Can We Take a Lesson from  “Chinese” Parenting?
16 mins read

Can We Take a Lesson from “Chinese” Parenting?

In the last week, there has been a publicity blast for a new memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” written by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and first generation Chinese-American. Her somewhat provocative article, and excerpt from the book, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” has been making the rounds on the internet and has sparked responses and rebuttals from many. My poor Chinese-American sister-in-law has now decided she’s going to hold off on buying the book, possibly because the buzz generated by the article has turned her off. She told me the article has been forwarded to her at least a dozen times! (I happen to think she’s a pretty superior woman – and a great mother too!) In today’s usual style, Chua is using semi-controversial stories to draw attention to herself and her latest book.

Of course, there is a major (and partially valid) fear in the U.S. that our children are being “left behind”. And in so many ways, parents here in the U.S. are worried about keeping up with the Chinese. Chinese students have topped world rankings in the areas of Reading, Math and Science (Wall Street Journal, 1/8/11). We all know about the Mandarin craze – not only do a large number of preschoolers I know (including non-Chinese-Americans) take Mandarin as a second language, but it’s replaced Latin and French as an elective language in many high schools as well. The Chinese have the world’s fastest trains….and now are working on creating the stealthiest planes…We have already accepted world of Chinese dominance and seem to be preparing our children for the new paradigm.

If we are simply comparing how much Americans and Chinese value children’s education as a whole, let’s look at the straight facts. In the U.S., we allocate total budget allocate 17% of a total budget on education vs. 12.1% by the Chinese ( In our country a primary education is mandatory, but 1 out of 4 Chinese children do not attend school (, a statistic the Chinese government is aiming to better. Where the Chinese have neglected their rural poor, the US is still struggling to understand how to address the particularly notable gaps in performance by White / Asian-Americans and Black / Hispanics ( In fact, Asian-Americans do outrank all other Americans in every category in which they’re tested. Bottom line is still that in both China and America, Asian parents seem to have placed their children atop the rankings in achievement.

However, I’m not sure we all need to rush to embrace Chua’s stereotype of the typical Chinese parent…in fact, let’s first try to see things as they really are. Chua is not Chinese. Like my sister in law and me, she is a first generation Asian-American immigrant. Lucky for us, we Asian-Americans seemed been blessed with the fantastic reputation (and the test scores to back this) of being highly academic, overachievers who value education, hard work and mastery of subjects over the “pursuit of happiness” (Chua would like to have us believe that all “American” parents believe this is the only important thing to instill in our children.) Chua herself admits that she refuses to let her children participate in sports or school plays, but violin and piano and straight As are mandatory. She also doesn’t believe in play dates, sleepovers or pretty much, as it seems, having much fun unless you count fun as the feeling you get from being perfect.

One of the most salient things that is sure to emerge from Chua’s writings is that high expectations for children are beneficial. As a teacher and a mother, I think it’s vital to have only the highest of expectations for children- and to do everything in your power to create the right environment for them to thrive in. However, I also think that it’s quite alright for children to fail, and experience failure – and a great deal can be learned from these experiences.

In reality, my particular viewpoint (and I suspect many of yours) is not very far off from Chua’s, but I hardly believe that her rather draconian (as my sister-in-law calls them) methods of pushing her children to achieve her own ambitions for them could backfire in so many ways too. Her “Superior mother” excerpt was clearly chosen for its somewhat eye-raising anecdote in which Chua describes virtually chaining her daughter to a piano bench and depriving her of meals and water until she played a score perfectly. She certainly deems herself a superior mother for giving her child the joy of achieving perfection. It’s debatable whether the benefit of this method — honing her daughter’s perfectionist tendencies and instilling a certain work ethic in this child outweigh the drawbacks – creating a child who cannot accept failure and is extremely self-critical. We do in fact, learn quite a lot from our mistakes – and the ability to recover from mistakes is such an important skill for children to learn, as fits into their overall resilience in life. I also question whether Chua’s daughter really has an intrinsic desire to succeed in playing the piano or has no choice but to fulfill the goals of her driven mother. I see absolutely nothing wrong with allowing children to develop a sense of self-efficacy — what researchers describe as “the belief that persistent effort will lead to success” (Carter, Raising Happiness, 2010), but I also think that there comes a time when children should be given the choice to decide where they would like to target this effort.

In addition, I think it’s important to notice where Chua looks down on the “American” way of doing things – having play dates (which I do admit, the scheduling of which can be overwhelming at times!), playing sports or enjoying being part of a dramatic performance. I personally think depriving children of much needed play and the simple ability to socialize and interact with friends and peers does truly negatively impact a child’s development – and ability later in life to understand nuances of basic social interactions. So much research has been done on the importance of play in children’s social and emotional development (And not just playing an instrument.)

In general, Americans understand the value of play for children. Many chose to send their children to nursery or what was once called “Playschool” and good early childhood educators are always trying to find a balance between allowing children to play and explore their environment while intruding tangible (and developmentally appropriate) academic concepts. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics “Play allows children to create andexplore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work ingroups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and tolearn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” (Kenneth R. Ginsberg, Pediatrics, January 2007.) And sports and drama are equally as important, for similar reasons. Our society tends to place an emphasis on a better-rounded child.

I wonder whether mothers like Chua understand that they are perhaps denying their children of so many important qualities — the ability to create, to feel or to even decide what it is that they most value or want to achieve in life!

I subscribe to a very particular view of education, namely the developmental-interactive approach (basically that an educator will interact with a child in a manner that fits their stage of development.) and I heartily support John Dewey’s notion that children’s experiences (in and outside of the classroom) are what truly educate them. Most of the research on child development done in early parts of the 20th century (Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Dewey) However, as Vygotsky explained, each child has what is called a “Zone of Proximal Development” and can be brought to a greater level within that zone, beyond their current abilities. Chua, in her own relentless style, was able to push her child into the outer limits of that zone. Perhaps pushing children is not the issue – it’s HOW we chose to push them.

What Chua does not seem to understand is that the experience she created for her child could have also come in a different form – perhaps in practice over time and not the expectation that things have to be done right immediately without mediocrity or failure as an option. As Christine Carter explains in her book, “Raising Happiness”, she suffered from the “Perils of Perfectionism” and, as a student at Dartmouth, was paralyzed by fear of judgment and having her mistakes exposed. I truly believe that the experiences that shape children’s development do not always have to be fully directed- and arbitrated by parents, but should, in fact, come from a child’s ability to make decisions and experience real life for themselves. The more “American” way is to expose your children to as many different opportunities as you can – and give them the freedom, in so many ways, to make their own choices.

One other thing that strikes me from Chua’s piece is her attitude about speaking to children. She claims that Chinese parents don’t care about whether they are hurting a child’s feelings and even describes a time when her father once called her “garbage” in their native Hokkien dialect. Although the insults didn’t seem to hurt her- she claimed she knew how much her father loved her – one cannot ignore the negative consequences of “shaming” your children, if they don’t live up to your expectations. The suicide rate among Asian American women ages 15 to 24 is the highest amongst all ethnic groups, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Center for Disease Control also recently reported that Asian Americans are more likely to commit suicide than the average American. (Both stats were found on, Jan 10th, 2011.) In addition, in China, the statistics are just as telling and upsetting. Chinese women have the highest suicide rate in the world – and the rate of suicide among Chinese men is on the rise. Many people attribute these factors to both the notion of filial piety and Confucian philosophy. “An old mythology follows many of us across the sea: Only perfection matters and, by logic, its opposite, failure is rooted in shame.” (Analysis by Andrew Lam, Editor at New America Media.) (Similar cultural notions of filial duty to one’s family and government are present in other countries, like Japan and India, which also have high rates of suicide.)

Another thing Chua does is dismiss the exuberant praise that “Western” parents lavish on their children, stating that “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.” But what some Chinese (or Asian American) parents may not be doing is focusing on how to build a resilient sense of self.

Much research done by Carol Dweck (who’s also written her own book, Mindset) has challenged the way that we praise our children, and result of the work they do. As a graduate student at Bank Street, even before Dweck’s research on praise became news, we learned to praise children for the actual work they did – pointing out the specific brushwork on a painting instead of simply oogling about how beautiful it is. Even with my daughters, I’ve learned that praising their work and effort, not end product has somehow created a shift in the way they view themselves and their approach to their work. They rush back to do things over and over again, but not because I am forcing them, but because they seem to see the value in the work itself – this self-efficacy. There is a pretty big difference ideological difference between the way Chua and “Chinese parents” expect children to do well in order to feel a sense of accomplishment as good parents.

I’m all for high expectations, but I also believe that at the end of the day, children do need to feel a sense of confidence and self-worth that comes from within, not from having to please adults. Parents – in America and China – seem to be moving towards this ideal. The Wall Street Journal ran a concurrent piece next to the Superior Mother story entitled “In China, Not All Practice Tough Love; Some parents want their children to be creative, independent and less obsessed with test scores” and it talked about how parenting styles in China are evolving in some ways.

As Chua and other parents know, we all do the best we can using the knowledge and culturally ingrained beliefs we have to work with. In order to remain competitive in the world, Americans do indeed need to look at the expectations we place upon our children and ourselves. And the Chinese, in order to lead humanely, might need to look at the structures of power they have in place – and determine whether children and people are given the certain the basic freedoms needed to achieve what is personally satisfying in life as well as for their nation. As for Chua, and other parents who are driving their children to succeed without any options – maybe it’s OK to let your children pursue some of their own desires and learn to develop an inner drive that derives from a positive self worth. And it’s important for all children to learn the nuances of positive personal relationships – which start with the relationship between parents and children and move onto peer to peer relationships, in order to succeed and live more productive and fulfilled lives.

Kanika Sethi has her Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education from the Bank Street College of Education and currently works as a shadow teacher in New York City. She is also a mother of two girls.

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