Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

Most everything I want to post on this blog can be related to gardening and nature in some way, but this time, I digress completely. I'm taking advantage of my little piece of public forum to urge you NOT to buy the new book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale who has totally sucked me in for the past few hours.

I was so basically pissed off after reading her article in The Wall Street Journal that I wrote the response below. If you have the time to spend on this, please read her article first, then my response. Though I feel she practices what she says, I do think she's being overly dramatic in a clever publicity stunt to sell books. If this is a stunt, she's despicable. If not, she's a pretty sad case anyway. her article HERE and be outraged. Thank you in advance for reading my perspective too.


As a Chinese daughter, a Chinese mother, and a school counselor, Amy Chua’s January 8th article turns my stomach.

Though I’m sure her somewhat sensational story of parenting has stirred up many emotions and responses, and though I doubt I will be the one to enlighten her to potential drawbacks to her parenting style, I think it’s important for readers to know being a Chinese mother does not always entail the harsh characteristics that Chua illustrates. In my opinion, what Chua describes is simply a cold, demanding, and rigid mother. As a Chinese mother myself, I am offended that she would justify her parenting by simply describing herself a Chinese mother. Additionally, I hope any readers who nodded in agreement with Chua will realize that this type of disapproving and rigid parenting can cause problems.

The reality is, there are cultural differences between Eastern and Western styles of parenting. To generalize, it is typical for Asian parents to refrain from too much boasting, too much praise, too many outward expressions of love and approval. Interestingly, like Chua, my father has also called me “garbage”. Even as a child I have always considered myself to be reflective and insightful, but unlike Chua, I did not believe that my father truly loved me until I was in my early 20’s. Based on his actions and words, I simply did not think he did. Overtly insulting your children while withholding praise, and assuming that they will understand that you love them is quite an assumption. For me, the gamble that my children might misunderstand is too great a risk to take.

I take issue with Chua’s statement that Chinese mothers assume strength, not fragility. The practice of insulting your children, of stripping the social and developmental experiences of being children, of taking the freedom to make choices from your children, of forcing them to play an instrument for hours on end, and to expect that they must be “the best” does NOT help to build or tap into innate strength. What Chua is really witnessing is not strength, but simply a good ability to tolerate punishment. Perhaps Amy Chua is “the best” at everything she does, but I certainly am not. I do not demand that my children are “the best” at what they do. Is this because I don’t have high expectations? Is this because I assume that they are fragile? No. This is because expecting perfection is unreasonable. I’m glad Lulu was eventually able to play “The Little White Donkey”. However, I think Chua is mistaken in the message that she seems to have culled from that experience. I wouldn’t want to imagine how little Lulu would have fared had she not figured out how to coordinate her hands to play the piece. When Chua shared one of her parenting moments at a dinner party, her acquaintance Marcy left in tears for a reason. Not because she heard about an instance of cultural differences in parenting, but because she heard about a mother who treated her child cruelly.

Though “The Little White Donkey” ended with a successful recital, I fear that not every experience will. In the end, I hope Chua will feel her behavior was worth it because these superficial successes come with a high cost. As a school counselor, I hear many stories from my high-achieving Asian American students that echo the same theme. A senior cries in my office when she’s rejected from Cornell. She really had a slim chance but her parents had been preparing her for Cornell beginning in fifth grade. A freshman is brought to my office by her friends when she was found crying in the bathroom after “failing” an exam. Explaining that a B is not failing does not alleviate the fear of reprisal and disappointment she feels. My junior is near a nervous breakdown when he cannot handle the AP science classes he’s forced by his parents to take (especially when his strengths and interests are actually in the humanities). I hate to break it to Chua but these students are not the pillars of strength. They are hurt, overloaded, unhappy children, who at the end of the day, are not always certain that their parents love them. If this is true, why don’t you know about this? Well, it’s because when I propose that we talk to their parents to brainstorm ways to reduce the stress, I hear, “No! Don’t tell my mom”. They fear your disapproval. They are not stronger for the trials that you place on them – they just dry their tears before they go home to you.

Every child has the right to feel loved and protected in the world. Chua’s daughters are lucky enough to have a healthy, available, and seemingly intelligent mother. It is a shame that she paints herself as a mother who wants so much to raise successful children, but whose love appears to be so conditional. I don’t know Lulu, but I know children. I’m sure she felt joy in playing around and snuggling with her mother after mastering “The Little White Donkey”, but I’m saddened that she had to work so hard for that.

Despite cultural differences, I detest the notion of polarizing two types of parenting – permissive Western parenting and demanding Eastern parenting. Somewhere there is a reasonable medium and this is why at the end of most days, I feel like an excellent Chinese mother. This Chinese mother was proud of her daughter who was cast as the equivalent of what Chua mocked as “Villager Number Six”. I was proud that as an older child, my daughter (independently) decided to start taking ballet and was able to hold her own with students who had taken ballet for 10 years. For my daughter, there was great value in spending numerous hours preparing to be someone as lowly as “Villager Number Six”. One value was the lesson that there are small pieces that go into a large production. No single part is insignificant. Though ballet is not her passion, she challenged herself to perform better, stretched herself to try something new, and made many new friends along the way. Did I praise her for her 30 second part in the 2 hour production? You bet I did.

My goal as a mother is to build (and not test) the strength in my children. I want to teach them good values and a strong work ethic that would exist whether I was next to them cracking a whip or not. I want my children to have a zest for life and to be able to make good decisions for them because I know I will not always be there to make decisions for them. I would be glad for my daughters to have a boyfriend in high school because I want them to learn for themselves the qualities they value in a person. I want them to be creative and have an ability to produce new ideas. I want them to share with me and trust in me. None of these things can happen if I am hovering over them, making decisions for them, equating success with being number one, and spying on them.

At the end of the day, there will be kids who have better grades than mine do. There will be kids who are in higher math classes. My children will likely not be playing concertos on a stage for an audience. However, they WILL be equipped with the skills to communicate well, to build meaningful relationships with people, and most importantly, be able to face life confidently with the ability to cope when things (inevitably for everyone) don’t go perfectly. And at the end of every day, my daughters will know that I always want them to work hard and be successful, but that I love them unconditionally. This is a feeling no perfect piano concerto could ever replace.


  1. Hi Wendy, I enjoyed and agree with your well written response to Amy Chua's book. Unconditional love...says it all.

  2. I agree with you too! We need to show our love towards our children! No dictator action!

  3. I didn't read the woman's article because I had already seen her on The Today Show. I was appalled by her celebration of those rigid parenting skills. And also the incident she related about rejecting her daughter's homemade birthday card because it was so plain.

    Your answer is a wonderful counterpoint and I am glad you are sending it. I agree with you 100%. I used to work with a man who had brought he and his family from Vietnam and he pushed his children in similar ways, telling the son that he was going to be a doctor so that the family could give back to the US. The son got into Duke University, but really loved his English Literature courses to a point that he abruptly switched his major from pre-med to that with the intent to teach. The father was so incensed - I mean really hopping mad. I told him that he raised a born teacher and that I thought that was a better way to give back, teaching a subject you love.

    Thanks for your post on this today, Wendy.

  4. Excellent response, Wendy. And if you want it to relate to gardening, I bet Amy Chua wouldn't approve of gardening as an activity for children - no recitals and it's hard to be "the best" at it.

  5. Wendy,
    I was in shock after reading the article a few days ago. It of course stirred an enormous amount emotional conflict in both my own more lax parenting technique and my parents lack of belief in my skill or ability. We all know that we make parenting mistakes. I often wonder if not pushing my daughter leads to a lack of self confidence in what I know she can achieve, but might be too lazy to put in the time to accomplish. There is a middle ground. Every child is different - every parent and set of parents are different. If there was a right way, they would have written the book. I absolutely do not think that Chua has written THE book. However, I feel like I can take part of what she preaches to begin to write THE book that would have been a better set of guidelines in the raising my child. She knows I love her - that is the most important thing. I'll keep working on the rest.

  6. I think I deleted my thoughts on this about 3 times now, so I will just say that that was a very sad story and I agree with your ideas on parenting. The "Permissive Western vs. Demanding Eastern: Which style of parenting is best for children?" poll was pretty pitiful too. Where is the third option? Yes, a very sad story.

  7. Humm .. good response .. but she does have some valid points about western parents and the whole self esteem topic .. our society in general no longer validates exceptionalism in sports (for example) .. we've watered down the games to make everyone feel special by handing out team trophies to even the losing team. As a home schooling mother for 12 years .. one son has dyslexia .. I can't imagine the threats she used as a way to get someone with learning disabilities to 'perform' better just for a letter grade. As the mother of a child with Down syndrome .. that's another story as well. Good food for thought.

  8. Prediction; I recommend her children save up lots of money for future therapy.

    'Mommy Dearest' anyone?

  9. Dear Wendy: As a Chinese mother myself, I only can say that I don't want to have a mother like Amy Chua if I were a kid, needless to say to be a mother like her! Yes, usually Asian parents seem to have higher expectations for their kids, especially academically. That is nothing wrong, but it should not be achieved by cruelty and sacrifice of love. One needs to remember every kid has their own strength, and your kids should not live to realize parent's dream. They have their own dream to pursue. I know I am not a perfect mother, and I am constantly learning to be a good mother and sometimes struggling. As a first generation Chinese immigrant, I wanted my kids to learn Chinese and speak Chinese at home, but I know it is very hard for them considering they were born in US, and have English speaking friends, and go to public school. So speaking Chinese only became my good wish for them, and their occassioal chinese words embeded in english sentence could be something that I am proud of them :) I do send them to sunday Chinese school to learn chinese, so that they won't be total strangers to Chinese Culture. As of other things in school, I love my kids involving as much as school activities if they choose to. To be honest, yes, I love my kids getting all A's, but I also know grades are not everything. Asian people are more shy to express their feelings and love to their loved ones. I wanted to change this to my kids, giving them more praise, and kisses and hugs everyday. Tell them I love them, and even sometimes I could be upset about their behaviors. When I visited my parents in China, or they come to visit us, I hug my parents to show my love, which is not common practice in a Chinse Family, if you know what I mean :)

    I am very glad that you send your response. I don't want people thinking every Chinse mother is like Amy Chua.

  10. Wendy,
    A most thoughtful, and admirably thought-provoking response to Amy Chua!

  11. Wendy, your response is 100% spot on. I thought at first Amy Chua's piece was being sarcastic. Imagine my horror and anger when I realized she really believes everything she says. I'm outraged!! Her story should be pulled! It has no business being published. I loved your response. It was very well written and heartfelt. I'm behind you 100%!!!!

  12. Wendy,

    This is an interesting conversation. I've been having so many second thoughts about my own unconditional love upbringing for my youngest and all the stress and disappointment I've felt since he hit his teen years. I keep wondering if I didn't expect enough from him. Hopefully, it will all work out when he finally grows up.

    I also can't help but think that some of Ms. Chua's commentary isn't meant to be a bit dramatic to get attention. But..maybe not. I love and respect your passion.


  13. Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts here - and for taking the time to read. I'm still a burned up about this - as are many people. I think there were close to 4,000 comments on the WSL article. It's scary when people agree and I think it's so polarizing. As a Chinese person, I really don't want people to think this is how Chinese people parent - or that this is what happens behind closed doors. Amy Chua is a LOW LIFE. I'm angry at myself for having spent so much time and energy being upset. I feel like I've given her exactly what she wanted.

    My husband and I have both mentioned that our parents did not push us. My parents did not push me (the right way that is) and his parents were going through their divorce - encouraging him to excel was not on their minds at the time. For us, we're constantly learning about ourselves as parents. Our goal is to encourage them to do well, to "make" the older one practice her guitar. However, the choice of guitar was hers, and if it got to the point of tears, thrashing around (like in the article), and tearing music up? Well...that kind of defeats the whole purpose. Last year my daughter asked me why I didn't put the "my child is an honor roll student at..." sticker on my car like some of her friends have. I told her that being on the honor roll is something that is expected of her. No, she does not need to have straight a's, but she certainly has the capability and ability to reach the honor roll. I'm proud. the sticker is on the bookcase, propped up. I think it was enlightening and encourageing for her to know that for us, being on the honor roll is an expectation. For our family, this is what we consider the middle ground. Oh - and I have better things to do that sit with her for hours and drill and practice. A benefit - she is 12 years old and has learned some very resonable study skills on her own. No need to crack the whip.

  14. I think your response was great. I'd like to know where Chua expects her children to be a success, in China or in America. If she is raising her children to compete in Chinese society where everyone else has been raised to be the best and to judge others on nothing but competence (which I can only assume is the case, based on her commentary), then it sounds like perhaps hers is the right approach. However, I think shared experience counts for a lot, no matter where you are; in China if everybody has the same childhood experience of being shamed, embarrassed, and loathed by their parents for lack of excellence, that's just part of growing up. In America, no matter how much respect you may garner for a job well done, that same childhood story may garner pity from your equally successful colleagues. I doubt Chua would consider pity from competent colleagues a sign of success.

    I don't disagree with everythign Chua says-I think Americans tend to be so afraid of hurting their kids' feelings that they will often forego any sort of discipline or expectations at all. We may not value perfection, but Americans do value the ability to make decisions and to get along socially, often with different types of people, people like those you may have met at summer camp or worked with in a school play. An inability to do either of these well might not end a career, but it could keep you from acheiving top ranks. Chua may be raising superior Chinese children, but I fear she may be raising weak American adults.

  15. Wendy, I agree with you 100%. I don't bring up my kids the Amy Chua way. I won't be surprise (but I hope it won't happen) if her kids get a nervous breakdown one fine day. This is not the way to nurture, and unconditional love it should be.


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