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January 22, 2011

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Tough Love, the tiger mom's tale

Chinese parents are famously - some say notoriously - strict with their children, but they often achieve stellar results. A Chinese-American "tiger mom" tells Leanne Italie her controversial tale.

A new memoir of tough parenting, Chinese style, from a self-proclaimed tiger mother has unleashed a ferocious roar, an uproar.

Fallout was swift for Yale law professor Amy Chua after she published a stark essay in The Wall Street Journal describing the harsh words and heavy-handed methods she used with her two teen daughters.

Her "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" shot to No. 6 in the Amazon sales rankings last Tuesday, the day it was released, likely fueled by angry buzz over the weekend column and a headline Chua had nothing to do with: "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

The Chinese version of the "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" has hit the market this month on Chinese mainland, published by Citic Press Corp.

Adult offspring of Asian and Asian-American immigrants are weighing in on Chua's provocative description of Eastern-style parenting: No sleepovers or playdates. Grueling rote academics. Hours of piano and violin practice. Slurs like "lazy" and "garbage," and threats to burn stuffed animals when things don't go mom's way.

Some see truth and a borderline abuser. Others publicly thanked their moms online for similar, though less extreme, methods.

Few had read the book themselves, missing out on more facetious nuances and details on Chua's journey to a softer approach with Sophia, 18, and Louisa, nicknamed Lulu and about to celebrate her 15th birthday with - gasp - a sleepover party.

"It's been tough on my kids," Chua says.

"They want to speak out over the thing that has hurt me the most, when people say, 'Oh, doesn't that kind of strict parenting produce meek robots?' My daughters could not be further from meek robots. They're confident, funny, kind, generous, with very big personalities, and they're always calling my bluff."

Chua, 48 and the daughter of Filipino immigrants of Chinese descent, insists her tone in the book is self-deprecating. It's a point she considers lost in the blogosphere, including heat from moms employing current Western philosophies she doesn't consider better or worse, but more lax and undisciplined.

"My first reaction was, 'Is this a joke?' I kept waiting for the punch line," says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, 44, a second-generation Chinese American and mother of four in Michigan. She had parents with high expectations but none of Chua's histrionics. "Her methods are so crude. The humiliations and the shaming. The kids will hear that voice in their heads for the rest of their lives."

Christine Lu's memories of her tiger mom growing up in Los Angeles are laden with sorrow. Mom's ramrod tactics failed on her ("life at home used to be horrible") but they worked on her older sister. She hit 28 and spiraled into a depression that led to her suicide after the startup where she worked fizzled.

"She graduated from Harvard with an MBA. That was the first time she had ever experienced failure," says the 34-year-old Lu, who was born in Taiwan and moved to LA with her parents and three siblings at age 2.

She stops short of blaming her mom, adding: "It's the culture. Amy is a product of the culture, too."

It's a book of extreme parenting, for sure, a memoir and not a how-to manual, Chua cautions.

Her parenting choices were conscious and reflect her upbringing: No TV, no pets, no computer games, no grades under A, no parts in school plays, no complaints about not having parts in school plays, no choice of extracurricular activities, nothing less than top spots in any school class except gym and drama, no musical instruments except piano or violin.

When Lulu had trouble with a tricky piece of music, Chua denied her bathroom breaks and threatened to ship off her dollhouse to the Salvation Army, piece by piece, until she got it right - which she did with pride, mom at her side.

Betty Ming Liu, 54, grew up in New York City's Chinatown, the older of two girls of Chinese immigrants with high expectations and tough parenting tactics.

"This is a topic so close to my heart," she says. "It's frightening to see that Amy Chua is still doing it. She's young. She's educated. She's American born. She's not an immigrant and for her to perpetuate this ... is frightening."

As a young adult, Chua says she rebelled in her own way. She married a white, American Orthodox Jew after hearing from her dad: "You'll marry a non-Chinese over my dead body."

"Now my dad and my husband are the best of friends."

Rebellion in own way

Liu and Chua alike acknowledge that the tiger mom parenting approach isn't uniquely Chinese, "but we've perfected it," Liu says. "I got straight Ds in college. That was my only power over my father."

Growing up in California's Marin County, Tony Hsieh's parents forced him to play four instruments. He'd sometimes cheat on practices by recording previous turns at the piano or violin and playing them back while his parents slept.

Hsieh graduated from Harvard in 1995, co-founded an Internet ad network sold to Microsoft and is now CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos. He published a memoir of his road to success, "Delivering Happiness," last year. What he didn't do was become a doctor, a top prize to his parents.

"For myself personally, I think I would have benefited from a less strict parenting style, because a big part of being an entrepreneur is about being creative, thinking outside the box, defying conventional wisdom, taking risks, which runs counter to the values of many Asian parents," he says.

Shay Fan, 26, in San Francisco, didn't rip up sheets of music like one of Chua's girls, but she once protested piano by playing with her feet and paid for it with a fierce spanking.

"I understand her motives," she says of Chua. "Is there a limit to what parents should do? Absolutely. Chua's method of parenting worked for her children, lucky for her, but you have to take things by a case-by-case basis ... Overall, I'm glad that my mom taught me to be diligent and introspective."

And Wendy Lin, 55, who remembers yelling and screaming over her perceived laziness as a child, appreciates Chua's resolve to dive into the trenches with her kids.

"She was with them every inch of the way. I thought that was really touching," says Lin, who is parenting her 15-year-old son more gently in Great Neck, New York. "A lot of mothers would just shout from the next room."

Chua stands by much of her tiger mom ways: intense attention to academics, for instance. And she has some clarifications: Her girls HAVE had sleepovers and playdates, but they were few and far between.

Regrets? "I wish I hadn't lost my temper," she says. "I wish I hadn't been harsh. I wish I would have let them have more freedom."

Lin understands that in terms of her own parents.

"As an immigrant parent, there aren't a lot of tools you can give your children. You're very powerless in the system. You're very powerless when it comes to language," Lin says. "One of the things that you can do is make sure your kids have a good education and make sure they get into a good school, and after that you can finally rest and take a breath." The 10 things Amy Chua's two daughters are never allowed to do

Attend a sleepover.

Have a playdate.

Be in a school play.

Complain about not being in a school play.

Watch TV or play computer games.

Choose their own extracurricular activities.

Get any grade less than an A.

Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.

Play any instrument other than the piano or violin.

Not play the piano or violin.


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