As soon as I stepped into Amy Chua’s bathroom, I stopped worrying. The large, purple- and pink-hued room had lovely views over the snowy gardens of New Haven, and was clean and functional. Hair tongs and pots of gel, face creams, shampoo and other bits and pieces were scattered around. There was also laundry hanging over the bathtub and a pair of discarded running shoes on the bath mat.
It was, in short, not the bathroom of a fanatical control freak. Or the “taskmaster and bully” whose actions “bordered on child abuse” that I had read about in one review of her recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
I was in this bathroom changing out of my work suit into a tracksuit so that I could tag along with Amy Chua while she took her two dogs running, something she does most days. The eye-catching headline, “Why Chinese mothers are superior,” which topped her book extract in the Wall Street Journal in early January, triggered a frenzy of debate about parenting techniques, whether “western” parents are too soft and whether the children of “Chinese” parents such as Chua can ever be happy. Her book has become a bestseller. Chua, young-looking, svelte and energetic, has been transformed from a respected but relatively unknown Yale law professor into someone about whom most parents have an opinion, often not a kind one.
“I have never felt so misunderstood,” she says, after we laugh about the fact that we are wearing near-identical tracksuits for our run around New Haven, the Connecticut town famous for its Ivy League college. “I don’t know how many times I have had the question ‘Did you or did you not burn the stuffed animals?’”—referring to a scene where she cajoles one of her daughters into practising the piano by threatening to do just that. She gestures dramatically and puts on a face of mock shock. “It’s a joke!”
Her book about how “Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids” starts out with a list of what her daughters were never allowed to do. They were never allowed to: attend a sleepover, have a play date, 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 lower than an A, not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or the violin.
The book was an attempt at satire. Chua tried to paint a self-effacing portrait and use humour to poke fun at her shortcomings. “It is a strange memoir. You hear me making fun of myself 18 years ago, and then I change. It is a self-caricature. Yet every review is on the parenting methods described,” she laments. “I had higher ambitions, that people would see it more for its literary merits,” she says, again with a laugh. “That’s not come out at all.” The authors she admires, and was hoping to somehow emulate, include Nabokov and David Sedaris.
As we stretch in her spacious home—her two daughters, now 15 and 18, are at school—I am getting to know two other characters in her book. Her Samoyed dogs, Coco and Push, are incredibly cute, white and fluffy—the kind that pull sleds at the North Pole. They look like something out of a Disney movie. After some more stretches on a piano we go down into the basement and head out on to a long drive, and start a run around the quiet streets. The dogs wear a little harness that Amy holds on to when she runs. She is strong, but with the paths surrounded by icy snow, it almost looks as if the dogs are pulling her on a make-believe sled. “Running is my main exercise,” she says. “I’m a slave to my dogs and go out with them almost every day. They are poorly behaved if they don’t run. They really act up.” Does she run races? “I do play tennis, but I don’t really like competition.” She smiles, again. “I’m supposed to be so intense but I hate competition.”
As we enter our second hour of chat, it is clear that the strict rules she laid out in her book applied mostly while the girls were much younger, and are especially relevant between the ages of nine and 13. “If there is one lesson, it is that as they get older, you have to give them more choice,” she says. “By the time Sophia went to high school I was not that involved, she had the skills already.”
Instead of letting her daughters spend days “hanging out” with friends, she made them practise music. The girls—who are both accomplished musicians – also spent a lot of time with Amy and her husband, playing Monopoly or table tennis while their parents sipped wine. “I don’t know why I didn’t put any of that in the book,” she says, with some regret. “I just strung together the most extreme situations. It proves that I was not trying to write a parenting book!”
She differs from stereotypical Chinese parents in important ways. For starters, she says, she does not cook much, and just that morning bought a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for her daughter’s class snack. She and her Jewish husband, also a law professor at Yale, are “socially liberal”. It is in this regard that some of her Asian students who have been raised by strict parents have difficulties. “If they’re coming out of the closet, if they want to be a fashion designer instead of a lawyer, this can create problems,” she says.
As for her daughters, she is now much more hands-off. And if they wanted to be in a school play, she would not stand in their way. “Now, if my daughter said ‘I want to do theatre’, I would say OK, I would support her.”
After our run, the dogs lie down in the kitchen, ready for a rest. I run upstairs, retrieve my work clothes from the bathroom and throw them on. Once I’m out of the way, Amy runs in. Minutes later we say goodbye in her hallway, transformed from running buddies to professional working women, in jackets and heels.
The taxi driver who had dropped me off earlier returns to take me back to the station. “So, did you survive the dragon lady?” he says with a laugh. I had to disappoint him – the Tiger Mother was not much of a dragon after all.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.