Chinese Mothers vs. American Ideals

Amy Chua looks on as daughter Lulu plays violin in a hotel room, with the sheet music taped to a TV.  photo: Chua family

A recent article entitled entitled “Chinese Mothers are Superior” really got my blood boiling.

Amy Chua, a Chinese mom from New Haven, CT, boasts about an approach to parenting that would make Mao or Stalin proud. She’s an abusive authoritarian, totally focused on her kids achieving academically to their absolute limits. She’ll do just about anything to get them there. She doesn’t allow them to play. Whatever desires they voice are mere noise. Their emotional chatter is irrelevant.

When her 7-year-old daughter Lulu had difficulty playing a particularly challenging piano piece, Chua “threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years.” Chua didn’t let Lulu get up to take a break for many hours, not for dinner, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. Chua insulted Lulu, telling her “to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”

What’s really pathetic is that so many of us Americans are impressed with her Chinese parenting approach. This article, published in The Wall Street Journal, is excerpted from a new book by Chua entitled, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It’s currently the 33rd best selling book on Amazon.com. You can’t get to #33 on Amazon.com by selling exclusively to Chinese-American mothers like Chua. This book is a mainstream American blockbuster.
Lest you think that my criticism of Chua is culturally ignorant, I should tell you that I know Chinese mothers pretty well. My wife is one, having spent the first six years of her life in Shanghai before moving to Canada. My mother-in-law is another, having mothered my wife in Shanghai for those first six years, and then in Canada.

They do share some attitudes with Chua, but they go nowhere near as far as she does. My wife focuses her authoritarian impulse, meager by Chua’s standards, on our three boys’ diets. She battles daily to get them to eat organic fruits and vegetables. My mother-in-law, a piano teacher, sits my six-year-old son down twice a week for ten-minute piano lessons.

Fundamentally, my wife and my mother-in-law believe deeply in our boys’ own right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. By and large, they are happy to let our boys do what they want to do every day, and they want our boys to choose their own careers. You see, they fled Communist China back in 1979 to live a life of freedom in Canada and later the United States, and they’ve embraced the American value of liberty completely.

Do you believe in your children’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Do you believe in this creed that largely defines America? If you do, you must reject Chua’s parenting approach.

I still remember back in the 1970s when my father first told me about the values conflict between America and the Communist Bloc. “In some countries, people decide what you’ll be when you grow up from the time you’re a little kid. They tell you what you must believe, and how to think,” he told me.

“You live in the United States, which is the greatest country on earth, because you can choose to do whatever you want to do,” he told me. I was in awe. I still am.

Back then, almost all Americans believed that our country was the greatest country, and in particular, that our system was best. If we had read about Chua’s parenting approach, we would have written her off as an authoritarian quack.

Today, though, we see China gaining fast on us, and we’re much less confident in the superiority of our fundamental values. Certainly, we can learn many things from the Chinese, but to abandon our embrace of human liberty would be tragic and foolish. It’s what has enabled us to reach the apex of the world, and it’s what keeps us there today.

So, Chua’s argument presents us with a challenge. In a narrow sense, the Chinese parenting approach has achieved great success. On average, Chinese primary and secondary school students – both in China and in North America, as Chinese-Americans – do get better grades and score measurably better on standardized tests than others.

Chua’s argument is that the source of this success is Chinese parents’ extreme control of their children. She may be right.

Our challenge is not to show that all American parenting is better than the particular Chinese approach that she describes. After all, it’s obvious that many, many American parents are doing a poor job by any standard. Rather, our challenge is to articulate the best philosophy of American parenting that achieves great academic “success” and fully embraces the fundamental value of human liberty.

Yes, I want my children to achieve academically as well as elite Chinese kids like Chua’s. However, I’m not willing to severely repress my children’s liberty to do it. I don’t believe I have to. As a child, I had great liberty and I achieved at the highest level of academic success.

Chua believes that rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are antithetical to children’s achievement. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are being persuaded by her words.

This is highly disturbing and, I believe, dead wrong. I, or someone out there who agrees with me, needs to prove it, though.

Who’s with me on this?

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13 Responses to Chinese Mothers vs. American Ideals

  1. ORIGINAL says:

    I live in New Zealand, have lived in the Uk and in South Africa prior to this. I would say that the perception of America’s freedoms are changing. What I see from the outside is a lack of personal freedom and expression a perverse reliance on litigation over responsibility, a focus on “what-ifs” worst case scenarios and two extremes of parenting (over the top like Chua and pretty damn poor – as depicted in news paper headlines)

    Your blog is a highlight for me… along with a few others, where the parents focus on their children in a global sense and try to instill the freedoms that one used to expect from America.

    I don’t know how it will be proven because in my limited experience – people will buy into something and that will be it. Nothing will change their minds.

    All we can do is hope that the people who beileve in freedom, growth, pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and instilling responsibility for oneself will prevail.

    Yours,
    LatteJunkie

  2. ms says:

    Leave the politics and bussiness aside – that’s another long conversation. I have a really difficult time beliving that most families today would have such an abusive way. It’s shocking and I think most of us are aware enough to have some balance for the emotional well being of our kids. Wonder why it’s high on the Amazon list?

  3. sophia Yen says:

    Professor Chua scares, saddens and embarrasses me. As an Asian-American, she is making broad generalizations about “Chinese” this and that.

    I wonder if her children will get into the best schools if they are just the “typical Chinese-Ams” i.e. straights As, violin/piano. I believe I got into my college b/c I was not the typical – I did Choir, I did school plays, I showed leadership in various organizations.

    Ms. Chua is making Chinese-Ams look bad and slightly crazy!

    I would be curious as to how many friends her kids have, and how they do socially in college.

    As an Asian-Am, I have always thought it a joke, how many Asian-Am parents “forbid you to date until you graduate college” and then right after you graduate, somehow expect you to get married right away.

    I would love to hear her daughters’ honest evaluation of their mother’s parenting once they finish college and have had time away from this strong mother, assuming they haven’t been brain-washed.

    My mother tried to barrel through piano with me. I kept it up until the 4th grade and now I never play piano. I am sure you will hear the same from many Asian-Ams.

    How many Asian-Ams out there feel depressed/sad/low self-esteem b/c of all the insults their parents hurdled at them over the years?

    How frequently have Ms. Chua’s children heard praise?

  4. pfft says:

    SO CREEPY … I’m 20 and some of the repressed lifestyles my peers led before college seem just absurd!

    You don’t learn to be adaptable and develop problem solving skills if people tell you what to do all the time. Most of the girls I know don’t actually know how to do much of anything, and I would suspect that a large part of it is that their parents will almost sort of shield them from having to even try. I did lots of dumb, dangerous, and messy things as a kid or in my teens, but you make the mistakes and you learn from them while you’re still young enough for the consequences to be minimal and you move on. The girls I know that never played in the mud as kids or stayed out late without telling their parents as teens are mostly sitting around in their Mass Communications classes trying to figure out if the quiz answer is Miller, Budweiser, or Coors… yeah, I already have a resume a mile long. Probably because I’m willing to get up in the morning and fight and do things instead of sitting in my dorm room until noon wondering if other people like me or think I’m cute.

    Unfortunately, that works now while they’re 20, but in about two years, they’re gonna be hurtin’…

  5. Meagan says:

    Well… I don’t think she’s crazy or abusive, though I think she clearly caries things way too far. I think she has a good point about how childrens’ self esteem works: you don’t build healthy self esteem by constantly praising a kid for meaningless invented “achievements,” as we so often do in today’s child-rearing culture, you build self esteem by helping a child learn that he or she is capable. Does that justify forcing a seven year old to sit and practice piano without dinner or potty breaks? Well no. But I’m not sure it’s the parenting method that is the problem in the scenario, it’s Chua’s assumptions of what success means, which are unfortunately I think, all too often mirrored by our own.

    I think this article is a good opportunity to hold up a mirror to our parenting priorities. Chua’s goals, like many American parents, are for her children to be the absolute best academically. I even agree with her that academic success, like most kinds of success, has much more to do with effort than raw intelligence or talent. The point where I disagree with her entirely is the idea that academic success (or skill on the piano) is the end all be all of what we should be helping our children accomplish.

    I agree with her that it is important to help your children realize that they are capable of achieving THEIR goals, when they want to quit because it’s “too hard.” I hear kids all the time say “I can’t” and we enable not only the behavior but the belief of incompetence. I think it’s possible to let a kid take breaks without letting them quit on themselves… and for that matter we should be able to tell the difference between a child who wants to quit because he or she is afraid to fail and a child who wants to quit because he or she truly hates the activity.

    Obviously, I think her methods are way out of line, but I think she wants for her children to be happy and independent just like we do.

    By the way, Mike (actually, not related at all- just a figure of speech) I wanted to mention about your comment form here… I often am tempted to comment, but don’t bother because it’s such a hassle. I’m often reading and commenting from my iPhone, and by the time I get through the registration/login crap my comment has been lost. I would be extremely grateful if you would change that.

  6. Perla_Ni_FB says:

    Great analysis, Meagan! I totally agree with your comment: “… it is important to help your children realize that they are capable of achieving THEIR goals, when they want to quit because it’s “too hard.”

  7. pdx_mom says:

    The part of the article that resonated most with me is that people enjoy doing what they’re good at. And the way to get good at something is. . . practice, practice, practice.

    But that aside, the rest I cannot support.

    My mother was a lot like Amy Chua. I’m “successful” by most measures: a not-too-bad pianist and violinist, a Harvard MBA, the wife of a wonderful husband, and mother to two little boys. I live in Portland, Oregon by choice (“where young people go to retire”) and telecommute to an enjoyable job in Silicon Valley.

    Yet, I am not on speaking terms with my mother. Why? Because she never knew when to stop exerting (or trying to exert) control.

    My husband pointed out that she was successful in raising me to be happy. I retorted that I found happiness only in the years after I left home, away from her ‘guiding’ influence.

    You can teach persistence, diligence, hard work, and good values without being a meanie.

  8. Matthew_Holt_FB says:

    If Prof Chua’s kids dont hate her later in live–I’ll be surprised and if they don’t it’ll be the result of her squeezing the life out of them. She sounds basically psychotic.

    PDX mom (above my comment) seems to have a more likely outcome

  9. jalo says:

    My husband laughed when he read this article because I have asked him on many occasion why it seems that the kids of chinese parents always seem so disciplined, well behaved, respectful and bright yet you never see the parents raise their voice in public. I now realize, after reading this article, that the parents are very strict and can be harsh behind the scenes. I was appalled by the way in which Chau spoke to her daughter and her cruelty will come back to bite her when her daughter no longer wants a relationship with her as an adult. And what’s with the obsession with piano and violin? Why do they feel that other instruments are less credible? Also, I see plenty of chinese kids in sports and their parents put the same energy into sports as they do academics. I do, however, agree with Chua’s opinion regarding tv. We Americans allow our kids to watch way too much tv and allow them to text friends for hours and then when the kids can’t handle the exams, they’ll end up cheating so they don’t disappoint their parents. In my opinion, the best thing American parents can do for their children is to ban tv during the school week and limit their ability to text friends. When your child whines about how all the other kids get to do it…be strong and hold your ground. After all, you DO know what’s best for them.

  10. Li Pinyang says:

    Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It is better to have permissive parents who mollycoddle their little darlings and let them run riot. Eventually they’ll calm down when they discover the joys of substance abuse and/or end up either on the street or pregnant with their fifth kid from some collection of nameless men and on welfare. That or be very creative (unlike those Chinese kids who, apparently are just robots) but unemployed because no-one needs creative losers who can’t manage to add because mommy told them 2+2 =5 is good enough so as to not damage their fragile American psyches and so she could get back to her TV program while the Wunderkinderen ignored their homework.

    This is why the USA is now owed by the PRC. We own you.

  11. Nick Gault says:

    Only 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have paid much mind to this book, dismissing it as fringe. But today, I’m deeply troubled by its apparent acceptance because of evidence that it’s life-threatening. I’ll go a step further in stating my own belief: any parent practicing it is at best dangerously ignorant, and at worst morally reprehensible.

    Those of us living in Palo Alto, California with teen-agers in the local school system experienced directly the fatal consequences of Amy Chua’s parenting approach. For those that don’t know about the Gunn High School suicides, no less than four teen-agers from families with this profile killed themselves over a few weeks. There would be more tragedy still if not for the sudden awareness by the community for the need for immediate change. The growing community consensus, provided by those at-risk families undergoing therapy, is that the parents (take note, Amy Chua) are living vicariously through their children, concerned not about their children’s well-being, but about the family’s perceived status in their community.

    Ambition and success are virtues, but Amy Chua’s extremism ignores the conditions these children will face in their teens in competitive high schools. Any discussion of the value of this parenting style should also consider the much publicized crisis in Asian American students suicide and depression (see link, below).

    >>
    “The Growing Rate of Depression, Suicide Among Asian American Students

    Asian American women ages 15 to 24 lead in the highest suicide rate amongst all ethnic groups, according to the Department of Health and Human Services”

    http://www.pacificcitizen.org/site/details/tabid/55/selectmoduleid/373/ArticleID/490/reftab/36/Default.aspx?title=The_Growing_Rate_of_Depression,_Suicide_Among_Asian_American_Students_

  12. RobertH says:

    I very much agree with the previous post that we need to pay much closer attention to the not-so-obvious negative consequences of the “Chuanese” parenting style or other parenting styles close to it. Unfortunately, only the most tragic cases, often suicides, make the news.

    But you don’t have to look hard to find what clinical psychologists have known for decades: A controlling parent style is almost a sure way to psychological problems – and failure on many fronts – later on in life.

    Rather than trying to summarize in a single post all of the information that is available out there, I recommend that those of you who are really interested in learning more about this topic, as well as other related topics, read some or all of the following books:

    “If You Had Controlling Parents” by Dan Neuharth

    “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids”

    Then, if you are still not depressed enough, watch this film, a scathing indictment of our “race to the top” educational agenda:

    “Race to Nowhere” by Vicki Abeles

    For more insight into what kind of parenting and schooling actually DOES work for children, may I suggest the following books:

    “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn

    “Schools Our Children Deserve” by Alfie Kohn

    “In Defense of Childhood” by Chris Mercogliano

    “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by Stuart Brown

    “The Element” by Sir Ken Robinson

    “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman

    Each of the above books has made, and continues to make, a huge difference in my life and, indirectly, in the lives of my children. Even though I have always been a very progressive-minded parent with little or no Chuanese tendencies (I hope), these and other books have given me the confidence not to be swayed by the naysayers – which are by no means limited to Chinese law professors with a preference for classical music. I now know that I’ve got the latest science on my – our – side, and while science, of course, sometimes turns out to be wrong, it’s still the best tool we have to understand the world we live in and to predict with any reliability what will happen in the future – the future of our children.

    So, if you want to make an informed decision (and I realize that not everyone does, some people simply prefer not to look at the actual facts) about how to raise your children, you owe it to them – and yourself – to educate yourself on the topic. Fifty, maybe even twenty years ago, usable information on these issues was hard to come by (I doubt that my parents ever read a book on parenting, let alone schooling). But today, that information is readily available and there are just no more excuses for remaining ignorant.

    Robert

  13. kteacher says:

    I found all of these comments interesting but think that a lot of them missed a critical point. Ms. Chua’s form of parenting is incredibly extreme. Hands off, molly coddling parenting is also extreme. Parenting does not have to be extreme! You can have high standards, raise a child who is not a “quitter”, turn off the TV etc, etc without demeaning and humiliating your child.