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Katherine Lewis

Are Chinese Mothers Really Best?

By January 11, 2011

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An essay claiming that Chinese mothers are superior to Western moms has the Internets buzzing, which is sure to boost sales of author Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, released today. I'm just hoping that the piece, which ran in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, isn't a true reflection of Chua's parenting style. She seems to be advocating practices that are, quite frankly, abusive, such as calling your children "fatty" and "lazy" and even "garbage" as a way of motivating them to achieve in school and in life. In her world view, parents know best, and have a duty to drive their children to excel academically and at parent-chosen extracurricular activities, while denying them autonomy, playdates and any hobby that might not get them into the best college.

Given that I have a Chinese mother and I am one myself (okay, I'm a half-Chinese mother) I feel the need to combat the notion that raising children with an iron fist is the best choice. I have seen the damage that impossible-to-please Chinese parents have wrought on their children, who end up depressed, acting out sexually and struggling to form healthy adult relationships -- despite that Ivy League degree and high-prestige job that their parents are so proud of. As Julianne Hing blogs at the Atlantic, Asian-American women "are especially prone to depression and suicide; scientists have linked that in part to cultural pressures to succeed." Although the subhead of Chua's essay mentions "happy kids," nowhere in the body of the piece do I see any evidence that her parenting techniques have led her children to develop confidence, independence or happiness -- just to achieve high grades and play musical instruments well.

My biggest argument with Chua's essay is the idea that parents face only two choices: to be authoritarian or to be permissive. She portrays Chinese parents as the achievement-focused dictators of their children's lives, and Western parents as pushovers who praise their children for sub-par efforts in a misguided attempt to build their self-esteem. Not only is this a sweeping cultural generalization, there is a middle way, as Heather Turgeon points out in Babble.com, in which parents set boundaries, rules and high expectations for their kids -- but also respect them as individuals; care about their thoughts and needs; and give them the nurturing and loving support they need to tackle life's challenges.

Chua has ably pointed out the flaws in the permissive parenting style. But that doesn't mean she's right either. The danger of authoritarian parenting is that if you make every decision for your children until they turn 18, and never let them fail, they'll be unprepared to cope in the real world as autonomous adults. At some point, they are likely to either go wild with their newfound freedom, or collapse under the weight of their first failure. Thus, we see straight-A students binge drinking and engaging in risky sex in their freshman year of college or becoming suicidal after receiving their first-ever A-minus or worse. Not to mention the many children who are simply unable to achieve those straight As in the first place, and spin out of control on their dictatorial parents' watch.

I've requested a review copy of Chua's book, which I hope will be more nuanced than the excerpt implies. More than one friend has asked my opinion of the essay -- and been relieved when I said they weren't failing their children by yelling at them too little. What do you think about the differences in parenting styles that you observe around you? Are you tempted to adopt any of Chua's extreme parenting techniques?

Photo credit: Getty Images

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January 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm
(1) Christy says:

I respect that there are cultural differences in how we raise our children around the world. And, while her description of her parenting style horrifies me to a certain extent, I will admit that it tends to result in children with high academic achievement and self-discipline. High academic achievement is not my end-goal for my children, however. I want them to be innovators. I want them to know how to make mistakes and learn from them. I want them to be able to connect with other people and build healthy relationships. Her method simply doesn’t align with my values, and I’m OK with that.

January 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm
(2) Carey says:

Ditto to what Christy said. I will probably read her book, and teaching kids discipline and achievemnet is important to me to an extent, but I know already that I’ll choose “Love and Logic” over her methods and feel very peaceful and confident with the decision.

January 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm
(3) Chris says:

Is she nuts? Children need to self differentiate from their parents. I was raised by an over controlling and over bearing Chinese mom and at the age of 42 I am finally getting over self hate. Life is not just about grades, jobs and money. It is about the relationships and moments and bonds with people. If I could have been loved for who I am I would not feel so much hurt!

January 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm
(4) Grumpy says:


The problem with American parents is too low expectations, not too high expectations.

While the essay was a bit over-the-top, the basic idea is sound: assume that your child is strong, assume that your child can achieve, and be willing to push when the child encounters obstacles. These is NOTHING that matches the feeling of accomplishment when overcoming a particularly difficult challenge. But, you don’t get there without trying. And, that is the point, isn’t it. You have to try.

I certainly think the essay implied that there was plenty of love sprinkled in with the iron fist. American students and parents are nearly uniformly lazy. Sure, they may have spurts of good performance, but overall the facts show that Americans perpetually under perform over the long term.

Middle ground gets you what you expect: middle of the road (bell curve), average results. And, plenty of people seem content with this, but are unwilling to admit it.

January 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm
(5) Jenn says:

Chua is not really a Chinese. how dare she represent chinese moms? we chinese moms are not as sick as she is.

Not only was she a racist, her comments to Chinese mom is actually an insult to us.

We all know she wants to sell her book. I for one will not waste money on her trash.

January 12, 2011 at 1:24 am
(6) Sarah says:

I think the timing of this book and piece is really interesting, and pushing some deep-seated fears and buttons as China ascends in power in the world. On a very deep level, I think we’re all asking ourselves what it is going to take to compete in the world in the future.

It is a reality that some parents in India and China push their children extra hard because “failure” and mediocrity can have much more dire consequences. In those societies there are simply fewer opportunities for a secure future.

Perhaps Americans do need to work harder, but I don’t think calling the kid “pathetic” and “fatty” is motivating. My Chinese mother laughed at my Chinese accent after she sent me to a British boarding school, and thus after that I simply stopped speaking Cantonese.

So in my case, making fun of the child backfired.

January 12, 2011 at 8:20 am
(7) snippy says:

Great response. I think raising kids that way is downright early-mid 20th century. I also feel this kind of upbringing does not prepare kids to be the innovators and creative content creators that some economists and futurists feel a nation’s work force needs to be in order to stay at the top of the food chain. Countries like Singapore recognize this and have been trying for the last decade or so to amend their education system to produce more creatives and innovators.

Sure, there are notable numbers of concert pianist, violinists, etc. who graduate from this boot camp, but are the vast majority merely perfect executionists, or people who could go on to compose original work of comparable caliber? And to your point, what are the ‘back room’ personalities behind these enviable ‘shop fronts?’

January 12, 2011 at 11:57 am
(8) Susan says:

I think that Chua has a point when she writes, “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.”

While I think Chua’s self-reported behavior goes beyond the bounds of good parenting, I do think that modern American parents often err on the side of overprotectiveness. They want to shield their children from any pain or failure, and in the process they shield them from learning. If we respected our children’s strength and resilience, we wouldn’t be so panicked about the negative experiences that are a part of everyone’s life.

It’s true that the “Chinese mother” style of parenting can have negative effects on children’s psyches. But so can the American model of overindulgence and overprotection.

January 13, 2011 at 3:58 pm
(9) AS says:

Before any more inflammatory comments are made, please read her interview on NPR, most of her comments are made tongue-in-cheek.

January 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm
(10) Grumpy says:

By the by, she also points out that the Wall Street Journal edited the piece (to emphasize the most controversial parts), and did not give her much leeway in changing it. She points out that the book is about a journey, which was not at all mentioned.

And, of course, she cared deeply how her daughter felt about her.


January 15, 2011 at 3:50 am
(11) Rani says:

I would straight out call this woman’s past parenting techniques abusive. Yes, she is clearly able to identify drawbacks in a ‘passive’ parenting style, but unable to identify her own behaviour as downright monstrous. It’s very much possible to have a two-sided mother – sweet and gentle to interviewers, screaming uncontrollably at her children to ‘succeed’. Succeed at what? Future personality disorders, inability to truly trust or respect those without high grades or wealth or prestige.

The articles about this have sickened me, no end. If this woman wrote this book with the intention of highlighting how damaging it was to her children, I can appreciate that. But unfortunately, I doubt it. Mockingly or not, apologetic or not, you’ve essentially just f**ked up your kids. Coming from a family with an academic success driven mother, I can honestly say the effects are lasting, and always in a negative sense.

So your kids can play an instrument well and get A’s drawn on papers? Well done, lady, on getting the most out of tyrannical, egotistical control. I love how she excuses it on being Chinese, too – because being psychopathically domineering is totally due to race! Well done on championing racism!

Goddamn, this entire thing reeks.

January 27, 2011 at 5:07 pm
(12) Jessica A Bruno says:

Finished reading it, yesterday. Found it was worth it. Even though I have mix emotions on all of it. Still wished that Ms Chua breastfed her kids instead of bottlefed them and etc along those lines. It would be interesting if her husband (Jed Rubenfield)/maybe their kid/s would write their own memoir/s about this. The reason why mentioned that in her book (last chapter) and I for one would be interested reading his/their side/s of the story.

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