In 2011, Yale Law School professor and author Amy Chua released her controversial third book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in which she documented her life raising her two daughters using what she describes as a strict, traditional “Chinese” upbringing.
In an excerpt from her book published the same year by the Wall Street Journal under the title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” some of the things her daughters were never allowed to do growing up were listed as:
- 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
Chua’s book was met with intense, widespread criticism, and she faced death threats, racial slurs and calls for her arrest for child abuse.
While many have called Chua’s parental methods into question, both of her daughters, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, 23, and Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld, 20, are accomplished, popular Harvard students.
“People forget that my mom’s book is one that she wrote about us,” Sophia told NextShark. “It’s not like someone planted a hidden camera in our house and they caught us doing this. I’m very close to my family. I love hanging out with my parents.”
The eldest Chua-Rubenfeld sister says that people often misunderstand the purpose of why her mother wrote the controversial book.
“I think it’s more like a ‘Don’t try this at home guide.’ I think it’s funny everyone assumes my mom is telling everyone else they should do this with their kid.”
One of the biggest questions Chua-Rubenfeld is commonly asked is whether she suffered any psychological trauma from her mother’s strict parenting approach. She says that she has gotten so fed up with the questioning that she often resorts to sarcastic answers.
“With these topics, at a certain point there is only one way to handle it. If someone’s like, ‘Are you traumatized? Are you so messed up that you hate your life?”, you can’t scream in their face, ‘I’m fine. I’m really happy. I’m awesome!’ I’ve given up trying to give people logical arguments about why I’m OK.”
While Chua-Rubenfeld assured NextShark that she’s not scarred for life, she did reveal that her mother recently apologized to her, but not for what one might expect.
“She was like, ‘I wanted to apologize for never paying attention to you during high school because I was always preoccupied with your sister. I assumed you’d meet these super high standards I set for you and I didn’t know what you were doing. I’m sorry.’
“I thought that was really sweet of her to acknowledged that she set a really high bar for me and assumed that I would rise for the challenge. It meant a lot.”
Chua-Rubenfeld says Lulu, her younger sister, while also as high achieving as she is, is feistier.
“She’s hilarious and my favorite person in the world. She’s just a feisty kid. I think part of it is being a second child with an older sister who was a goody two-shoes and doing everything right. It’s a common pattern, oldest child and then younger rebel.
‘She definitely put up more of a fight and would talk back to my parents, resist a little bit, and I was very non confrontational. My mom would yell at me and I would say, ‘OK, sure whatever,’ and go do my thing.”
Chua-Rubenfeld says that it was never really her mother that she was afraid of disappointing. She recalled the day she came home to tell her parents that she received a near-perfect SAT score, having only missed one question.
“I was like, ‘Look what I got!’, and my mom said, ‘Amazing, you’re going to get into college.’
“And my dad walks in and looked at me and said, ‘I know you could have gotten a perfect score’ and turns around and walks out. I was like, ‘Wow, my dad has that much respect for me that he thinks I can do that.”
Chua-Rubenfeld feels that the key to raising a high-achieving child is to instill the belief that they’re always capable of at least a little more.
“I do think that most people, when not being pushed, live at 85 percent a lot of the time, no matter what your limit actually is. It’s about setting certain metrics. There’s always a little more you can do — raise the bar a little higher.
On the topic of extracurricular activities, Chua-Rubenfeld says that it’s important to pick activities a child actually likes doing.
“Even my mom, I think 25 years in, when young parents asked her, ‘Should I sign my kid up for violin lessons?,’ my mom said, ‘God no, do anything else.’
“I think the choice of activity has to be something the kid actually wants to do. It’s really hard to jam something down a kid’s throat. My sister and I both really like the instruments we play. I don’t think it works if the kid hates what they’re doing.”
She credits her parents with instilling a narrative in her while growing up for why she and her sister are so motivated.
“There’s some narratives that I’m not going to be able to recreate. Part of what my mom was able to instill in us was that my grandparents came here with nothing. They were impoverished students — they came in a boat and couldn’t afford heat for the first year while they lived in the US.
“That was huge for me and my sister, and I think if we didn’t have that narrative kept in our mind, I think we would have been super spoiled. It would be hard to get motivated.
Chua-Rubenfeld has graduated from Harvard and is now attending Yale Law School, where her mother is a professor. She also runs a small tutoring business called “Tiger Cub Tutoring” — in honor of the “Tiger Mom” she grew up with. She was inspired to create the center after receiving message from people around the world seeking college admissions advice after her mother’s book came out.
“We charge about $60 an hour usually, which is a pretty accessible price. It’s all Skype-based so we have an international client network which is cool. You don’t have to live in New England or Cambridge to be tutored by a Harvard or Yale student. We have kids in Alabama or Missouri and Minnesota and it’s cool.”
She says the founding of her company was also spurred on by a personal frustration she had with the tutoring industry. The Harvard grad explained that wealthy children growing up in Connecticut are able to afford $400 per hour tutors for every subject as well as a SAT consultant, yet they deny having a massive academic head start. She said:
I think that really high-quality academic enrichment should be available to everyone and not these super elite group who knows how to get tutors through their New York network and then not tell anyone about it.
Tiger Cub Tutoring also has a pro-bono service that offers tutoring to low-income kids.
“The way the program works for the pro bono is, we take a little of the paid portions that we sell and it goes into a scholarship fund. We invite any low-income, high-achieving student to apply to us. The application, we don’t really ask about scores and grades. I’m less concerned about that. What I’m really looking for is kids who have a heart and drive to succeed.”
Chua-Rubenfeld stresses that her company is merely a side project as she says that she’s the “least entrepreneurial person” in her family. She plans to join the Army after graduation and has aspirations to be an Army lawyer.