Monday, January 17, 2011

On hardass Asian parents

Causing a stir this week has been Amy Chua's piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled Why Chinese mothers are superior. A provocative title, to be sure, and the article itself is seems designed to engender a reaction. Chua is a law professor at Yale and a mother of two daughters, and has a new book out called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Here are some excerpts:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
  • 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 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.

I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being 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.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then 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.

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 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. But 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 a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

I've thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets.

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 first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

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. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.

By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. "Children don't choose their parents," he once said to me. "They don't even choose to be born. It's parents who foist life on their kids, so it's the parents' responsibility to provide for them. Kids don't owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids." This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.

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 sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." 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.


There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' 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.

The article elicited a whopping 6400 comments from web readers. Many agreed with much of it, but obviously a lot of folks weren't too happy with Chua for one reason or another.

Some commenters thought she sounded like a cruel and heartless mother. Others disliked the way she perpetuated the model minority stereotype, not to mention the cold-and-exacting-Asian-parent stereotype. Some found it racist against white Americans. Some found it racist against Asians. Some Asian readers lauded how their similar upbringing had brought them success in life, while other Asian readers complained of how it had damaged their self-confidence and brought them undue stress growing up.

Dominic Lawson in The Independent makes a good point:
... Chua is pressing her finger on a very sensitive point: could it be that much of the laissez-faire parenting of the modern West uses the idea of enlightened liberality to give an intellectual justification for what is actually a form of laziness?

While I'm guessing that this blogger at Resist Racism didn't like Chua's article quite so much.
So f*ck you, Amy Chua, for reinforcing that tired old model minority stereotype. For speaking for an entire group of people and ascribing your abusive parenting to your culture.

F*ck you for the abuse kids get because their parents don’t know any better.

F*ck you for the kids who are made to feel like idiots because they are not geniuses. Or musical prodigies. Or the kids who are told that our people don’t speak out, don’t protest, aren’t politically active, aren’t activists.
F*ck you for making us think our parents aren’t proud of us.
F*ck you for perpetuating racism. And f*ck the Wall Street Journal for promoting your majority view voice.

Upon reading the WSJ article, I wasn't quite so sure how to take it. If you take it as a serious opinion piece, Chua does certainly sound like a bit of an evil mother from hell. But I found the article quite amusing and wondered how seriously it was meant to be taken. Its self-congratulatory tone is so over-the-top that I thought Chua was only being partly serious - she's obviously smart enough to be aware of how such a piece would make her come across.

It turns out that Chua feels she was misrepresented. The WSJ piece was a selectively edited excerpt from her book, which is not a how-to manual, but a memoir.

In an interview with Jeff Yang of the San Francisco Chronicle, Chua says:
"I was very surprised. The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."
This is a recurring problem of news coverage as a whole these days. It's very difficult for anyone in the public eye to say anything of nuance that is not 100% one thing or the other. That doesn't make good publicity. So news outlets edit quotes and articles to highlight the bits that are bound to engender the greatest reaction. And even when they don't, plenty of readers react only to the most incendiary bits and ignore the other sections that might balance it out. And we wonder why politicians, sports stars and other public figures seem to repeat the same old meaningless platitudes ad nauseum. Say something more interesting or complex, and it will be taken out of context and used as a stick to beat them with.

That said, despite Chua's misgivings about how she's been misrepresented, she'll surely be smiling at the publicity and resulting jump in book sales that the WSJ article has precipitated.


So is there a benefit to "Chinese-style parenting", the way Chua describes it?

Of course there is, and of course there are downsides too.

I'll extend this discussion to talk about "Asian parenting", because it's something that many other Asian kids will have grown up with; particularly Indians, Koreans and Japanese. There are a number of cultural reasons for the emphasis on discipline in education. Some of it has to do with the Confucian ideals that are deeply embedded in NE Asian society. Some of it has to do with the eager "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality of so many Asian cultures; although in this case it is more like keeping up with the Singhs or the Wongs.

Let me say from the start that I did not have such an upbringing. Mine was much more Western. Maybe because my father is an Aussie. Perhaps because my Asian side comes from Indonesia, a culture which does not have quite the same level of obsession with achievement-through-education as some other Asian cultures. Perhaps it's because both my parents are very liberal-minded. But at the same time, one is a medical doctor and the other has a PhD, so it was always expected that I would get a university degree. It's just that their approach, for better or for worse, was more hands-off. I guess they figured that I was smart enough to find my own way to where they wanted me to go. My social circle in high school was pretty white and not very Asian, but this reversed when I reached university.

The Good:
I haven't been schooled in Asia, but it strikes me that one of the most debilitating characteristics of Western education is the classroom culture in which being smart equates to social death. There's a hierarchy of cool in Western schools, and the brainy kids are most often down near the bottom of a ladder that tends to place athletes, hot babes, tough guys and class clowns at the top. So many kids learn to keep their heads down and stay under the radar at a time when their creativity and intellect should be encouraged to blossom.

Sure, this social order does change after graduation, with the the meat-heads discovering that their best days are behind them. But I nonetheless think that the culture that is formed at school doesn't just reflect society as a whole, it also shapes it. An environment which encourages achievement will naturally have lower levels of mindless thuggery.

While some studies suggest East Asians achieve more because they are genetically more intelligent on average, I'm not all that convinced by that. I'm not surprised that Asians do well on IQ tests and examinations though; it's reflective of upbringing that placed great emphasis on academic success. It also helps those kids who are not blessed with great natural brainpower; the emphasis on rote learning and diligence in study does allow some students to get the best out of what they have, often better than smarter students who didn't put the effort in.

When I began to make more and more Asian friends post-high school, I discovered that compared to most of my white friends, the Asians on the whole had much less experience with drugs and alcohol, and had become sexually active somewhat later. This obviously doesn't hold true for everyone, but I think that's reflective of a broader pattern. Partly it's because migrants tend to have more traditional (and therefore conservative) values than Western parents, who are more likely to have lived through the sexual revolution and counter culture days. But it's also because Asian parents tend to be far more restrictive of their child's extracurricular activities, so often there just isn't the opportunity for some of these things to happen. And personally I think if we could delay teens from drinking, toking and screwing until they were at least 18, our world would be a better place.

The Bad:
Asian parenting is more likely to lead to what you might call "stereotypical high achievement". But does it create well-rounded individuals?

When kids turn out to be doctors, dentists, corporate accountants and entrepreneurs, that's great. But that's not everyone's destiny. Pushing kids towards stereotypical career paths isn't necessarily a recipe for happiness. I once told the (Indian) mother of a former girlfriend that I was studying community development (which, years later, has led to me helping countless people and having immense career satisfaction). Her scowling response: "There's no money in that."

Sporting and athletic ability is one area which often takes a back seat to academics in Asian culture. Certainly, many would say that Western countries place too high an emphasis on sport. But nonetheless it still is extremely valuable in terms of social engagement, hand-eye-coordination and physical fitness.

A common criticism I hear of Asian international students who attend Australian universities is that for all their diligence and willingness to study, they struggle to think creatively. Education in Asia is heavy on rote learning, yet does less to equip students to think outside the box. I wonder if this is a consequence of Asia's many authoritarian systems of government... or perhaps part of the cause?

And then there is stress. For all the Asian kids who turn out just as their hard-coaching parents had hoped, how many buckle under the pressure to achieve? How many rebel by turning to the sorts of behaviours their conservative parents try to keep them away from? It is surely no coincidence that the suicide rate amongst Asian American women aged 15-24 is the highest of any ethnic category in the US.

So surely there is a middle ground to straddle somehow. Westerners could learn much from the Asian mentality of aspiration; there is more than a hint of truth in the idea of the "model minority". But I'm sure many survivors of Asian parenting would agree that it's also important for parents to know when to chill the f*ck out.


  1. Lots of interesting points, both in her article and yours. Wouldn't it be great if parents would take the good aspects of both types of parenting! And totally agree re there being too much emphasis on sporting "heroes" in Australia at the expense of academic high achievers - good marks combined with my lack of sporting ability meant I was never cool at school!

  2. I got my Ipod taken away from me just because i got bad marks...which was b+ and a-

  3. A lot of important issues have been raised in this article. I like it how you've compared Amy Chua's parenting methods with your own upbringing. :)

  4. If one parent is Asian and the other Western, yeah, they're less strict. If they are both half Asians raised in Asia like mine for instance, they're strict, especially with their daughters, but if they have been in the West since childhood, they're less strict.