Tiger Mom Strives to Shock a Second Time, Fails

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Photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

A reader of Amy Chua’s previous book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – that parenting guide-slash-high-pitched confessional-slash-assertion of racial superiority — might wonder, as I did, about the following: Where was Chua’s husband, the father of their two daughters, while she was haranguing the children, threatening to give away their dollhouse and burn their stuffed animals, calling them insulting names (like “garbage”) and rejecting their imperfect birthday cards? Daddy Chua appears infrequently in the book, usually to offer his Tiger Wife a disparaging word: “Jed was tight lipped.” “Jed disapproved.” “Jed raised his eyebrows.”

Mostly, though, he is absent from the narrative. I imagined him in a quiet upstairs study somewhere, perhaps nursing a large glass of Scotch – detached, beleaguered, uneasy, a little estranged from all the cray-cray down below.

Now Jed Rubenfeld steps out of the shadows and boldly forward as the co-author, with his wife, of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (coming in February from Penguin). The book, like Tiger Mother, is designed to provoke. It’s an examination of why certain minority groups succeed in the U.S., and it singles out not just Jews and Asians (Rubenfeld happens to be Jewish, and Chua, Chinese-American), but also Nigerians, some Cubans, Mormons, West Indians, and Lebanese. Its implicit message (or at least the message of the marketing materials and the correlated recent blogosphere explosion) is: Here’s another reason that we, the wildly accomplished Chua-Rubenfelds, are better than you. It’s as if the publishers are hoping, based on the wild success of the last Chua production, that American readers will throw themselves en masse upon a new how-to guide, masquerading as a comic screed, wrapped in a weird and retrograde kind of ethnic essentialism.

But as a book, as an actual collection of writing and data and argumentation, The Triple Threat contains the exact opposite lesson: There is no special ethnic ingredient in the raising of successful children. All the groups the authors profile – which they carefully call cultural groups, instead of races or ethnicities – have different heritages and histories and traditions, which is to say, very little in common at all. It turns out that certain minority groups produce successful children the same way that parents of every other ethnic group in the world succeed: by being very ambitious for them.

Once you make the leap from a single batty Chinese-American mother to all parents of all successful immigrant (and minority religious) children in the whole entire country, the theory that certain groups are in closer touch with the good-parenting gods than the rest of us unravels completely. In their new book, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is, in a nutshell, this: Certain minority groups succeed because they are unsure of their place of the world, because they work harder than everyone else, and because they have a sense of their own specialness. If all Americans could learn these lessons (as long as these lessons aren’t too strictly applied), the American workforce would be a much more productive place. QE fucking D.

More interesting is that, from the material that makes up the book itself, Chua and Rubenfeld seem to acknowledge how dull a lesson they are teaching us. Just as Rubenfeld was the (mostly invisible) straight man in Tiger Mother, so is he here. My guess is that it’s his influence, perhaps, that turns The Triple Package into a much blander, more conventional, and less sensational read, with more than a hundred pages of end notes; a detached, third-person, school-report style; a brief acknowledgements section that thanks an army of researchers without a warm or personal word to any one of them. One feels, perusing this new book, that the lawyers have taken over and, in lawyerly fashion, have crafted a dispassionate argument for effect, leaving themselves, their feelings, and their convictions entirely out of it.

Chua’s Tiger Mother was the opposite. It was revolting, yes, and shrill and tone deaf and infuriatingly superior, but it was also funny in places. And personal in an almost cringe-making way. And very occasionally self deprecating. It was popular because it raised the temperature on every parent’s anxiety: Maybe we’re not doing this right. And also expressed every parent's contradictory vanity: I know how to do this better than anyone else.  Triple Package has none of this transparency, and none of this energy. Less psychically compelling, it is also perhaps more honest, both about how people achieve generally and about how the Chua-Rubenfeld girls were actually raised. The real lesson of that New Haven household, and of every other household in this country, is this: It takes all kinds.

If Chua is the stereotypical Asian achiever, Rubenfeld is the stereotypical Jewish one. Like Chua, he is a professor at Yale Law School. Like his wife, he has a gold-plated résumé. He went to Princeton undergrad and Harvard Law, with a brief detour at the Juilliard acting program. He has held some of a lawyer’s most sought-after jobs, working at Wachtell Lipton and as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. But he was raised, Upper-West-Side-Jewish style, by a father who was a shrink and a mother who was an art critic and collector who “believed,” writes Chua dismissively in Tiger Mother, “that childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery and experience.” 

In his professional life, Rubenfeld is a privacy expert, and in an interview after the publication of his 2006 thriller, The Interpretation of Murder, he told a French interviewer about his discomfort with the American culture of oversharing. “People are often asking me about my life,” he says. “Well, I just don’t think people should be talking about this stuff as much as they do now. You have these talk shows, and Oprah Winfrey, and everyone comes on and confesses their secret.” 

Triple Package represents the triumph of caution. One can almost hear the arguments in the Chua-Rubenfeld household after the publication of Tiger Mother. Rubenfeld would have found Chua’s frenetic airing of their family life excruciating; he would have been mortified to hear the criticisms of his wife as hysterical, silly, shallow, robotic. She might have defended herself by pointing to all the success the book had garnered their family. (And the family photos that accompany the new book underscore that point; everyone chez Chua-Rubenfeld — including the dogs — looks outlandishly prosperous and well-groomed, like some mash-up between Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Modern Dog magazines.) The solution, as in any marriage, would be hashed out in compromise. What they settled on, it seems, is an argument in defense of the one virtue that Chua and Rosenfeld indisputably share: striving.