The story has become legend. An angry mom calls her daughter a piece of “garbage” for being rude. What kind of mom says that to her child, and what kind of lifelong trauma will that daughter suffer? Ask Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, and the answers are simple: a good one, and not much.
Chua-Rubenfeld was a teenager when her family’s life became front-page news with the publication of her mother’s controversial bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy Chua’s childrearing choices, based on her own Chinese upbringing, were instantly polarizing and immediately attacked. She was called cruel, Draconian, even downright abusive.
But five years later, Chua-Rubenfeld, now 23 and the founder of Tiger Cub Tutoring, an academic tutoring and test prep company that offers service both in person and online, can’t even remember being called “garbage.” She doesn’t think she was abused — and she oughta know, since she was there, thankyouverymuch.
Chua-Rubenfeld spoke with SheKnows to clear the air about some of the misconceptions about her childhood… and that garbage line.
SheKnows: You’ve gotten a lot of attention over the years thanks to your mom’s book, but you seem to have taken it in stride! What do you wish readers of Battle Hymn knew about you?
Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld: I love this question! I wish readers of Battle Hymn knew how close I am to my family. Even when we get on each other’s nerves, I’ve never once doubted that my parents and sister have my back 100 percent. One of my friends actually said it best: We push and expect a lot from each other, but it’s because we’re all batting for the same team. (Sorry for the cliché baseball analogy — we spend way too much time watching Yankee games.)
What myths do you wish you could just put to bed?
The garbage story. There’s this scene in the book where my mom talks about calling me “garbage” when I was really disrespectful. It’s since been pointed to over and over again as an evidence that she must have destroyed my self-esteem. If we’re being totally honest, though, I have no memory of it whatsoever! I don’t doubt that it happened, it just didn’t have a huge impact on my psyche.
How did you handle all the attention you got from the book?
It definitely took some getting used to, especially because I get fairly protective when my family is involved. What I figured out early on was that getting defensive never helps. Yelling, “I’M NOT EMOTIONALLY UNSTABLE, LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” isn’t very convincing. Instead, I just try to live a life that’s fun and fulfilling. Ten years down the line, the best vindication of my mom will be if her kids turn out normal and happy.
What do you make of the attention that you still get this many years down the road?
Mostly I feel bad we have nothing salacious to report. This would be such a better news cycle if I had dropped a terribly autotuned single or something! In all seriousness, though, I’m super proud that my mom sparked such an ongoing global debate about family dynamics. And I’m also happy for the world to see we’ve emerged relatively unscathed: [My sister] Lulu is thriving at Harvard, I started a small business and am (so far) surviving law school, and my mom is now an empty-nesting crazy dog lady.
You now run a successful tutoring business. What tips have you taken from your own upbringing to help kids?
I try to pass on a motto my mom and track coach happened to share: When you feel like you’re giving 100 percent, it’s probably more like 85 percent. With the right inspiration, motivation and training, you can always do a little tiny bit better. What ultimately matters isn’t winning or getting a perfect score every time. It’s about pushing yourself past where you think your limits are and discovering newfound confidence along the way.
Why is tutoring something parents should be availing themselves of, and when?
I have a huge rant about this, and it’s in part what inspired my business: The fact is that all the rich kids are already doing it, starting at an absurdly early age. It gives them a head start over equally hardworking kids who are trying to master difficult concepts on their own. Tutoring also increases confidence. It can be intimidating to raise your hand and ask a question in class, which can leave kids feeling not just confused but insecure. Tiger Cub Tutoring levels the playing field by offering top-quality tutoring at a reasonable price. We also run scholarship competitons and offer pro bono tutoring to meritorious low-income applicants. In terms of how much tutoring is appropriate, I think every student is different: Some kids just need a quick confidence boost before the exam. Others do better building a bond with a tutor through weekly meetings.
What other tips do you have for parents, based on your own experience?
Make sure your child feels unconditionally loved. It’s okay to demand excellence as long as your kid knows you’ll love them just as much whether they win or lose the soccer game. Also, setting attainable goals is super important. Realistically, your daughter isn’t going to get signed by Dr. Dre or cure cancer in middle school. But she can start a successful blog, organize a citywide charity event, run a half marathon or any number of things. Encourage kids to turn their passions into projects.
We love that you guys do pro bono work. Mind telling SheKnows a little about how that works? Why do you do it, how does a child become eligible?
Thank you so much for bringing this up! It’s really the core of our mission. Interested students should contact us through our online form, and we’ll send along a short application. Previous grade performance isn’t a huge factor; we’re really looking for kids with heart, drive and big dreams. Once a student receives a TCT scholarship, they’ll have free access to all our services — academic tutoring, test prep and college application consulting.
What does “tiger mom” actually mean to you, and what would you say to parents who pick up your mom’s book as a how-to?
Being a tiger mom means believing your child is capable of absolutely anything she puts her mind to and empowering her to tackle any challenge in her path. Growing up, I saw friends’ parents say, “Good job, honey! You did the best you could. I guess you’re just not a math person.” These parents meant well, but what they were telling their kids — usually daughters, interestingly enough — was that certain doors were fundamentally closed to them. That may feel good in the short term, but in the long term it’s the opposite of empowering.
If we may be so forward, what’s your plan for your own kids — should you have any! What will you crib from your mom versus what will you throw out . Or do you even know yet?!
I’ll definitely keep the high expectations — look out for my future multilingual, concert violinist, Little League stars — only kind of kidding — but I’ll build in more time for relaxation as well. My mom is a human Energizer Bunny. Once she gets excited about something, she won’t stop or sleep until it’s done. I can be intense in short bursts, but I think people need breaks to stay sane. Also, people need little things to look forward to, like a movie or a great dinner at the end of the day.