’s subtitle, “how three unlikely traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America,” and stresses the rise and fall element. The couple are providing “a snapshot of who is doing well right now,” she says. “Twenty years from now it could be somebody different … The big thing for us is – I think we say this – anyone from any background, any ethnicity, can have these qualities. It’s just that if you’re in certain groups, it’s almost like the odds are higher.”
People made fun of Amy’s accent and her looks while she was growing up. “I was an ugly kid, with glasses and braces, and English was my second language, and I remember people saying, ‘Ha, ha, slanty eyes.’ And my mother had a very strong sense of ethnic pride, which was, like: ‘Why do you care what these kids are making fun of you about? We come from the most ancient civilisation, China invented all these things, we have a high culture, who cares what they think?’ So that’s what we call this ethnic armour”
Part of the reason for the changing fortunes of some groups, she says, is the immigrant arc, which suggests first-generation immigrants tend to have exceptional drive, a quality passed on to their kids, “but once you get to the third generation, they’re exactly the same as other Americans. So it’s very dynamic.”
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants herself, it was precisely this third generation lapse that Chua was trying to avoid in bringing up her own daughters. In Battle Hymn …, she writes that she was determined “not to raise a soft, entitled child – not to let my family fall.”
The Triple Package identifies eight groups that are particularly successful in the US at the moment – Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, and Cuban groups, along with Mormons and Jewish people. The couple’s definition of success has riled some readers, revolving, as it does, around the bald data of income and education levels. “We looked at the US census, these income measures,” says Chua, “so very materialistic senses of success, but we’re not saying this is the only way – this doesn’t mean happiness, you know?”
Still, for those wishing to be rich and academically successful, the book defines three essential traits that contribute to drive, all passed down at least partly through the family. The first is a superiority complex, the sense that your particular group is exceptional. This belief, “can be religious,” they write, “as in the case of Mormons. It can be rooted in a story about the magnificence of your people’s history and civilisation, as in the case of Chinese or Persians.” They’re aware how dangerous this quality can be – ambivalence surrounds all the triple-package qualities. “Group superiority is the stuff of racism, colonialism, imperialism, Nazism,” they continue. “Yet every one of America’s extremely successful groups fosters a belief in its own superiority.”
The second essential quality – insecurity – might seem contradictory, but apparently provides the grit in the oyster. “Everyone is probably insecure in one way or another,” they write, “but some groups are more prone to it than others. To be an immigrant is almost by definition to be insecure.” They note that the idea of insecurity as a lever of success is anathema in western society, and that, “the greatest anathema of all would be parents working to instil insecurity in their children. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s most successful groups, and these groups not only suffer from insecurity; they tend, consciously or unconsciously, to promote it.”
Finally, the third quality is impulse control, which they define as the ability to resist temptation. “Against the background of a relatively permissive America,” they write, “some groups decidedly place greater emphasis on impulse control than others.” They write that, while there is now a tendency to romanticise childhood, to see it as a time, ideally, of unfettered happiness, “every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood and of impulse control in general, inculcating habits of discipline from an early age – at least they did so when they were on the rise.”
The book is a strange mix. It seems too simplistic to be taken seriously as an academic theory, too dry to fit into the usual notion of a popular ideas book. Much of the deep uneasiness in reading it comes not from what is said about the eight groups in question, but what is unsaid about the hundreds of others. If impulse control is a key marker of success, for instance, then there is an obvious and ugly implication that other groups are simply undisciplined. It seems likely that many groups share the same roster of qualities as the most successful ones – but undermined by a much more difficult history and a different fabric of discrimination. The couple do acknowledge this in the book, and in person, but it feels as if this side of the analysis doesn’t go deep enough.
At times, the book reads most obviously as a defence of the tiger parenting Chua espoused in her memoir. She says they didn’t think of it in this way, but that its message is completely consistent with Battle Hymn …, in that it highlights the positive side of inculcating extreme drive – and the negatives. I ask whether she comes from a triple-package background and she says: “One hundred per cent.”
How would she define this?
“This idea of high expectations,” she says. “The message that my parents sent was definitely, ‘You can be the best student, you are amazing,’ but instead of the more western thing, which is, ‘and we just want you to feel great about yourself’ they’re like ‘but you haven’t done well enough yet!’ There were very high expectations, and also a big insecurity, in that when my parents came to the US they literally had nothing. I mean, they couldn’t afford heat in Boston, which is colder than London, you know? So it was like, you need to be a good student, because otherwise we may not be able to survive.”
When it came to impulse control, she watched her father, a scientist and renowned expert in chaos theory, work until three every morning, “so they didn’t even have to tell me. I used to wake up and my dad was always working.” (Now in his late 70s, her father is still taking up international fellowships, and flying all around the world giving talks.) People made fun of her accent and her looks while she was growing up. “I was an ugly kid, with glasses and braces, and English was my second language, and I remember people saying, ‘Ha, ha, slanty eyes.’ And my mother had a very strong sense of ethnic pride, which was, like: ‘Why do you care what these kids are making fun of you about? We come from the most ancient civilisation, China invented all these things, we have a high culture, who cares what they think?’ So that’s what we call this ethnic armour.”
Rubenfeld says he couldn’t have been raised more differently. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants, and his parents, both brought up in Orthodox families in smalltown Pennsylvania, rebelled against their upbringing, and were much more liberal and permissive with their own children. Still, he also grew up watching his father, a psychotherapist, work until 3am. “I would say that my dad was very much what we describe in the book,” he says, “because he was an immigrant’s kid, and very driven, and had this insecurity of the kind we’re describing.”
Rubenfeld jokes that he provided the insecurity portion of the book, before talking more seriously about one of the problems associated with the triple package – they have a whole chapter on the pathologies associated with the three traits. “I know that I am unhappier,” he says, “because I always feel like whatever I’ve done is not good enough. It doesn’t matter what I do – so that’s painful, and I worry that I’ve communicated that to my kids.”
The Triple Package identifies eight groups that are particularly successful in the US at the moment – Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, and Cuban groups, along with Mormons and Jewish people. The couple’s definition of success has riled some readers, revolving, as it does, around the bald data of income and education levels
When Chua published Battle Hymn …, critics noted Rubenfeld’s absence from the book – an absence he had encouraged. This led to questions about how supportive he was of her parenting techniques, and today he says when she started using them he was shocked. But he clearly respected her approach. “That’s not how I was raised, and if I had been a single parent, my kids would probably just be garbage men or something like that. But when I saw her instincts, I was very much in favour of them, because my parents were a little too permissive.” I ask in what way, and he says he wishes his parents had made him learn a musical instrument. Instead, he was given a choice, “between violin lessons or tennis lessons, and I picked tennis, but we didn’t really follow through with that either.” It has to be said, his parents’ approach doesn’t seem to have worked out too shabbily for him.
He felt very bad for his wife when the memoir was published, “because she was getting dragged through so many ridiculous accusations, and people didn’t understand – because, in part, she left this out of her book – how much her kids love her. They didn’t understand how much she loves her kids. They didn’t know about the four of us in bed watching TV or reading books, how often we just had fun together. I knew Amy could take it, but I felt bad because the kids were being insulted in the media, so I wanted to hack into the accounts of all the people who were saying that, and go and find them, and do something illegal to them.”
Their kids took it all in their stride though. Rubenfeld says he was searching online, “to see what people are saying, and they’re like, ‘Why are you doing that? We don’t care what people are saying!’” Sophia is currently at Harvard and Lulu was recently accepted at Yale.
The member of the family who seems to care most about the backlash is Chua; understandably, given that she was the prime target, but surprisingly, given her image. She says she keeps the hate mail she’s received in an email folder entitled “Do not look,” and as a new round has started coming in, she has stuck to this rule.
In light of that, it’s surprising she’s put her head above the parapet with this new book – she can’t really have been oblivious to the likely reaction. Although in her memoir and her new book, Chua traces some of the problems with what could be called, almost interchangeably, triple-package or tiger parenting, there is no doubt she is essentially in favour of it. “Self-control, discipline, resilience,” she says. “I got that from my parents. I remember once, I got rejected. I was trying to get a professor job, and I applied to, like, 500 places, and I think I got 500 rejections, and I called my dad and said: ‘I don’t think I can be a professor.’ He said: ‘Wait, how many rejections did you get?’ And I said ‘500.’ And he said: ‘You got 500 rejections, and you want to give up? You think that’s a LOT?!’” Love her or hate her, she won’t give up.