Chinese parenting

There are nearly 7,000 comments to Amy Chua’s now infamous article in the Wall Street Journal titled, modestly, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. I read the piece, as I’m guessing most of you did, with grim fascination. Its main contention is that Chinese parents raise kids who are more successful than their Western counterparts because these parents deprive their kids of fun, slave-drive them to study constantly, prohibit them from acting in school plays and sleeping over at friends’ houses, and insisting that they never get a grade below A. Chua’s description of how she terrorized her daughter to force her to master a piano piece is not something you’ll soon forget.

American parents, on the other hand, indulge their children and fail to treat them with authority. Their kids are raised believing they don’t owe their parents anything, and thus they don’t do all they can to excel and delight their parents. But the Chinese parents, Chua argues, aren’t doing this for their own gratification. It’s all because they want the very best for their children.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

The parent’s might also be arming them with a rip-roaring case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Not surprisingly, a lot has been written in response to this article. I am not going to try to say which side is right or wrong. I just want to point out some of the arguments.

The best critique I read came from Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap, who points out an interesting fact: Chua’s arguments are in no way consistent with those she makes in her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which she’s promoting with her article. The outspoken, borderline vindictive tone of the article, Minter says, seems to be a product of her PR people (very possible) and fails to reflect what she actually says in the book.

[A]fter the first chapter, I realized that I was going to stick with it, because – regardless of what you think of so-called Chinese parenting – it’s a beautifully written, oftentimes funny, humble and modest book about assimilation. That is to say, it has very little in common with the Wall Street Journal piece. Indeed, Chua is quite clear – in the book – that the genesis for the narrative is not a belief that Chinese mothers are superior….

The cruelty that some readers found in the Wall Street Journal is present in the longer text, but it is present with doubts about their efficacy, the damage that was being done to her relationship with her daughter, humor, and emotion. The Wall Street Journal excerpt doesn’t contain any of that. In fact, in large part, the Wall Street Journal “excerpt” only qualifies as an excerpt in name. In reality, it’s nothing more than some of the book’s most inflammatory paragraphs and passages, cherry-picked from various points in the book, and arranged in order, minus context

Now it’s all making sense. Because it’s truly hard to imagine that a Yale law professor like Chua could be so one-sided and obsessive. And yes, cruel. Only Minter, to my knowledge, has provided this insight; there’s much more to the story of how Chua views Chinese parenting.

Today David Brooks, who I very rarely quote, took Chua on from a different perspective:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

A good point. Relationships with our friends, doing things with them in groups, provide important training for our future. From personal experience, I would say there’s nothing more valuable for kids than to perform in the school play and sing in the after-school choir. That’s part of education, too, part of preparation.

But the most moving response to the article I saw comes from an actual victimproduct of a “Tiger Mother.” For all those not suffering from Chua fatigue, I recommend you read it all. Here’s a piece.

All my young life, my parents were quick to remind me of my stupidity. They constantly compared me to the children of their friends. They were particularly preoccupied with my lack of progress in school. Fixated on the idea that I was a slow learner, they confused my cautiousness for a lack of desire, and my need for affection as the wants of a spoiled American brat.

In telling me that I was a stupid, worthless waste of space, they believed they were spurring me on to do great things. By keeping me away from my friends, engrossed in several hours of teaching each day after school, my parents were confident they were helping me in every way they could. And no matter how hard I worked, or how obediently I obeyed their commands, it was never enough….

In spite of this, my parents’ approach failed. I still question every day if I am, indeed, stupid. I didn’t even raise my hand in class until graduate school because I believed a moron like me would have nothing worthy to say. I’ve been through countless hours of psychotherapy, and my lack of self-esteem still beckons me to trust alcohol to numb the agony. I should be chasing my dreams, not chasing pain.

If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it’s that I would trade every bit of my success in life — in a heartbeat I’d switch places with the guy who shovels elephant dung at the zoo — to remove the scars left by a Tiger Mother.

Maybe I’m too bound by my Western mentality, but this approach doesn’t seem to me a formula for success.

That said, I need to point out one thing: Most Chinese people I know haven’t been permanently scarred by “tiger moms.” Yes, they had to study hard and nothing was as important as education. But all things considered, most of these people emerged very smart, very successful and psychologically okay. Obviously I can’t say exactly how they were treated as children, but I suspect it was not as grim a childhood as Chua endorses in her article. I think there was some compromise, and the parents instilled in them a strong study ethic while still nurturing their self-esteem. (Must the two be mutually exclusive?)

My bottom line on the whole furor: Chua’s article has hurt China, giving a false impression of how and why Chinese kids grow up to be so successful. If people were afraid of China before, that fear shot up to a whole new level after reading Chua’s treatise. The lists she provides of what parents should forbid their children from doing is a disgrace, a formula for neurosis and social ineptitude; as Minter said, his first reaction was to check Chua’s bio to see whether the whole things was a parody, a bad joke.

Maybe it lets Chua off the hook somewhat if this was the doing of ruthless PR people (and they sure got publicity). But I don’t believe for an instant that the WSJ published this without her approval and her blessing.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 27 Comments

I read about this with a bit of fascination and showed it to some of the students here (Chinese ones, obviously). Now, being in a university and working with postgraduate students, I obviously work with the clever ones….and they must have gone through the grindstoone at home too, right?
Not really. They were just clever – like the Europeans, the Indians and other “races” (stupid term – what’s a better alternative?). Sure, the Asians recognised this style of parenting and some even had it to a certain degree – but all agreed that how Amy Chua was portrayed was a tad extreme. I got to learn all about the “Asian fail” – this being anything less than an A. A- is definite fail. There was also recognition regarding playing pianos and violins :-)
However, smart is smart. Pushing all the tick ones doesn’t do anything, as everyone here agreed. Smart Euros get ahead without the constant pressure as well as the smart Asians with that pressure. Some wondered how well Euros would do with Asian parents and vice versa – would the pressure spur the Euros to greater heights or would the Euro laissez-faire let the Asians eplore their full potential to the max, as opposed to narrowing their field? Who knows.
As it is, scary thing is….I’m pretty much Amy Chua in my household and my wife is the more lenient one. Maybe it’s because I’m a product of Europe, as opposed to the US :-) After all, when a Chinese person says “western”, you know sure as shit they mean just the US…..

January 19, 2011 @ 9:10 am | Comment

North Americans looking for advice elsewhere about better parenting. Wow. Some interesting ideas — that Chinese parents expect children to be tough and American parents expect them to be fragile. But gosh, have we become this insecure? About everything?

January 19, 2011 @ 9:13 am | Comment

Bob, the answer is Yes.

Mike, thanks for the great comment. Agree on all counts.

January 19, 2011 @ 9:28 am | Comment

The “Chinese” in Amy Chua’s article does not mean China. It is a poor choice of words and easily confused but the parenting experience she is writing about is specifically that of immigrants to the United States with high aspirations for financial success and social status. Chua’s parents are from The Philippines and the article actually says “I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too”. It’s not about China!!!

Furthermore, the Chinese-language edition of the book has the title that translates as something like “Being a Mother in America” (我在美國做媽媽).

January 19, 2011 @ 9:42 am | Comment

Agree with David on Formosa: It was a personal essay on her growth as a mother, and unfortunate that she chose to frame it in terms of Chinese-ness.
It exists in the west as well: We all know the classic stage mom, and I grew up with western friends whose parents demanded not only excellence, but excellence in a manner that seemed effortless to the outside world. It was considered gauche to be seen as trying too hard, regardless of the reality.

January 19, 2011 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Oh, I can believe that the piece ran without her approval.

I’ve seen cases in the New York Times where someone writes an Op-Ed, and the next day it’s retracted and blamed on a mysterious “editing error.” There was even one case where they specifically said that the editing error consisted of the editors making changes without the authors’ approval.

How many cases have there been where the author didn’t make a peep?

Admittedly, we’re talking about the Wall Street Journal here, not the New York Times. But these days, I don’t place so much stock on editorial integrity at newspapers anymore. If Ms. Chua says that someone edited the piece without her permission, then I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

January 19, 2011 @ 10:23 am | Comment

David, excellent points – but everything about the WSJ article, including it’s title, makes the reader believe this is about how the Chinese – no matter where they are – raise their children vs. Westerners.

January 19, 2011 @ 10:24 am | Comment

Tom, check the comments to the Adam Minter post – they discuss the likelihood of the WSJ printing this without Chua’s approval.

January 19, 2011 @ 10:48 am | Comment

“Because it’s truly hard to imagine that a Yale law professor like Chua could be so one-sided and obsessive.”

Totally agreed. The problem with this whole firestorm is that (credit her PR people for this) she calls it ‘Chinese’ parenting, when there’s really nothing Chinese about it. She lives in the US, and is tough on her kids, and drives them batshit crazy, good for her. My parents were tough on me and I’m thankful for it.

If you remove the references to China (which serve only to pit Americans and Chinese against each other in comment sections around the interwebs) she’s really just saying that she believes in authoritative/autocratic parenting. Which is probably a good idea, since, you’re kids are…kids (eg. if you’re kids are 8 yrs old, they just want to play PSP all day). They don’t know what’s good for them.

Here in Shanghai, kids are spoiled rotten, and they’re loud and obnoxious, and they spit and fart and burp (yes, even the girls), and the litter EVERYWHERE. The attitude from actual Chinese parents is, “Well, they’re in school all day, and their lives are hell, I’ll give them whatever they want.” Chinese mothers seem to comfort the hellish lives of their Children, not drive them insane with additional unattainable goals. Make no mistake, in China, parents don’t have to lift a finger to ruin their kids lives, the 高考 and the monthly exams does that for them. The parents are there to comfort and assist in anyway they can, up until the 高考,and helping put their kids in the best school they can afford (that means full financial support, something Western parents are constantly referring to (“Eg. This new contract is gonna put my kids through college.”)

Sounds like Chinese/Western parents aren’t actually that different, and Amy is way out on an island putting her kids on the path to the the shrink.

January 19, 2011 @ 11:17 am | Comment

The brutal truth is that this kind of parenting works.

Take a look at names of the Intel Science Talent Search 2011 Semifinalists, over 1/3 of them are Chinese. If you count in the Indians and the Koreans that’s almost 50%.

http://www.societyforscience.org/page.aspx?pid=710

Amy Chua herself is the product of this kind of parenting. She and her youngest sister are both high-achieving college professors.

Talking about Wall street Journal, funny that Rupert Murdoch’s 2 daughters also have a Chinese mother.

January 19, 2011 @ 11:38 am | Comment

FWIW, Murdoch’s oldest three children are not from the Chinese mother. The eldest, his daughter, is supposed to be the genius of the bunch.

January 19, 2011 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

I agree with many others here that Chinese parents do not have a monopoly on the type of parenting style depicted here. There are goal-oriented parents of all stripes, from all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Perhaps Chinese/Asian parents might disproportionately establish academics as their preferred goal. But other parents might similarly disproportionately emphasize things, but merely choose to place the emphasis on something other than academics. Sports is the thing that springs to mind. There is no shortage of hockey dads or soccer moms who, in my opinion, need to examine their priorities when their precious kids are on the ice, or the pitch. They similarly pressure their kids to succeed, at times at the expense of other facets of their childhood (ironically for the parents with the sports fetish, academics might be one of those things that fall by the wayside). Ultimately, it’s parents doing their utmost to try to will/encourage/entice/force their kids to succeed. In some instances, it may even be with some faint hope of achieving the success that may have eluded them, vicariously through their children.

Whatever the arena that parents establish goals for their children, I would like to think that on some level, it is with the hope that those children ultimately do well in life. However, as with most things, moderation is the key. That’s a lesson that many parents can use, and not just Chinese ones.

January 19, 2011 @ 2:34 pm | Comment

Hello,

I saw the Amy Chua article on an acquaintance’s Facebook page. The funny thing is, this person took the article at face value, as has every sinophile that I know, and now they’re all talking about the superiority of China’s mothers, even though most of them have been in China and have never, ever, met someone like that.

January 19, 2011 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

I agree with your line about most who endure Tiger Moms not being permanently scarred by the experience. It mostly gives them battle stories, like those of us who endured Catholic nuns. Hell, Tiger Moms sound like creampuffs compared to the nuns I endured for twelve years.

January 19, 2011 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

Everyone understands that the approach described in her book is only a perfect marketing tactic to promote it and boost the sales. I think parents should always play the role of supporters who encourage their children to pursue their favorite activities instead of forcing them into doing something they don’t like.

January 19, 2011 @ 11:50 pm | Comment

I for one find all this hand-ringing about upbringing very American, particularly the seeming need to patholigise every aspect of ones childhood – probably half the head-shrinkers in the US are kept in business through such navel-gazing.

At any rate, you could always try the favoured method of bringing up children of the British upper-classes: out-sourcing it all to a slew of nannies and public (i.e., private) boarding schools.

January 20, 2011 @ 12:03 am | Comment

The missus gave birth to a son just before Christmas; I can’t imagine a better mother. But then, thank God we had left China in time to get proper facilities and care during and after the pregnancy.

January 20, 2011 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Chua is not Chinese. It is a marketing gimmick. Her parents, although ethnic Chinese, are immigrants from the Philippines. Chua herself, of course, was born in Champaign, Ill.

January 20, 2011 @ 5:05 am | Comment

Yes, but the point is that she’s written a book – one that’s getting tons of publicity – stating that this is the way Chinese people raise their children. That’s why this is such a big story.

Janet Maslin just put out a good review of the book: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/books/20book.html?hp

January 20, 2011 @ 5:21 am | Comment

FOARPs comment about the patholigisation of childhood in the US made my day. More to the point, the whole US lifecycle has been subjected to busybody psychological interrogation (and normative adjustment), which is then played out on afternoon trash theatre ie tv talk shows.

Sex addiction…are they serious?

However, I’m not so sure about his panacea, public school outsourcing – cold porridge and showers, mandatory rugger and boy/boy infatuations during choir practice. And I wont comment on those lifelong child-nanny attachments held by all Tory members of parliament.

@ Keir. At least your wife wont experience the mandatory caesarian delivery. Good for her.

January 20, 2011 @ 6:04 am | Comment

It’s been my impression that this parenting style is not Chinese, but American-Chinese.

January 20, 2011 @ 6:17 am | Comment

Forget about the label “Chinese” for a minute. Anyway, since when did China become a uniform, homogeneous society? You might as well say that a Connecticut Yankee is equal to a Georgia Peach is equal to a California Girl – not to mention that we’re talking not about “China” here but “Chinese”, which has to include the entire multi-generational Chinese diaspora (is she speaking for Sino-Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to Norway?) ….

Instead, talk about the philosophy: is her child-rearing objective worthy and does her method achieve that objective (debatable)?

To the former point: I think not. I was a high academic achiever but I swear to god that the drama classes I took in middle school have contributed more to my earning power and career success than the A I got in calculus.

And even were our aims the same, the jury would still be out when it comes to effectiveness. I met a lot of kids like hers (“Chinese” and otherwise) in my freshman year at Harvard (“I’m pre-med/law. I won XXX prize in XXX instrument. I can only date XXX type of people.”), and by junior year their own parents wouldn’t have known them.

I believe it’s safe to assume that the content was legitimately extracted from her book, and the headline was written by someone else entirely, according to whatever algorithm publications use nowadays to squeeze the most views out of the lemminglike public.

January 20, 2011 @ 9:55 pm | Comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by My Baby Radio, Sandra McDonald. Sandra McDonald said: Chinese parenting » The Peking Duck http://bit.ly/ep0FzK [...]

January 21, 2011 @ 5:53 am | Pingback

Strict, maybe. Pushy, maybe. Insane? Not really. Me and all the other Chinese immigrants I know had playdates, sleepovers, etc and nearly all of us went to university and landed decent jobs. The lady is nuts.

What Amy Chua means by “Chinese mother” is actually “herself”. Except advocating the ‘Amy Chua method’ probably won’t sell her as many books.

January 23, 2011 @ 2:10 am | Comment

“Yes, but the point is that she’s written a book – one that’s getting tons of publicity – stating that this is the way Chinese people raise their children. That’s why this is such a big story.”

My point is that she is jumping on the “Chinese” notion because China is the hot topic right now, but it is not an intellectually honest thing for her to do.

January 24, 2011 @ 4:35 am | Comment

I think parents could push their kids to do well. However, there needs to be a balance. I wonder what will happen the girls go to college? Is their mother going with them? Will she stay in the dorm room? Do they have to go to Yale? Who will reinforce their study habits? What happens if they decide to go ‘wild’ because they weren’t allowed to have fun? What happens if they decide to drop out of college? Will they be disowned?

Parents need to understand that their actions and words pack a punch and will have consequences. It will be interesting to see how close the girls remain to their mom and dad when they become older. Will they take care of their parents in their old age? I think Amy Chua better set-up an ‘assisted living’ trust fund for her and her husband just in case.

January 25, 2011 @ 4:47 am | Comment

Amy gave her permission for the excerpt.per Amy..
Chinese parents might have gotten the humour but evidently us dumb ass Americans missed it…
Sophie has a a letter to her Mom in the NY Post today.
Spent 4 years in Korea where failure is not an option.
Highest suicide rate among OECD nations.

January 26, 2011 @ 6:28 am | Comment

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