Why Is The Tiger Mom’s Definition of Success So Controversial?

By Lane Filler (Opinion)

Why do some groups of people in the United States seem to do so much better than others? And why did I add “seem” to the previous sentence when there’s nothing “seem” about it?

Some groups in the United States, almost invariably immigrants or descendants of immigrants, are far more successful than the norm. Period.

That first question is addressed in “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” by famed tiger mom Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld.

Both are Yale Law School professors. Chua, the child of Chinese immigrants, first gained public attention when she wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” a book in which she alternately skewered and congratulated herself for a shockingly (to most of us) harsh parenting style. Chua was celebrated and reviled in the media and around dinner tables.

Now, with the release of “The Triple Package” last week, Chua is again the focus of rage. “The Triple Package” asserts that:
There are groups in the United States that are far more successful than the norm, and uses as examples Jews, Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cubans and Mormons.

What they have in common that brings success is a belief in their exceptionality as a group, a feeling that they’re never good enough as individuals, and impulse control.

Both books became hot topics before they even came out thanks to op-ed pieces by Chua in The Wall Street Journal for “Tiger Mom” and both authors in The New York Times for “Triple Package.”

As soon as the Times piece ran, they were accused of believing in the superiority of certain races, and also called haters who refused to acknowledge obstacles faced by less successful groups. In fact, they repeatedly debunk both accusations in the book.

I’ve read both books. I talked to Chua and Rubenfeld on the phone last week, tossing around ideas.

Here’s one of mine: the first thing that makes these groups special is the self-selecting process of immigration itself. Successfully immigrating shows gumption, and intelligence. Whenever I hear someone wonder why all Chinese people seem to excel I think: “There are plenty of average Chinese people … mostly in China.”

Chua and Rubenfeld are making the opposite of a “master race” argument. Jewish-Americans or Indian-Americans aren’t a race. They’re special subsets defined by success in getting here. The Mormon example is a bit different, but that group immigrated from New York westward.

But just as the authors have been assailed for putting forward a “master races” theory, they’ve been assailed by furious critics for arguing that some cultures are better than others at producing success. Only they aren’t arguing that, they’re just stating it, and proving it with reams of statistics.

And now we’re back to my squeamish need to use the word “seem.” We are so cowardly in talking about genetics and culture and success and failure that we have made the discussion all but impossible.

These groups are more successful than the norm. It’s not because they had all the breaks, as if American society were set up to elevate Nigerians and Jews and the Lebanese.

To the extent that their success is part of the immigration self-selection, and is thus based in ability, there’s not much we need to say about it. But to the extent that their success is based in culture and behavior, won’t we be better off if we stop pretending that there’s no such thing as better or worse when it comes to cultures and behaviors, and start imitating the ones that work.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. His email address is

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