Chinese Mothers

10 Jan

Amy Chua’s essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has unleashed a firestorm of comments in the blogosphere.  At last count, there were over 1,700 comments and growing on the WSJ site and many people are forwarding the essay to friends and family and re-posting it on Facebook and other social media.  With its deliberately provocative title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” she compares Western and Chinese parenting strategies and offers a hair raising example of how she got her daughter Lulu to master a difficult piano piece.  Ms. Chua herself is extremely accomplished – Yale law professor – and is coming out with a new book, her third, about how to parent the Chinese way.  No doubt the publicity from this controversial essay will help launch the book on the bestseller list.

At first I couldn’t decide whether she was being tongue-in-cheek in exaggerating the strictness of her rules and overriding her children’s preferences and being their taskmaster.  But as I read on, I realize that she was completely serious.  Her analysis of why Chinese and Western parenting methods vary is uncomfortably accurate and I would add, a matter of cultural differences.  Under her analysis, I would be considered a Western parent, even though I am first generation American of Chinese heritage.  While I don’t parent the way she does, I am familiar with how the Chinese method works, having seen variations of it.

Such extreme methods do seem to produce results.  The Chinese pianist and successful international recording artist Lang Lang had a tumultuous relationship with his father who relentlessly pushed him to practice hours on end. He acknowledges that he missed part of his childhood because of all the practicing but believes that was what it took for him to be where he is today.  A piano teacher I know of (not of Chinese ethnicity) who likes to yell and threaten her students turns out award-winning young pianists each year.

But I worry about those kids for whom piano or violin is just not their thing and no amount of pressure from parents or teachers will change that.  Ms. Chua’s parenting philosophy will not brook allowing children the freedom to find their own interests and passions.  And she harbors an unfortunate cultural bias against sports and drama, both activities that can do much to build up character and confidence in children.

I also worry that our society’s over-emphases on achievement and performance comes at the expense of character building.  Learning from mistakes and setbacks, figuring out how to overcome obstacles, and raising gracious children who possess integrity, should receive equal attention.  I don’t want my daughter to grow up believing that her self-worth is tied to performance, but rather that she is worthy and loved because of who she is, her personality and character.  But I can just see Ms. Chua sneering at that.

There’s so much more I could explore about Ms. Chua’s essay (e.g. does it perpetuate stereotypes? Do Americans feel threatened by Chinese success?) but I wanted to get my two cents worth out there today.  I welcome your thoughts and comments.



4 Responses to “Chinese Mothers”

  1. Audrey January 10, 2011 at 1:56 PM #

    As an alumni interviewer for a prestigious university, I can comment on the Asian candidates that I interview regularly. In general, they do not have any of their own opinions, and I wonder if they actually think for themselves. They are spectacular at school and work hard on their instruments and tennis (for some reason, this sport is popular — maybe because it is shaped like a violin?). Their scores are top-notch, but I find these candidates often very boring to talk too, and they are over-confident about getting into the presitge institutions because they “did everything right.” If they cannot show that they are contributors to their communities, in school and otherwise, they are not exemplary candidates.

  2. susannah January 11, 2011 at 10:28 AM #

    If Ms. Chua is indicative of the mentality and intellect pervading our elite institutions, we are all in a lot of trouble. Her excerpt is barely coherent, lacks depth, reflection and insight and fails to persuade. She makes a case against herself…which may be her intent. I suspect she is trying to get on Oprah.

  3. susannah January 11, 2011 at 11:00 AM #

    I should have added that by contrast your review was fair and thoughtful and well written, it caused me to go back and reread your earlier posts. This is a significant rite of passage for you and your daughter as you work out the changeable nature of your relationship. I say changeable meaning that although she will always be your daughter,she becoming a woman in her own right. This must be a strange place to be as a mother. For me it is a foreshadowing of what it will be like when my daughter is ready to spread her wings. With plenty of time to prepare and the some of the most excellent denial strategies, I’ve just assumed I could figure out away to keep them home forever, but this is helping me to prepare myself for the reality that we almost face someday. Thanks for your posts!

  4. Yvonne Kennedy January 12, 2011 at 6:08 PM #

    I am surprised at the anti Asian remarks this article has generated. Especially comments that say Asian Americans have good grades but are uncreative and unoriginal, etc. Yoyo Ma? IM Pei? Jason Hu? Hello?

    Most of my over-achieving Chinese- and Taiwanese-American friends felt admiration for Chua. She was actually self reflective and questions her own methods in the excerpt that was published. (WSJ did her a disservice with the incendiary headline they tagged on). Gosh how many of us can do the work of a law professor at Yale, author multiple books, and be devoted to our children to supervise 3 hours of piano and extra worksheets everyday. She doesn’t write about all the other mothering things she does too– holding her babies when they are sick, or preparing nutritious meals, playing board games, taking her dogs for walks. And have you seen how beautiful and slim she is?

    Plus her daughter plays Carnegie Hall.

    It’s easy for these inferior mothers to call her names, but seriously, the proof is in the pudding — she didn’t raise a mass murderer — most of them are Caucasian males. Her daughters are successful and not suicidal the way a lot of envious catty people want to believe — yes the number 1 demographic for that in the US is again, Caucasian males.

    I admire Chua and I think she truly loves her daughters and is a terrific mom. If people have equally successful stories but different opinions, I would take their criticism seriously, but otherwise it just sounds like sour grapes. Yeah, “my child is a spoiled underachiever who makes excuses at age 35 why they are too tired to get a job or move out, but he/she is happier and creative than Amy Chua’s girls” doesn’t really cut it for me.

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