The Wall Street Journal recently published an article with the provocative-sounding title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” It’s getting lots of media attention and stirring up a bit of controversy.
As someone who taught kids for many years, I found some of the teaching and discipline methods outlined in the article fascinating.
The essay was written by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School. It’s actually an excerpt from her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book is her memoir of the way her parents, Chinese immigrants to America, raised her.
After she and her husband (who is Jewish) began their family, Ms. Chua decided that she would stick with the Chinese tradition when it came to child-rearing.
At the beginning of the essay, Ms. Chua states:
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.
In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.”
By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”
According to Ms. Chua, Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To be good at anything requires work. And kids never want to work. That’s why parents have to override their preferences. Kids will resist, of course. But Chinese parents excel at maintaining the upper hand.
Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young – maybe more than once – when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.
She recounts the time she did the same thing to one of her daughters, calling her garbage for acting disrespectfully. Later at a dinner party, Ms. Chua mentioned that she had done this. She was immediately ostracized. One guest got so upset she had to leave early. “My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests,” Ms. Chua recalls.
She says that Chinese parents think nothing of talking to their children this way. If the kid is fat, they’ll tell her outright that she’s fat – and needs to lose some weight. If he doesn’t get an A, they’ll tell him he’s lazy. This is something a lot of Western parents simply can’t bring themselves to do. They are quite anxious about their children’s self-esteem. Chinese parents are not. Ms. Chua explains why.
First, Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe their child can get them.
If the child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and improve from it.
Second, Chinese parents believe their kids owe them everything.
The reason for this is a little unclear, but it’s probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children.
And third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override their children’s own desires and preferences.
That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepover camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to his mother, “I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.” God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
- Chua, Amy. January 8, 2011. “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Wall Street Journal.