“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”

According to Yale Law professor Amy Chua, Chinese mothers are superior to western ones.

“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids,” she said in an essay that appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. “They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.”

In the essay, an excerpt from her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua uses the phrase “Chinese mothers” loosely. She’d say the way of a “strict” western parent pales in comparison to the strictness of authoritarian Chinese mothers who, for the record, aren’t necessarily from China. In the west, she said, parents are obsessed with self esteem. They assume their children are fragile. Chinese mothers, she said, assume their children are strong. In effort to assure that her children are the best and that they grow up to be people like Yale Law professors, a Chinese mother demands perfection via “rote repition,” hours of practicing musical instruments and hours of practice academic tests. Additionally, Chua says that in the process, Chinese parents can get away with what western ones can’t. A Chinese mother, for instance, can call her kid a fatty if he or she is overweight. She can call her daughter garbage if the kid disrespects her at a dinner party and she can revoke her daughter’s right to get up from the piano bench to go to the bathroom until the song she’s practicing is perfect (true stories!).

Some of the things Chua said make me cringe. And some of the things that make me cringe also make sense (which is alarming).

I’m neither Chinese, nor a mother, but I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t call a kid garbage or fatty. I wouldn’t withhold a kid’s right to go to the bathroom. But for her kids, it works. It also worked for Chua, and without any lasting emotional scars or mental illnesses (so she says).

Last night, I finished reading the book Amish Grace (this will be relevant shortly). It’s about the shooting at that Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in 2006. Hours after the shooting, people from the Amish community visted the wife and parents of the shooter (who killed himself after he shot 10 Amish girls, half of whom died). They expressed forgiveness for what the shooter had done and offered sympathy for his family’s loss. Later that week, several Amish people went to the shooter’s funeral, including some of the parents of girls who died. The media bombarded the public with the story of grace and for the most part, it moved people all over the country. When approached by the media, the Amish people were taken aback that the non-Amish were taken aback by something so average in Amish culture. Forgiveness is a given. There is no grudge. The writers of the book, who are experts in Amish culture, delved more deeply into what happened, and they warn: “…the fact that forgiveness is so deeply woven into the fabric of Amish life should alert us that their example, inspiring as it is, is not easily transferable to other people in other situations. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but how does one imitate a habit that’s embedded in a way of life anchored in a five-hundred-year history?”

There is a lot embedded in Amish life, like no TV and no driving and no mall shopping trips. These are rules, for lack of a better term, that if imposed upon non-Amish American kids would provoke an unending series of temper tantrums. But an Amish kid would never respond that way.

I think the “Chinese motherhood” Chua writes about is embedded in that culture in the same way forgiveness and no TV are embedded in Amish culture. As a result, if you live in that culture, or if that culture is lived in your house and family, an Amish kid doesn’t have a tantrum because he or she can’t watch TV. You may not be emotionally scarred if your mom calls you garbage in Chua’s culture (although I’d like to see some studies on the mental health of adults who grew up with “Chinese mothers”). But even though thanks to the culture in which I grew up part of me wants to fight Chua on behalf of her kids, I’m compelled to partly defend her because westerners really are obsessed with self esteem, and to a fault.

My favorite quote from Chua’s essay is as follows:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

When you live in a culture where everybody gets a trophy, including the kids on a losing team, you learn to expect rewards regardless of how good you are at what you do. You learn not to work harder (it’s still fun when you aren’t good at something but you get a trophy for it anyway). You believe you must enjoy everything you do, including all the things you have to do between high school and meeting goals like getting your dream job. And then you become an adult who doesn’t want to do anything.

The western assumption of fragility over strength is probably what causes western kids to be so fragile. In fact, in the human growth and development class I took a year ago, I learned that if you shield infants and kids from stressful experiences, the part of the brain that buffers stress won’t fully develop and the kid won’t have the ability to cope with stress for the rest of his or her life.

But is causing stress in the life of your kid the right way to prevent that? I have a hunch that it isn’t.

I also have a hunch that there are plenty of Yale Law professors who didn’t grow up with “Chinese mothers.”

To read Chua’s story in full, click here. (And thanks to Alex for bringing it to my attention!)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • J. Rivera

    I enjoy reading your blog. I’ve read every article, and they’re all so insightful. I have an exchange student from China living with me this year, so this article was particularly revealing. Keep up the excellent work!

  • I had no idea you had a new blog. I just saw this post through LinkedIn’s blog feed and clicked. I’m glad I found it. Do you mind if I add your blog to my blogroll?

    It’s so interesting that you wrote about Chua’s book because I was clicking all over the Internet to find out more information about the writer a few days ago. I was really struck by how much her kids *have* accomplished. I think some of the rules are crazy (including threatening to burn stuffed animals), but it’s interesting nonetheless.

  • Looks like the other have beaten me to it, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog (as I have all your others blog, too!). I get genuinely excited when my Google Reader tells me you’ve updated… (: I just read this article yesterday so it’s funny that you are updating with it. It was very difficult for me to wrap my mind around non-Western parenting and *not* think of it as some type of abuse. And I can’t help but question how much damage this stuff really does or doesn’t do to the child. I was taking an adolescent psych class in high school (@ PHCC) and there was a Chinese/American student in the class who revealed her mother was very strict and told many stories of her “horrible” childhood because of the “rules.” I couldn’t help but think of her when I read this article. Hmpf.

  • @ Ms. Rivera: I’m so glad you read and enjoy the blog and that you got something out of this post. Thank you!

    @ Sherry: I’d be honored if you’d add my blog to your blogroll! I haven’t done a whole lot to promote it (mostly because I’ve started so many blogs over the years that I’ve abandoned, after telling everybody to read it! lol.). I think I might read Chua’s book. I like her style (writing style, that is!) and I’d like to learn more about her point of view.

    @ Amber: Aww! Thank you so much! It’s fascinating (when not disturbing) to look at the differences in parenting styles. I’d like to learn more about whether kids like Chua’s really are unaffected by it mentally. I kinda doubt it.

  • Hey Arleen, great post! Touchy subject apparently, I noticed some of the reactions on Twitter.

    I like how you compare the Amish culture to the examples in the article. I do think it has something to do with *our* (westerners) perception of abuse, and entitlement to everything convenient. Plain and simply what I mean is…what some people think of as abuse is considered discipline to others; and what some see as convenience is frowned upon as under-achievement to the rest. (Ouch. That kinda hurt *me*. Because I grew up in a household with the latter view.)

    I’m not a parent either, but I think this line nicely sums up what parenting is: ” . . . it is crucial to override their [kids] preferences.” Like I was saying elsewhere, coming from a lax Latino family, I agree with the majority of this article. We weren’t pushed very hard in academics growing up. Maybe because my parents didn’t finish school in their native country, so when we moved to the States higher learning wasn’t a top priority. Many props, and gratitude towards them for instilling in my sister and I other virtues…like hard work, honesty, valuing family, respecting authority and the fear of God.

    I think all cultures have their virtues–and downfalls–and not one is superior to the other.

    This sparked good conversation with my sister (who is a parent to a budding 2-year-old genius in his own right) about how to approach his school and social life. Thanks for sharing, and as always, a pleasure to read!


  • @ Alex: Re: “what some people think of as abuse is considered discipline to others”, so true! Before I read Amish Grace, how to articulate how embedded different ways of life are within their respective cultures hadn’t hit me. But I think the writers of Amish Grace hit the nail on the head: it is deeply woven and it’s been so deep for so long that it’s the norm for the people in that culture and impossible for people in other cultures to authentically emulate. And in the case of “Chinese mothering,” that deeply woven parenting style is one most western parents just naturally can’t embrace or accept, let alone want to try to emulate.
    I love the line about overriding kids’ preferences. That’s partly because I think override is an awesome word (irrelevant). It’s so common in our culture for parents to be friends to their kids instead of parents to their kids. Those are the parents who refuse, for whatever reason, to override their kids’ preferences. I still don’t think I’d be as strict as Chua, but if I’m ever a mom, I imagine I’ll do a lot of overriding. Lol.

  • Did you notice her disrespect to her husband in the article?
    Her daughter isn’t allowed to talk back to her but she can be rude disrespectful and contemptous to her own husband?
    Is that what that method produces?

    And how can you say “for her kids, it works”. How can you possible know that? Works for what?
    Remember, this method of “parenting” is from the culture that throughout history has kept murdering millions of it’s own citizens. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_in_China