Yesterday I read an article in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The subtitle read, “Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids?”
Of course it grabbed my attention. I’m the mom of three pretty typical American teenage children (ages 19, 17, and 13). The writer of the article is Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School and the author of several bestselling books. I’m pretty sure she plays an instrument very proficiently as well. Ms. Chua, who is Chinese and married to an American, has two daughters who were never allowed to do the following:
- 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 activites
- Get any grade less than an A
- Not be the number 1 student in any class except gym and drama
- Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- Not play the piano or violin.
Before you gasp in horror, as I did when I read this, let me share with you a few statistics that were included in the article. Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science. The latest tests were conducted in 2009 in 65 world economies.
The top score in all three categories was Shanghai, China. Hong Kong and Singapore scored in the top five in all categories.
The United States scored 17th in reading; 31st in math; and 23rd in science. Not so spectacular for the world’s super power country. Why are we so far behind?
Many Americans might buy into the stereotype that Oriental children are just smarter than Western kids. Not so, says Ms. Chua. She believes it all comes down to parenting styles. In her article, she shares that Chinese mothers believe their children should be the best students, and that academic achievement reflects successful parenting.
Chinese parents spend almost ten times longer every day drilling academic activities with their children compared to Western parents, whose kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
Ms. Chua asserts, “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 critical 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.”
Whoa. I read that and began to feel like a real loser parent.
My kids spend plenty of time watching TV, playing video games, trolling the internet, and hanging with friends. They smart off more frequently than they should, and they are probably wasting a good bit of their time and talents.
We guided them toward certain extracurricular activities and insisted they try several things. But if they hated it, we didn’t force them to continue. We have provided academic support, challenges, and expectations. But by the time they reached middle school, we figured that self-motivation needed to kick in. We didn’t stand over them as they did homework.
There were consequences for bad grades earned from laziness, but we didn’t hover to ensure stellar grades. We certainly gave a lot of praise when they got them, but no financial or material rewards. We see the value in intrinsic motivation and natural consequences. Maybe that’s naive.
One of the most startling differences in Chinese and Western parenting styles is the Chinese parent’s use of shaming as a means of discipline and motivation.
Ms. Chua never doubted her parent’s love when her father called her “garbage” for being disrespectful. She called one of her own daughters the same thing. Chinese parents can call their kids “fatty” if they need to lose weight. They will say, “you’re lazy” or “you’re stupid and a disgrace” if they aren’t making straight A’s.
She has noticed that “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem” and that Chinese parents are not. Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they (their children) behave very differently.”
According to Ms. Chua:
- Chinese parents demand perfect grades and believe that their children can get them. If they don’t, the parent assumes that it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.
- The solution to substandard performance is for the Chinese parents to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and improve from it.
- Chinese parents believe that their children owe them everything, and subsequently, children must repay their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
- Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.
- Chinese parents see this parenting style as extremely caring because it provides their children confidence and the skills for success in life. They would give up anything for their children.
In fact, says Ms. Chua, “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.” Ouch.
As I read this article, I experienced a range of emotions — from shock and indignation to respect and, yes, a bit of jealousy. Every parent wants their children to be smart, talented, successful, respectful, and confident. But at what price? It would be interesting to hear from Chinese young adults who have recently emerged from this strict parenting model to see how they feel now that they have some perspective.
For my own part, I realize that even if I had the fortitude and desire to parent a la the Chinese model, my children would be aberrations in their American culture.
Rather than building their confidence, they would be strange outsiders in an already socially competitive American teenage landscape. I seem to recollect that as a teenager myself, fitting in was pretty much my primary goal in life. And somehow I survived and became successful in life in spite of that.
Perhaps our kids aren’t the most successful students in the world, making the top scores on international tests. They could certainly do better. Our educational model could be more creative and competitive. Parents could get more involved and foster higher academic expectations for their children. We do need to do better for them in many regards.
That said, isn’t it just as important to allow our children to think for themselves and even fall on their faces a few times without commandeering their entire academic and social journey?
For me, Kahlil Gibran offers the most sound and elegant advice on parenting from his book The Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Please share your thoughts about parenting styles in the comments. If you would like to read the full Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua, please click here.