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Amy Chua (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Amy Chua (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

How to raise a No. 1 child Add to ...

Amy Chua is probably the most reviled mother in America. She has raised two phenomenally accomplished daughters. But the way she did it - the strict Chinese Tiger Mother way - has led to shouting matches on the subway. Her inbox is full of mail accusing her of child abuse.

Ms. Chua, a Yale law professor, shares her parenting techniques in a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The excerpt published last week in The Wall Street Journal (Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior) has gone viral. In it, she explains why she's not a fan of the self-esteem-style school of parenting, which holds that learning should be fun, that rote repetition destroys the soul, and that children should be encouraged to discover their own individuality and interests. She has one word for this philosophy: rubbish.

"Here are some things my daughters were never allowed to do," she writes. "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 less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin." Instead of false praise, she believes in high standards and criticism. She once rejected a hastily scrawled birthday card that one of her daughters had made for her. "This is garbage," she said. "You can do better."

Cruel? Maybe. But her older daughter, Sophia, has already played at Carnegie Hall. Your children probably haven't.

Ms. Chua, the daughter of highly educated immigrants, chose to raise her kids the way she was raised. She has been blasted by other Chinese mothers for perpetuating a stereotype of harsh parenting that they say is wildly exaggerated. In Canada, she's also being blamed for fanning the flames of the "Too Asian" debate, which started when Maclean's magazine ran an article suggesting that the presence of so many Asian kids on university campuses is driving away white kids, who think the Asians study too much, are too robotic, and get better grades than they do.

In fact, Ms. Chua goes a long way toward explaining just why Asian kids are doing so well. At the same time, many Asian offspring have bitter memories of the strict parenting they endured, and they know how mentally unhealthy it can sometimes be. Ms. Chua herself says she never meant to imply that all Tiger Mothers are Chinese, or vice-versa. Tiger Mothers can belong to any ethnic group that sets extremely high expectations for its children, and values discipline and hard work above fun.

There are Tiger Fathers, too. The father of the extraordinary young pianist Lang Lang decided when his son was only 2 that he would be an international star. The father spent half his yearly salary for a piano, and started his son on lessons when he was 3. When the boy was 8, he took him to Beijing to study. They lived in a slum with no heat. "You must play perfect," his father would say. "You must not make a mistake. Not one mistake."

"No. 1 was a phrase my father - and for that matter, my mother - repeated time and time again," Lang Lang recalls. "In the culture of my childhood, being best was everything. It was the goal that drove us, the motivation that gave life meaning."

The tennis champion Andre Agassi also had a tyrant for a father. Mike Agassi, a first-generation immigrant from Iran, taped Ping-Pong paddles to his son's hands when he was just a toddler. At 6, Andre was practising four or five hours a day. His dad was obsessive, a perfectionist. After Andre won his first Wimbledon title, the first thing his father said was, "You had no business losing that fourth set."

No. 1 children aren't always happy. Andre Agassi confesses that, despite his fame and fortune, he's always hated tennis "with a dark and secret passion." But Lang Lang obviously loves his dad, as well as the piano. Amy Chua's daughters, Sophia (18) and Lulu (15) insist they're happy and well-adjusted - especially since Amy gave in and allowed Lulu to drop the piano and take up tennis instead.

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it," says their mother. "To get good at anything, you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."

Raising a No. 1 child takes a huge amount of time, sacrifice and dedication - which is why most of us will never do it. As Ms. Chua says, any parent can get a kid to practise for an hour a day. It's the second and third hours that are tough.

What Ms. Chua doesn't say is that manic parenting is not enough. Nature can make diamonds from lumps of coal, but parents can't. And if nature's handed you a lump of coal, all your polishing won't turn it into a diamond.

Without natural talent, neither Lang Lang nor Andre Agassi would have got very far. On top of that, success takes a huge amount of inner drive and motivation. Good genetics don't hurt, either. Lang Lang's family tree includes many artists and musicians. Andre Agassi's father was an Olympic boxer. Amy Chua is married to Jed Rubenfeld, a fellow law professor at Yale who, thankfully, is far more easygoing than she is. It takes both parenting and giftedness to produce a super-kid. A lot of love doesn't hurt, either.

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