Top Stories In LIFE & CULTURE/ THE SATURDAY ESSAY January 8, 2011
review of Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior by NEWPEDS.COM


Why Chinese Mothers are Superior by Amy Chua

This essay in the Wall Street Journal drew considerable attention when it was published on January 8, 2011. The subheading asks: "Can a regimen of no play dates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?

The author notes that people have observed that Chinese parents have amazingly successful children. She asks: how is it possible to have such a high percentage of stellar children? She goes on to say: "…I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters….were never allowed to do…" Then she lists 

      Attend a sleepover

      Have a play date

      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

She feels that "…even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to the Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough."

Ms. Chua, while acknowledging that all Chinese mothers are not doing what she does, quotes statistics that say that "…the vast majority of the Chinese [immigrant] mothers can be ‘the best’ students, that ‘academic achievement reflects successful parenting,’ and that if children did not excel at school there was ‘a problem’ and parents ‘were not doing their job.’ Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams."

Ms. Chu feels that the Chinese parents have a different view of things and that is what promotes this approach. "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to do work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. .."

She emphasizes that "…If done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. " Once successful, the child develops self confidence and begins to enjoy the activity and takes pride in their achievement.

"Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t…" She goes on to relate an episode when she called her daughter "…garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. "The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable---even legally actionable---to Westerners."

"Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight A’s. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. .."

"To explain why Chinese parents can "get away" with these things, Ms. Chua lists differences in the mindsets of Western and Chinese parents. "First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently."

"For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child ‘stupid’, worthless’ or ‘a disgrace’. Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials."

"If a Chinese child gets a B---which would never happen---there would be a screaming, hair tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get….practice tests and work …with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A."

She continues on her explanation of the difference in attitudes: "Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their 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 to improve from it…"

"Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything….Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud."

"….Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of 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 sleep-away camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, ‘I got a part in the school play!...God help any Chinese kid who tried that one."

"Don’t get me wrong; It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It’s just an entirely different parenting model."

"Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece …The piece is really cute….but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms."

"Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off."

" ‘Get back to the piano now, ‘ I orderd."

" ‘You can’t make me.’ "

" ‘Oh yes, I can.’ "

"Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I pasted the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have [the piece] perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, ‘I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?’ I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self ?indecent? and pathetic."

When her husband protested that she was possibly going too far and that not every child could do everything, she chastised him and more or less asked him to keep out of it. Then she went on.

"I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night , and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

"Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came togeterh000her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing---just like that."

Lulu went on to perform the piece at a recital and did well. She seemed to continue to have a strong relationship with her mother.

Ms. Chua continues:

"…as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

"There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kid’s true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children.

The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that."

"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."

Ms. Chua is a professor of law at Yale Law School. The article was excerpted from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother published by the Penguin Press, Copyright 2011 by Amy Chua.