Many friends have sent me the article by Amy Chua in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” asking what I think of it. For those of you who have not read the article, Yale law professor Chua writes about her experience raising her two daughters in the stereotypical Chinese fashion: command-and-control, emphasis on academic excellence and endless practicing of classical piano and violin. No playdates, no choice, no arguments. The article is excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and it certainly had the intended effect of raising controversy to promote sales.
The article presents a deliberately extreme view of a Chinese stereotype – so extreme that many readers thought it was intended as satire. In it the Chinese mother is arrogant, righteous, living out her need for glory by pushing her children to achieve her idea of success. Many readers, commenting on the article, were offended by the portrayal. Many others related to it. I think any Asian out there recognizes the stereotype, whether or not it was his or her own experience. Of course there’s no way to generalize a billion people, but here’s my take on the Chinese approach to child rearing and what it means in modern America.
Emphasis on education – The cultural emphasis on education is a definite positive. Education starts in the home, years before kids make it to school age. Even the best of schools cannot overcome an undervaluing of education in the home. Even engaged American parents are often more involved with their kids’ sports than their school work, considering education the teacher’s responsibility. The idea that education is something that just happens at school is absurd to Asian parents.
Successful schools come from communities that value education. Extra spending cannot combat parental indifference. Infamously, Washington DC is one of the highest-spending districts in the nation, and its performance remains among the lowest. On the flip side, William Faria Elementary in Cupertino, California, is in a district that spends less than half the amount per pupil than Washington DC does, yet its test scores rank among the top in the state. Faria Elementary is 95% Asian, and many of them are even non-native English speakers. Is it a model for how schools can do more with less funding? Of course not. Credit here goes to the families.
Belief in hard work – This is a fundamentally important concept to the success of many Asian students. Asian parents do not accept the idea that their child cannot learn a particular subject: any concept can be conquered with enough effort. Still learning English? Work harder. Having trouble with science? Get help. In the Asian culture, the reaction to obstacles is simple: more effort.
Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in Outliers that success is more about practice and favorable conditions than inherent genius is not a surprising one to Asians. The reason why many Asian students are academic outliers is not attributable to higher IQ but to hours of focused work.
Status orientation – Waiting to be let into my cousin’s gated community in Los Angeles some years ago, my husband and I were amused to observe a stream of Mercedes cars driving in and out of the gate, all driven by Asian women. This focus on status symbols is one reason that so many Asian parents want their kids to get straight As, to play the piano or violin, to go to Ivy League schools, to be doctors. It’s also a reason that many Asian parents discourage kids from socially questionable activities, such as performing arts or even athletics. Even though this limited view is not how Americans view success, many Chinese in America still maintain this narrow definition because it’s meaningful within their Chinese community.
Kids as social security – Asian parents want their kids to be financially successful not just for the status it brings the family but also because they expect their children to provide for them in their old age. For many Asian parents, the children have a deep debt to their parents that will someday need to be repaid. But this is no longer feudal China, and in the modern world grown children can easily choose never to see their parents again.
It’s a risky proposition to raise children with the expectation of payback. As a friend once said as her oldest child was leaving for college, “You think you have kids. But they’re only on loan.” Pressuring kids with indebtedness is not the way to get them to return.
Exclusive focus on academic achievement – The idea of intellectual excellence as a path toward a better future is long held in China. In the second century BC, Imperial exams were introduced to China, giving peasants a chance at income and status by becoming a government officer. Even today, academic success in China is a numbers game: top ranked students get into top ranked universities, and top graduates from top universities get the best jobs. But financial success in America – even gaining admission into top universities – is about much more than academic performance, and in fact here such single-mindedness is seen as unbalanced.
Unrelenting pressure to succeed – Certainly this is not just an Asian concept, and perhaps it is intensified in immigrant families. Andre Agassi’s dad as described in the tennis chamipion’s autobiography, Open, was every bit as abusively overbearing as Amy Chua described herself in the Wall Street Journal piece. These types of parents exist everywhere, though perhaps this approach is more culturally acceptable among Asians. Many Asians in fact take a personal pride in driving their children to success and feel their harsh words and methods are necessary to achieve it. But too many children crack under this kind of pressure, resulting in depression, anxiety and in extreme cases, suicide.
Many hard-driving parents would say they simply want to see their children achieve their potential. In the 1980s, people became excited about child prodigies. Academically advanced kids were encouraged to skip grades. There was a race to see which child would be the youngest to graduate college. My brother’s friend was one of these kids, graduating college at maybe 12 or 13, with a PhD in hand before his friends finished high school. And then what? Nothing. He got a job and worked like everyone else. Except because he skipped childhood he’s been working for longer and has few friends.
Directive approach – When I took a tour in China in 1999, the tour guide would occasionally stop the bus and pronounce, “You take picture here,” in a typically Chinese directive approach. There is a hierarchy to social relations in China that has roots in Confucianism, with filial piety, duty and obedience as fundamental values. The drill sergeant approach may have made sense in old China, but in modern America teaching kids how to navigate a world of choices is a critical life skill. They cannot learn this if parents do not allow them any choice at all.
In her article, Amy Chua relates “a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style,” in which she forces her seven year old daughter Lulu – using physical force, yelling, insults and threats – to learn a difficult piano piece. She relates the story with pride as a lesson in successful parenting, saying that she knew her daughter was capable of learning it because her sister had been able to play it at the same age. By that logic, Chua might as well reason that Mozart was composing at age five and she should berate Lulu into that as well.
A preschool teacher I know, when asked what she thought about academic vs play-based preschools, said what she had learned after years of teaching was that you could spend all year getting a two year old to learn concepts that a five year old could learn in a day. After four kids I’ve learned the same goes for potty training – you can fight over it for months, or if you wait until the child is ready, it happens with no effort at all.
Directive parents need to think hard about whether destroying the brief and precious freedom of childhood is worth the questionable achievement of the parental timetable.
Conditional love – I’m sure Amy Chua and other parents like her would insist that they love their children unconditionally, but their implacable demands send a different message to their kids of conditional approval. Unconditional love provides children with a base of psychological stability, a safety net for life. With it they can feel comfortable taking risks, knowing that no matter what happens they will be loved. Constant fear of losing the love or approval of parents is likely to lead to a life of anger and resentment or unbearable anxiety. Neither scenario is a happy one.
The funny thing about the furor that has arisen from this article is that not even the author actually thinks that Chinese mothers are superior. On the cover of her book is this subtitle:
This is the story of a mother, two daughters, and two dogs.
This was supposed to be a story about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
In an interview on sfgate.com, this is what Amy Chua has to say,
“I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end – that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”
I think every hands-on parent goes into parenting with a lot more confidence than they come out of it. People that don’t have kids – we all used to be there – are full of ideas: my kids will do this, my kids won’t do that. But what we discover in real parenting is that kids are not a block of marble waiting to be sculpted by parents into a shape of their choosing. In the beginning it looks that way. But inside the block of marble there is already a solild bronze sculpture. Parents that are hell-bent on a having certain kind of statue use all kinds of sharp and blunt instruments to make the unformed block into the shape they want, but what they end up with is a brittle blend of carefully sculpted but fragile marble and battered but still unbroken bronze. A parent that recognizes their bronze sculpture for what it is can work carefully over time to free the bronze of its marble case and have in the end a whole bronze sculpture in its original form.
To quote again from the wise Anna Quindlen in her essay, “Goodbye, Dr Spock”:
When they were very small I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what Iâ€™d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.
This article has prompted some amazing discussions, one of the best on quora.com. Another brave soul shared a heartbreaking story of her model minority sister, an overachiever who did everything her traditionally demanding Chinese parents asked of her and committed suicide at age 30.
But 6 years since her passing, I can tell you that the notion of the “superior Chinese mother” that my mom carried with her also died with my sister on October 28, 2004. If you were to ask my mom today if this style of parenting worked for her, she’ll point to a few boxes of report cards, trophies, piano books, photo albums and Harvard degrees and gladly trade it all to have my sister back.
I think Amy Chua was brave to present such a detestable portrait of herself as a lesson for others. Many of us don’t want to admit that sometimes we are not our best selves as parents. It’s a funny thing to learn that going from knowing it all (pre-kids) to knowing nothing (post-kids) is actually progress. It’s not where we start that is important; it’s how we develop and where we end up.