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Amy Chua: Mommy War

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This much is true: Amy Chua forced her daughters, now 15 and 18, to practice their instruments sometimes up to six hours a day-and made her then 3-year-old practice a complicated piano piece without dinner, water or bathroom breaks until it was mastered. She rejected both girls’ homemade birthday cards the year she thought they didn’t represent their best work. And the day her older daughter Sophia was disrespectful to her, she exploded and called her “garbage.” “Yes, I did those things,” admits Chua, a Yale Law School professor, whose new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about her tough-love “Chinese” parenting, was excerpted on The Wall Street Journal‘s website on Jan. 8. “But I backed off in the end. The excerpt doesn’t convey that there was a transformation in me.”

Indeed it doesn’t, and it has created a firestorm of controversy. On blogs, in PTA meetings and in living rooms across the country, parents are debating whether Chua’s admitted demands on her kids-never get less than an A, no sleepovers or video games, no sports or school plays-are justified by her results (Sophia and Lulu are both high-achieving and seemingly happy, though the book depicts many mother-daughter scream-fests) or tantamount to child abuse. “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are now in therapy,” blogged New York journalist Betty Ming Liu, in a typical critique. The attention has catapulted Tiger Mother onto bestseller lists-but Chua, 48, who shares a New Haven home with her husband, law professor and novelist Jed Rubenfeld, 51 (his latest book, The Death Instinct, is out Jan. 20), and their daughters, says she’s received hundreds of vitriolic e-mails and even some death threats.

So what did she intend when she set out to write the book? “I wanted to show the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of parenting,” she insists. “I wasn’t saying, ‘This is how it should be done.’ ”

Chua’s take-no-prisoners style (which Rubenfeld says he is “100 percent behind”) worked smoothly with Sophia from the start. Focused and determined, she embraced the long hours of practice (though the family piano still bears teeth marks from where she gnawed on it in frustration) and ended up playing Carnegie Hall when she was 14. The more tempestuous Lulu, however, balked at the violin lessons she was forced into at 6 and at most of her mother’s other wishes. Finally, after a violent public argument in which the then 13-year-old threw and shattered a glass, Chua realized she needed to cede some control: She let Lulu quit violin to follow her passion, tennis. “I wish I had paid more attention to the different personalities of my daughters,” she says. “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so harsh. I have a lot of regrets.”

Not that she wishes she’d been a “Western” style mom. “The immigrant approach is about making kids the best they can be-which is usually better than they think,” says Chua. “And achieving excellence gives you self-esteem.” The oldest of four daughters born to immigrant Chinese parents, Chua grew up in Indiana and on the West Coast, where her father is an electrical engineering and computer sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Chua defied her own parents by going to Harvard against their initial wishes, and marrying her “non-Chinese Jewish husband,” she says with a laugh. “I was a little rebellious too.”

Sophia, who praised her mom’s strictness in a recent article in the New York Post, is now applying to “three East Coast colleges” (which her mother prefers not to name). How will she raise her own kids? “I’ll let them do whatever they want,” she jokingly told Britain’s The Guardian, “after they become world-famous opera singers and infielders for the New York Yankees.”

As for Lulu, she’s a freshman in high school who just celebrated her birthday with-surprise!-a mom-sanctioned sleepover party for seven. “How’s that for a change?” says Chua, smiling. “There are many different ways of raising great kids.”