I Am Not a “Chinese Mother”

Posted On: 01.14.11

I do not claim to be a perfect mother. Or to know what it means to be a perfect mother. Or to believe in the existence of Perfect Mothers.

But I will say one thing: I am not mean to my girls.

Do I snap from time to time – out of exhaustion or exasperation? Of course. I’m only human. But I have no deep, dark disciplinary agenda with my progeny. I do not have visions of of morphing my children into modern robots, whipping them into math whizzes, or making them musical prodigies. Do I want them to find passions and nurture talents and excel? Sure. Do I secretly (or not-so-secretly) want them to get fabulous grades and attend top schools? Yup. Do I want them to be happy and healthy? You bet. Do I want them to like me? I’m not going to lie; I do.

What’s all this about? Maybe some of you have read the recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The title alone makes me cringe. Anyway, go read it. Because it is provocative and inflammatory, but does beg some important questions: What, ultimately, does it mean to be a good parent? Are we missing the mark by focusing on happiness at the expense of “success” and “superiority”?

I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. I’m learning as I go. But what I do know is that, unlike Yale law professor Amy Chua, the article’s author, I want my girls to have sleepovers and play dates and be in a school play if they choose. I will let them play video games and watch television within reason. I will let them choose their extracurricular activities. I will encourage them to work hard, but not punish them if they receive less than an A or rank below #1.

Chua provides a haunting example of her tactics. She describes a time when her daughter Lulu was 7 and was struggling with a particular piano piece and wanted to quit. Chua would not have it: “I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling…” Guess what? Little Lulu finally nailed that piece. Victory? I’m not so sure.

I do not have an exact parental plan, but I intend to let them be kids. To be people. To become who they will become. To let them, and help them, learn to live and love. Does this make me a weak Westerner? Maybe so.

Chua says she uses the term “Chinese Mothers” loosely. She says she knows some Irish mothers who would “qualify.” Maybe I could fit the bill if I tried. Maybe. But if I know anything at all about myself as a parent and as a person, I am not a member of this species, nor would I ever want to be.

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Did you read Chua’s article? If so, what do you think? In parenting, do you think the focus should be on nurturing happy creatures or superior academic and societal citizens? Do you think an element of fear or domination is essential in “successful” child-rearing? Do you think Chua truly endorses everything she writes or do you think her words are an attempt to enrage and call attention to herself and her recently published book?

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35 Comments for: "I Am Not a “Chinese Mother”"
  1. My ten year old has a best friend,he is Asian . They love to play together. Once a week they would spend time playing in my house or theirs . The parents claimed that V could not spend so much time playing(once a week)because V had to study. The play dates became fewer and fewer. The kids teacher even told the parents that it’s good for V to play with other children. My son was sad and so was V. Now they are down to no play because V has to do extra work. It really sadness me. I feel the way you do , I want my children to be children and good people. I am not raising robots.

  2. We have a Russian (not Chinese!) piano teacher. He feels the boys should practice an hour a day. They do not. I am on them to practice most days of the week. My kids play video games, spend hours a week playing hockey and watch their more-than-fair share of TV. If this time were directed to piano or reading I’m sure they would benefit. In this way maybe the Chinese mothers are “better” but my boys will not grow up resenting me and will have more fun in the process.

  3. I think part of the problem is how you define success. I have known people who look like they “have it all,” and are miserable and discontent. I have known people who look like failures to the world, and yet and full of peace and joy, and spread love wherever they go. Who is the more successful? How can we measure success?

    There are other issues I have with Chua’s method of parenting, but they would take an entire blog post on their own to list, so for now I’ll stick with the success thing!

  4. Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog. I just gave my two cents on this very topic of extreme parenting based on my own experience growing up as a Chinese immigrant, which just published in today’s New York Time’s Room for Debate. Hope you enjoy reading it.

    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/13/is-extreme-parenting-effective/defining-success-for-myself

  5. Oh, I have so much to say on this subject. Let’s just leave it that I concur with you.

  6. This has been quite the subject in the spotlight of late. I am certainly not a “Chinese Mother” in the mode of this article, nor have I ever been one. On the other hand, I certainly imposed considerable limits on activities for my kids, from an early age. All the other mothers & fathers were scheduling their babes-in-arms, temperamental toddlers and enthusiastic elementary schoolers in gymnastics, violin, acting, martial arts, soccer, scheduled play dates – and then some!

    Learning – and good performance in school – has been the one “commandment” around this household. Along with thinking for yourself, and respect. Activities were allowed – but later, and in limited numbers.

    For us, this worked. My boys have focus, but are curious about many things and have (as they’ve gotten older) learned many things. So it’s been about moderation, which means different things to different parents.

    And yes – plenty of sleepovers and parties, too. Oh, the (teen) parties! :)

  7. My dad, who is not Chinese, has much the same parenting approach in many ways. For me, it was a very sad childhood that affects our relationship to some extent today.

    My hope is for mediocrity for my children if I have to choose between their success and a relationship with them built on love, respect & decency.

  8. I have a Chinese mother, and I guess by genetics that means I am a Chinese mother as well. I really didn’t know what to make of the article – it was so over the top that at first I thought she was joking and poking fun at herself.

    The issue I have with it is the inflammatory nature of the content and headline. Chua says she is not referring only to Chinese mothers so then why use this obnoxious headline (or why condone it, if it was WSJ’s bright idea)? Chua is not a representative of the Chinese people; how dare she call her abusive parenting Chinese parenting.

    This was to get her name out and to promote her memoir (which, by the way, you can preorder on Amazon; what a coincidence). It’s too bad she did it at the expense of the millions of Chinese mothers who treat their children as humans.

    My Asian husband and I focus alot on education in our household but we seldom have to force it because, so far, our son is finding learning pretty fun on his own. We also encourage silliness, lots of time with friends, and rest. There is a middle ground. My guess is that Chua knows this too, but chose to publish the most insane details to get attention.

  9. Wow. I do not believe in the type of “parenting”, if you can call it that, that Chinese mothers believe. I am not sure what type of parent I will be when baby comes, all I know is I do not believe in the way that Chinese mothers raise their children. I believe that I will allow my child to choose what makes my child happy. The goal in life is to be happy, not perfect.

  10. Must comment on today’s post. Because it’s so close to my heart…as I have just received a text from my sister who is waiting on the Chinese government to give her an appointment to complete the adoption of her daughters. She is hoping to travel to China on Feb 10th and bring home her 9 year daughter and her 1 year old daughter. Orphans. Left on the doorstep of the orphanage by their Chinese parents when they were each just days old. Becuase girls aren’t valued and girls with cleft lip and girls with other concerns are even less valued. In China’s quest for perfection, they are losing their souls. They are abandoning daughters yet wondering who their perfect sons will marry? I don’t mean to generalize. Can’t lump an entire country’s people into one catagory. But it is prevelant.

    Thank God for people who value people, children, orphans. Who value a soul over success.

    And I myself have a child with special needs. It has made me take a long look at what we think is normal and what we think success is, as a parent, for our children.

    The entire meaning of life is love. To be loved and to love. A real, honest, committed love.

    Lastly, I had a conversation with a young married couple, both engineers who work with Chinese engineers.

    I asked the couple if the Chinese engineers are as brilliant as we all would expect them to be. The couple said that in general, the Chinese engineers are the best trained but generally are the first ones to fall apart when a project goes awry. No ability to think outside to box. No ability to try and try again. No ability to “fall and get back on the horse.”

    I would prefer my children to be resilent. Life throws punches!

    Well done, Aidan.

    • Christina – I just want to offer my my endorsement of your comments here. While I’m sure there is some value in the pursuit of perfection, that pursuit often lacks love and compassion as you so aptly point out. My husband and I also have aspirations of adoption and I am comforted knowing that so many unwanted little girls are finding loving homes here such as your sister’s.

      Aidan – Yes, I’ve read the article and almost posted on it myself. But it seems such a huge topic that I was daunted by the task of figuring out how to approach it. I’m glad you offered your commentary here. As a Western mom it is easy to feel inferior reading the WSJ article. I take comfort in knowing that there are others who agree that my approach to parenting is worth standing up for.

  11. I’m a half-Chinese mother, genetically speaking, but have no desire to be anything like Amy Chua. I grew up in an Asian household and have had to abide by certain strict rules but never to this extent. It may explain why I can’t play the piano or violin.

    I try not to pay attention to incendiary articles like this because it’s so preposterous that I almost think that the authors have an agenda with their vilifying articles. Do I think she’s lying? Probably not but it’s written in such a way that it insults much of the population and as a Yale Professor, she has to know that. But does this put her in the limelight and possibly increase the sales of her upcoming memoir? Absolutely.

    Bad publicity is still publicity – just like Erica Jong’s article on Modern Motherhood. It made people angry and the page views soared. I think that was more important to them than trying to convince the public of their stance. I don’t feel I need to justify my parenting skills against Chua’s military regiment at home or Jong’s take on motherhood for that matter – after all, to each her own – nor do I want to be one of the many giving them the satisfaction of numbers.

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  13. Kristen

    I did indeed read this article (just yesterday in fact) and I was not surprised by what it revealed. I went to high school with a number of kids that had parents who used this method of parenting. The kids were wonderful students—typically the best—and they were well rounded in the arts. However, most of them lacked other skills—particularly social skills. In general, they did not play sports, did not participate in school clubs (unless academically minded), and rarely did you see them at social events. All of these kids went to top schools. However, I often wondered at what cost?

    I’m not a parent yet, but I can not see myself parenting according to this method. I would love for my unborn children to attend top schools, but I’m not about to take away their childhood to achieve the goal. (This goal would actually be my goal, which is a whole different topic.) This parenting method may work for some and I’m sure with success in most cases (as I witnessed in high school). However, I’m positive there are some kids that become quite wild as soon as they are out from under their parent’s thumb. I think this is a far worse outcome than allowing your child to live life while performing near the top, but not quite the top, of their class.

  14. I also just stumbled upon this article last night and was not surprised by what it said. I do think the author was trying to be a little bit over the top, probably to sell her book ask a previous comment pointed out.

    We lived in Shanghai for two years and witnessed this type of parenting quite frequently. I have countless stories but one that always comes to mind is my friend who taught English to a wealthy Chinese girl whose Barbie Dream Home sat in a box in the corner of her elegant room to be opened in summer when she would have time to play with it (this was February.)

    I sent this article to a friend in Shanghai and she had the following response,

    I have read through the article. What she says with Chinese parents is true. That’s what most Chinese believe. For me, my dad is more strict with me when I grow up. I cant help recalling him humilating me in front of our guest and did not allow me to eat my favorite fruit – grapes during the whole summer holiday once I got the 6th in the final at school. He always wanted me to be within the first 3.

    Is what she says with the Western parents also true?

    I think her last question is really important as it brings to light my most important learning while living in China. THINGS ARE SO DIFFERENT BETWEEN WESTERN AND EASTERN CULTURES. Different! No one is better or worse. I do not agree with this parenting philosophy nor will I follow it but Chinese parents likely/obviously feel the same way about western parenting philosophies. It’s just so different it really doesn’t make sense to pass too much judgment.

    Anyway, obviously I could write a novel on this topic, but in short. I am with you and the other commenters. I don’t agree. We didn’t see Chinese academic success translate into success in the workplace. But that is how they do it.

    Happy Friday!

    • I am sitting here feeling guilty for SHOUTING, I always forget CAPS means shouting and also for sounding too strong about not passing judgment. It is always common for us to think about/react to different things we learn read and we all pass some sort of judgment whether we want to or not.

      Anyway, I will never parent like the Chinese mom described and want my kids to feel loved and supported and not pushed to achieve things they may not want. The biggest reward I could have as a parent is for my kids to be happy and to have found careers they are successful at in which they enjoy whether it is be a nuclear physicist or a hair-dresser.

      Okay, got that off my chest.

  15. I skimmed parts of the article but it looks like it didn’t mention the suicide rates of adolescents in Asian countries which, from what I understand, are pretty high. I think there IS something wrong with that kind of parenting and maybe that person in that article didn’t grow up with low self-esteem but to generalize that to an entire population is ignorant and to underestimate the importance of self-esteem irritates me too. But in Asian culture you are supposed to be submissive so that kind of parenting works for them in that sense since people with low self-esteem will typically submit to others. Ahhh, that attitude makes me SO MAD!! I say this as a half-Asian who grew up with an Asian mother. My mother was NOWHERE to that extreme, but I can still relate to the differences in culture and it makes me so mad that anyone thinks that’s okay.

  16. I read the article and blogged about it in passing. It ties into an ongoing discussion my friends and I have about whether the Ivy Leagues or other private schools are worth it.

    And I have come to believe that they are not. That is not to diminish the value of anyone who attended one, including you Aidan. ;)

    The reasoning behind it is that the burden of trying to pay for this education is far too heavy. Without assistance you graduate with an enormous debt that can make it exceptionally difficult to get out from under. It limits your job opportunities and affects life in many ways.

    Again, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t advantages, but…

    As the graduate of a state school I am biased, but I also know that based upon my definition of success I match my friends.

    My goal is to raise healthy,well adjusted children who are productive members of society. That means that they have to be well rounded. They need to play sports and engage in extracurricular activities.

    They need play dates and sleep overs. I want them to have coping skills.

    As for the author of the article, I am not convinced that she does what she says. But even if she does, it bears no reflection on my parenting skills and I see no reason to be worried.

  17. Very scary article! Those kids are going to need some serious therapy. I wouldn’t want to be in her class, yikes. I found the article very condescending and dismissive of any individual needs of children. She is also not very representative of the general population – law professor at Yale, two kids….Most Chinese mothers don’t have either of these opportunities or the additional opportunities that accompany raising children in the US vs China. Very silly article.

  18. Wow – this is a toughy. I have to agree that there is a certain amount of accuracy to what the author states in that most children need to be pushed to excel. I think human nature is to take the path of least resistance. If, for example, I had stopped sending my kids to ski school every time they complained, they would not have the enjoyment they experience now. You (sometimes) really do have to push your kids. However, the method to push your child can vary widely – and that’s the crux of this issue, I believe.

  19. Hmmm. I don’t believe in pushing. Except in the realm of responsibility. I push for clean rooms occasionally. Not always. I push for turns taken doing dishes. But not always.

    I think (and this is HUGE Polyanna talking) that showing happiness while I do something is powerful. This attitude sounds too happy to be true, but it has led to transformational parenting on my part.

    The person transformed? Me.

    When I learn to enjoy my way through life’s tasks, truly LEARN that, I find my kids are rapt with attention. I don’t have to make them to anything.

    And, conversely, when I MAKE them do things, they’re unhappy and I’m unhappier.

    I always approached skiing as having fun. When you no longer enjoy it, better stop. Now I’ve got two kids who out ski me every time. I think it’s because it’s fun at a basic level. Will that translate to all of life? Maybe not. It’s all still an experiment for me.

    I just know I’m grumpier the other way. I don’t want to be that person.

  20. I read this article last weekend and have been devouring the commentary on it ever since.

    The one big question I had while reading it was Where is the dad in all this? Chua mentions him, makes reference to his disapproval of her methods – but if he disagrees, why does he go along with her tactics (and, yes, that piano scene made me cringe; where was he while that was going on?).

    I’m also interested in the question of context: for those of us who have been raised with some level of comfort in the West, I think it’s natural that our goal is to help our kids be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. (I know that’s what I care about.) I wonder if Chua’s sweeping generalizations apply to a Chinese society that is itself changing as its economy explodes and economic competition broadens. Does her model apply to parents who had to teach their kids to be resilient in order to make it (sort of a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach)?

  21. Amy

    I read the article as well & thought it a bit over the top on the piano tactics, but also love that they expect the best. Because shouldn’t we allow ourselves to expect the very best out of our kids? Don’t we want others to expect the very best out of us? That being said, if I could live in any country in the world, you bet I’d pick the good ol’ USofA. There is no where better to live & raise a family to my choosing. That also being said, there are a lot of stupid, lazy Americans…cause they can choose to be.

    Anyway, the real point in my posting was to let you know she had a follow-up article after all the buzz…here is the link: http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/01/13/the-tiger-mother-responds-to-readers/

    She is human & we got one little glimpse into her process of discovery & I was happy to find out…she is a bit westernized now.

  22. Allison

    I went to a high school that was roughly two-thirds Asian (this includes Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, and a whole slew of other backgrounds) and I don’t think I ever witnessed such extreme parenting in the families of any of my friends or classmates. Most of them did in fact have social lives, participated in school plays and other activities, went on dates, went to the mall, movies, etc.

    But…if you asked MOST (and I stress that to indicate that it was nowhere near ALL) of them why did anything related to extracurriculars (yes, many of them were in the school plays), they answered, “To get into college.” Looking good on applications and transcripts motivated just about everything they did. And maybe this is just me as an outsider talking, but I think that’s pretty sad.

  23. anne

    Oh my. I haven’t read it, but I’m not sure I would want to be a “chinese mother” as she defines. And I think I’d kind of suck at it, to be frank. I think we should all embrace challenges as mothers, but I tend to think bad parenting might sometimes come from trying to be something you’re not. A cop-out? Maybe.

    I’m only a mother-to-be, but I hope to teach my kids commitment without stress, and achievement without reckless ambition.

  24. Kat

    All I know is that I had friends that were raised like this (some Chinese and some not), and most of them were miserable, and unable to really express their own personalities beyond achievements.
    Especially now with the economy and unemployment even for grads of top schools, I would think we as a society had learned that there is no such thing as a guarantee for success (anymore, or ever, depending how you look at it), and it’s much better to be equipped to be happy with what you have than be solely accomplishment-motivated.

  25. Rachel

    Some of the things I felt my mom “forced” me to do ended up being the most beneficial for me. I wanted to quit music lessons and she made me stick with them. I’d cry and whine and thought she was the meanest person alive, but now, I’m glad she didn’t let me quit. Music had opened up so many avenues and I made so many friends through that outlet. Even as a young adult, when I decided I wanted to move to Arizona, she moved me down and when I called her six weeks later and begged her to help me get home, she refused. I hated her. One week later, I met the man I later married, and ended up getting a job that was essential to getting the job I have today, which is exactly the kind of job I’ve always wanted.

    Basically, the times I’ve thought my mother was the biggest bully alive, I actually benefitted greatly.

  26. I read Chua’s article as well and I found it disturbing. I felt that some of the scenarios she describes bordered on cruelty and I could not imagine adopting this style of parenting. I do believe in focusing on education, incorporating discipline and giving children every opportunity to excel; I just think all this can be accomplished using softer methods that kids will actually enjoy. I think I can raise an intelligent, well adjusted child without becoming a drill sergeant.

  27. I wonder how much of this tradition stems from the oppression the Chinese people have suffered for so long. The only way to be recognized and valued in that culture is to be a high-achiever and to obey. It’s a disturbing tradition, but one that is in the headlines all the time as China gains in world status, albeit with some highly questionable tactics.

  28. I think it’s my job to make my kid a productive member of society. Whatever form that takes, it takes. If she’s happy and healthy and a good person who treats others and herself with dignity and respect, I will consider myself a success. If she turns out to cure cancer, all the better :)

  29. Ugh. Don’t even get me started on this article. I’ve been commenting on this piece all over the blogosphere. I do think that the article makes you think, but I can’t help but feel a bit of sadness after reading it. The entire story about the daughter learning the piano piece saddens me. Why the name calling? I just think that is so unnecessary. Like you said, I’m no expert. I am learning as I go along. I do want my son to do well in life (and be a total Columbia baby!), but I won’t humiliate him if he gets less than an A. Does that make me an unsuccessful parent? Dear God, I hope not! I intend to push him (I do a bit of that now when he doesn’t want to try to do things that I KNOW he’s more than capable of doing on his own), but I don’t call him lazy. And I won’t. If he decides he is no longer interested in an activity, then I’ll support him so long as he has a plan (ie: he wants to do another activity that does not include sitting in front of the TV all day long). Maybe that makes me less than superior, but the name calling? So unnecessary.

  30. I think the need to balance your ideas about parenting with the real aspirations of your children is the best approach you can take as a parent. The strict approach that is promoted in this book can only contribute to the serious changes in children’s behavior once they grow older.

  31. Penny

    I am in shock, disbelief, basically speechless over this article. Something isnt fun until you’re good at it? Really? How can the Journal even publish this?

  32. ” Guess what? Little Lulu finally nailed that piece. Victory? I’m not so sure.” My thoughts exactly. I was thinking this very thing. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of that article. I cringed just reading the title (as a caucasian mom raising asian children)and then cringed through the entire article. The push, push, push certainly doesn’t seem to create happy, does it?

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