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The Miseducation of the Tiger Mom

An odd new book by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld gives ambition a bad name

Peter Kramer/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Tiger Mother is back, this time with her consort in tow. Not content to lecture us about the superiority of Chinese parenting, as she did in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua has returned, with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, to pitch the argument on a collective scale. We are now to learn that it isn’t only family success that depends upon adhering to her creed of joyless drudgery and manic self-inflation, it is also the success of ethnic and religious groups, as well as of the nation as a whole. The argument is “controversial,” of course: Chua knows how to float a bestseller by now. It is also sloppy, shallow, and underinformed, badly misperceiving both America’s historic strength and its current debility.

That argument, which is neither complex nor sophisticated, is easily retold. Successful groups in America—Chua and Rubenfeld instance Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mormons, Lebanese, Iranians, Nigerians, and Cubans (the last two chosen for their membership in larger, largely disadvantaged groups)—share three characteristics. The first is a sense of superiority. Jews believe themselves to be the chosen people, as do Mormons. Iranians and Cubans are apparently notorious, among the nations that surround them in their home countries, for their arrogance and self-importance. And so forth. The second is a sense of insecurity—
of anxiety, uncertainty, persecution—
resulting either from a group’s prior history or from its experiences subsequent to immigration. The third is impulse control: Mormon abstemiousness, Confucian self-subordination, the strictures of rabbinic law. Put them all together and you have the kind of single-minded drive—the self-belief, the discontent, the grit—that 
makes for achievement.

Conspicuously absent from their account, as the authors make a point of noting, is the standard explanation of “model minority” success: a historical commitment to education. When minorities prosper, Chua and Rubenfeld claim, it is not because they believe in education per se; it’s because they believe in success, and they realize that education, in the modern world, is the path to success. As for groups that fail to get ahead—and here, of course, the authors venture onto very tricky ground—the problem isn’t inherent inferiority. The problem, for African Americans or Central Appalachians, the two examples they discuss at any length, is that years of bigotry and disadvantage “grind the Triple 
Package out of” them. Insecurity, yes—but 
no impulse control anymore, no sense 
of ethnic destiny.

By the same token, ascendant groups cannot rest on their achievements. In fact, the authors claim, model minorities typically start to go soft by the third generation. Prosperity weakens their resolve. The ideals of equality erode their self-
conceit. Their children fall prey to the gospel of self-fulfillment and the lure of instant gratification. In short, America gets to them. What’s even worse, Chua and Rubenfeld conclude, America has gotten to itself. We used to be a “Triple Package culture,” scrappy underdogs on the world stage, but now the only thing that’s left is our sense of superiority, increasingly factitious. Fat and lazy, we need to pull up our collective socks.

Its breathless business-lit prose notwithstanding, The Triple Package is an altogether calmer book than Tiger Mother. There is none of the latter’s demented narcissism. The self-servingness here is only implicit. But that the later volume is the earlier writ large is unmistakable. The best gloss on Tiger Mother is The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller’s classic study of the miseries inflicted by the kind of status-
oriented parenting that Chua practices. The “gifted” or accomplished child, Miller says, is one who learns to satisfy her parents’ need for gratification through achievement. But the demand is insatiable, because its satisfaction is always provisional. The child is “never good enough,” so she tries to be perfect. And thus she swings between the poles of grandiosity and depression: the delusion of supremacy and the self-disgust that ensues upon its inevitable collapse. 
Superiority, inferiority. As for self-control—or rather, self-erasure—the child’s desires are neither validated nor acknowledged, so she simply learns to ignore them.

This is the exact dynamic that we find in Tiger Mother. The book is like a novelized version of The Drama of the Gifted Child, only narrated from the parent’s perspective. (Imagine Moby-Dick as told by Ahab.) It’s no surprise that 
when you squint a little at the Triple 
Package—whose elements can be glossed 
as self-glorification, self-loathing, and self-effacement (all of them neatly captured in the Asian parents’ stereotypical question, which Chua and Rubenfeld seem so fond of, “Why only a 99?”)—you see the same pathologies at work. 
Representative products of the contemporary zeitgeist, Tiger Mother and The Triple Package are instruction manuals in how to be a rich, arrogant, miserable asshole.

Still, if what the authors say is true 
about the rise and fall of cultural groups, it’s true no matter why they say it. In fact, their argument is full of holes. First on their list of collective successes are the Mormons—a group, they tell us, that is “hitting it out of the park.” But all they really have to offer in support of this assertion is a list of names: a quartet of celebrities, half a dozen politicians, a couple dozen businesspeople (the CEO of Skullcandy!). Given that Mormons represent about one American in sixty, that isn’t actually a lot. If anything, by the authors’ own showing, the group appears to be underrepresented among the elite. Sixteen percent of Mormon households have incomes of more than $100,000, they tell us, as against 18 percent of the general population. Since 1990, all of fourteen Mormons have been senior executives (not just CEOs) at Fortune 500 corporations, a number that is well under 1 percent of the total and that is large only compared with what it was before 1970, which was zero. What Chua and Rubenfeld prove is not that Mormons are hitting it out of the park, but only that they’re finally stepping up to the plate.

Other evidence is comparably thin. The claim for a superiority complex among Lebanese is sourced to a single memoir. When it comes to the issue of impulse control, the authors fail even to mention Lebanese or Iranians or Cubans. The Mormon emergence is traced to doctrinal and sociological changes that took place in the early twentieth century, leaving unexplained a lag of many decades. As for the Jews, one doesn’t know where to begin. Chua and Rubenfeld tell us, remarkably, that the domineering Jewish mother is a figure of the second half of the twentieth century, even though the group arose to prominence—on the wings of parental expectation, they say—in the first half. Minority performance starts to decline in the third generation, the authors claim, but the bulk of Jewish immigration 
ended a century ago. Has the group 
already fallen (a claim that’s based on a single narrow study), or is it only “long overdue for a fall” (in other words, refutes a major point)? The authors tell us both.

The misstatements and absurdities accumulate. Eastern European Jews did not bring orthodoxy with them, by and large; in most cases they happily left it behind. Traditional Sabbath observance does not include hours of Torah study. Nietzsche’s ressentiment is not the same as resentment: it’s a palliative, not a spur. The Wire wasn’t popular, only acclaimed. The book’s acknowledgments enumerate some ninety research assistants, but not a single one, apparently, was able to inform the authors that Stoicism dates to 300 BCE, not 500 BCE—a mistake that no one even glancingly familiar with classical culture would make.

There are deeper problems, too. Chua and Rubenfeld do not explore alternative explanations, nor do they evaluate potential counterexamples. They mention Greek-Americans as yet another model group, but one wonders how they would have fit them into the paradigm. They 
ignore the Irish, a proud people with a long history of oppression and, in Irish Catholicism, abundant resources of impulse control. As for the crucial issue of group decline—the basis of the authors’ moral panic, along with the moral tyranny that they prescribe to allay it—their major instance is the wasps. But the wasps were never a minority, model or otherwise. They were the existing elite as it consolidated itself as a nationally 
integrated caste in the late nineteenth century. Their position wasn’t founded on a single Triple Package trait, and while complacency may have played a role in their decline, the larger roles were played by economic changes that no longer favored their historic strengths as well as by the arrival of Jews and others who out-competed them.

What of unsuccessful groups, the ones who haven’t made it in America? The authors’ rhetorical strategy here is what we might refer to as acknowledge-but-ignore:

Geography, history, tectonic shifts in the economy, and a version of the “resource curse” (with its associated corruption, exploitation of cheap labor, and highly skewed distribution of resource-extraction wealth) were the chief causes of Appalachian poverty.

Were, and with many more besides, still are. And again: 

Today, a host of factors contribute to continuing black poverty, including schools that fail to teach, banks that refuse to lend, employers who won’t hire or promote, and the fact that a third of young black men in this country are in jail or on parole.

Indeed, a host of factors.

But Chua and Rubenfeld choose to focus on their own very limited—and highly debatable—cluster. For them, success or failure ultimately comes down to ethnic character. Yet they inadvertently offer a kind of controlled experiment that argues 
the opposite. Cubans as a whole are not, it turns out, unusually successful: 
only the so-called Exile generation is. The New Cubans, the ones who have arrived since 1990, are no more 
prosperous than other Hispanics. So what’s the difference between the two? The latter are darker, and in Cuba they were 
poorer. The authors pooh-pooh the standard explanation of Exile success, that the group arrived with a great deal of “cultural capital.” But they fail to understand the term, which seeks to distinguish, precisely, between financial and less tangible advantages. Yes, the Exiles were often penniless when they got here, but they were often highly educated, knew some English, and had vacationed in the United States, as well. They were also mostly white. That isn’t 
character. It’s privilege.

The truth is that it isn’t hard to imagine what Chua and Rubenfeld would have said about the Greeks. No doubt that group is also very proud of its heritage. No doubt it also experienced discrimination—or at least, a sense of exclusion—upon its arrival. Every group is and every group does. The Triple Package, as an explanation of difference, really comes down to the last of its traits. But we didn’t need a pair of law professors to inform us that success in a capitalist society depends upon self-discipline. Of course you need to work hard. The question, as Chua and Rubenfeld acknowledge, is whether working hard is going to get you anywhere. The question, in other 
words, is opportunity.


The authors tell us that in 2012, more than 300 students were accepted to New York City’s selective public high schools, admission to which is based solely on test scores, from three lower-income, predominantly Chinese zip codes. But they also tell us that most of the rest of the kids who got in (out of a total of more than 5,000, as they neglect to mention) were supplied by middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Within that context—the context of a society where children have as much opportunity, by and large, as their parents can purchase—the phenomenon that the authors point to is a blip.

And here we come to the book’s most fatal bit of nonsense, its facile understanding of America’s success itself. The historical narrative goes like this: we used to be a Triple Package nation, but then, in the second half of the twentieth century, we “declared war on both insecurity and impulse control.” Even Chua and Rubenfeld, however, seem to find that excessively glib. “Right from the beginning,” they add, “there has always been another side of America: its vibrancy, its dynamism, its individualism, its rebelliousness.” Our divided character, they tell us, was embodied in our founding texts. “The Declaration of Independence was the consummate expression of America’s live-in-the-present 
rebelliousness.” Yes, the Declaration was all about living in the moment, kind of like a Pepsi commercial. As for the Constitution, it was “the Triple Package writ large. At its core was impulse control.” Never mind the Bill of Rights, with all that loose 
talk about freedom.

This is argument by sound bite, and it isn’t over. Somehow, for two hundred years (the chronology, as always, is highly approximate), we managed to have it both ways: “The formula was simple. Work hard during the week, and you can play hard on the weekend; work hard for years, and you can have the house and cars and family you dreamt of.” The conflations here are mind-blowing, but the anachronisms are even worse. Americans in the nineteenth century did not “play hard on the weekend.” There was no weekend; there was only the Sabbath, and it wasn’t for playing. The “happiness” of which the Declaration speaks was not the equivalent of playing hard or living in the present, two thoroughly contemporary ideas. For most Americans, it meant exactly the material accumulation that Chua and Rubenfeld equate with success. It wasn’t antithetical to working hard; it was the point of doing so. The authors’ conceptual division—between discipline and energy, between the Constitution and the Declaration, between, let us say, the Protestant ethic and the spirit of 
capitalism—is imaginary.

In fact, the two-day weekend became standard only at the end of the 1930s, as economists and policymakers were beginning to understand—this was Keynes’s revolution—that a capitalist economy depends as much on consumption as on production. The Great Depression, like our own financial slough, was a crisis of demand. Part of what held back recovery was precisely the Puritan habit of thrift—or in Chua and Rubenfeld’s terms, impulse control. Americans had to learn to be consumers. The institution of the weekend wasn’t just so that we could rest more; it was also so that we 
could spend more.

This is not an incidental point. It hardly need be said that Chua and Rubenfeld here, like Chua in her previous book, are riding the rise-of-China wave. Everywhere implicit in The Triple Package, as it was everywhere explicit in Tiger Mother, is the notion that they do things better—that in moral terms, they are better—over in the emerging power. Ironically, the 
emerging power has already figured out that its continued growth depends on stimulating domestic demand by eroding its people’s traditional commitment to 
savings—that is, by getting them to live more 
in the present.

And what goes for consumption goes equally for production. The 1960s, of course, stand for everything the authors think is wrong about America today: the self-involvement, the instant gratification, all that nonsense about doing what you love and following your dreams. But as Stewart Brand and others have been pointing out, the culture of Silicon Valley—which is to say, the culture of the whole new tech-centered start-up economy, our most dynamic sector and the envy of the world—is rooted, historically and philosophically, in that exact 1960s ethos of individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and counterculturalism. “Creativity,” “innovation,” “transformation,” “disruption”: these are the buzzwords now, and with good reason. They are precisely the qualities that China is trying to emulate, as it seeks to move up the value chain. The Confucian obeisance to parental authority that Chua is so enamored of is not what’s making China strong today; it’s what is holding it back. And that “other side of America,” our vibrancy and rebelliousness, is not something that we’ve expressed in our spare time, after beavering away at work. It has been central to our work, and to why it has worked.

So why is America now in decline, or at least in stagnation? The authors blame the culture and the people who transmit it. Wouldn’t you know, it all comes down to those permissive American parents, just like in Tiger Mother. But this is risible on several counts. The leading example, in the earlier book, of the American parenting style—someone who believes in wishy-washy concepts such as choice, independence, creativity, and the importance of questioning authority—is the author’s own mother-in-law. Never mind the family dynamics there. Chua somehow overlooks the fact that Mama Rubenfeld managed to produce a son whom the great Amy Chua found worthy of marriage and who turned out to be successful even on his wife’s own terms: accepted at Princeton, Juilliard, and Harvard Law, a professor at Yale and a best-selling author besides. Maybe there is something to be said for lifting up the maternal boot from time to time after all.

Not that it matters, for the larger argument. That selfish American parent—the one who cares more about her yoga and her glass of wine than about the success of her children—is Chua’s invention. Chua lives in the Northeast and travels in the Ivy League; she needed only to have looked around to see that her “Asian” parenting is merely an extreme example of contemporary upper-middle-class practice. Yes, there is a lot of talk today of self-esteem, but to take that as proof that the affluent classes in particular have lost their resolve and are ripe for a fall, as Chua and Rubenfeld do, is to succumb to the kind of dinner-party bromides that are largely all they have to offer as evidence. Any number of incomparably better-informed sources—Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege, Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School, the documentary Race to Nowhere, to name just three—will tell you what a lot of people already understand: that the peril, in wealthy suburbs and urban enclaves, is not that children aren’t feeling enough pressure to succeed, but that they’re feeling far too much.

Chua and Rubenfeld are no less blinkered when it comes to the culture at large. Americans believe, they tell us, that “learning should be fun.” Really? Have they never heard of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, teaching to the test, the homework epidemic, and the national obsession with metrics and scores? Looking at recent trends, one would have to conclude that the very last idea that is informing American education today is that “learning should be fun.” The same goes for the messages we trade about work. “A widely read recent piece on the secret to innovation,” the authors announce, urges us to have our children do less, not more. No kidding, a widely read recent piece? Against which we must weigh the national obsession with individual and collective productivity, as well as the relentless rhetoric of dedication and effort, typically colored with athletic images and metaphors, that pervades every corner of the culture: “no pain, no gain”; “is it in you?”; the glorification of “sacrifice”; of “competitors” and “winners” in every walk of life; and on and on.

Americans have become complacent, Chua and Rubenfeld tell us. We’ve gotten rich, and we’ve been told that we should love ourselves exactly as we are. Again, you have to wonder which Americans they’re talking about. Love ourselves exactly as we are? This is a country that has fashioned entire industries based on weight loss, exercise, “beauty”—around self-help and self-improvement of every kind. A major premise of contemporary advertising is that what you are (especially if you’re a woman) pretty much stinks. The language of self-acceptance, as saccharine as it sometimes is, has arisen to try to combat precisely that idea. But Chua and Rubenfeld see only what they want to see—what their punitive moralism, driven so transparently by an aggressive self-regard, compels them to see.

Their biggest misperceptions, though, are economic. The very period they see as marked by the complacency of wealth—roughly, the last forty years—has been, for most Americans, an era of economic frustration. We’re not complacent; most of us are increasingly desperate, and for very good reasons. The authors tell us that household incomes have risen almost across the board, but they don’t tell us that that is largely because more women have entered the workforce. Median wages have barely budged since 1970; earnings for working-age men have actually fallen by 19 percent. The growth in household debt, including mortgage debt, has resulted not from improvidence, as the authors like to think, but precisely from the need to make up the difference. We stopped working hard? From 1970 to 2002, hours worked per capita increased by 20 percent, first among developed nations. We stopped striving? From 1971 to 2012, the rate of college completion grew from 12 percent to 31 percent. But these are the kinds of facts that Chua and Rubenfeld, deep thinkers that they are, cannot 
be bothered with.

The real problem, as they alone 
appear unable to perceive, is the twinned facts of growing inequality and stagnating social mobility. This is their response to the finding that 42 percent of Americans who start life in the lowest quintile stay there: “If 42 percent stay in the lowest income bracket, 58 percent don’t. In other words, a majority of Americans born to the poorest families” escape from poverty. Right. Only two-fifths of the poor are condemned to remain poor. Never mind the fact that only 6 percent reach the highest quintile, or that our numbers are 
dismal compared both with what they were and with what they are in other countries. The authors’ real purpose in citing those statistics is to tell us that the figures exclude the foreign-born. Among immigrants, the same study says, “the American dream is alive and well.” If you’re stuck at the bottom, in other words, it’s your own damn fault. Just do like the Chinese and Indians: hitch up your pants and get 
on with it.

But a funny thing happens when you actually look at the report to which the authors are referring (Getting Ahead or Losing Ground, from the Brookings Institution). You discover that most of what they’re saying is rubbish. Social mobility among immigrants is also much lower than it used to be. Social mobility among immigrants is highly correlated with educational attainment (cultural capital again), and educational attainment among immigrants from Asia is much higher than it is among those from other places (indeed, than it is among the native-born). Fifty percent of Asian immigrants arrive with college degrees and 20 percent with advanced degrees, as against 11 percent and 3 percent of those from Latin America. (For the population as a whole, it’s 31 percent and 12 percent.) Those strivers in the Brooklyn Chinatowns are the exceptions, even in their own communities. Some 15 percent of students in the Ivy League may be Asian at this point, but only 3 percent of students at selective colleges come from the bottom of the income distribution. Asians succeed for the same reasons as the upper middle class as a whole.

So what about the notion that “the American dream is alive and well”? Well, that’s just the thing. When the Brookings study said that, it wasn’t talking about intergenerational mobility at all. It was simply referring to the fact that when immigrants arrive in the United States, be they doctors from Asia or farmworkers from Mexico, they experience an immediate jump in income. This is hardly a surprise; we are a much more affluent society, at every level, than those from which most immigrants are coming. But the fact says nothing about what happens to immigrant families after they get here. In other words, it is irrelevant to Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument. (These 
people are supposed to be scholars, right?) Indeed, it demolishes it. The 
American dream, in the sense that they and everybody mean it—the opportunity to get ahead by working hard—is no longer alive, exceptions notwithstanding, in any meaningful sense.

And that, not any loss of moral muscle tone, is why we are teetering now. Chua and Rubenfeld tell us that “Triple Package cultures do not focus on happiness,” but it is precisely the possibility of “happiness” that has drawn so many people to America. Whatever else the authors’ groups may share, the one thing they all undisputedly have in common is that they are here, not where they used to be. Immigrants have always helped pull America’s economic train, but they have never worked alone. The chance to improve one’s lot in life has been our secret weapon, the way we mobilize the broadest range of energy and talent. Reviving that possibility—not amping up the reign of terror against our children—will allow us all to rise together once again.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. His new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press) will be published this summer.