A Parenting Expert's Response to "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior"

Since many people seem to be posting and re-posting the article by Amy Chua (Wall Street Journal, 1/8/2011) about how Chinese mothers are superior to Western mothers and appear to appreciate her point of view, I decided to share my thoughts on her article. As a well-known parenting expert who has not only raised two successful, happy children of my own, I have also extensively and intensively studied and taught parenting strategies for the past 21 years.

With regard to Chua’s article, it was initially difficult for me to get past its decidedly racist slant. I couldn’t help wondering if it would have been published if the word “White” was substituted for “Chinese” and the word “Black” for “Western,” or any other variation of races or cultures was used. While the author attempts to mitigate her use of the word “Chinese” by saying that she’s using the term loosely because she knows people of other races that “qualify,” it still feels akin to someone saying that (for example) our black President actually “qualifies” as white because his behaviors are more like those of a white person than a black person. Can’t say I like it much.

Once I got past that aspect of the article and began to mull it over (at the same time witnessing its reposting on Facebook), I began to wonder if perhaps the apparent popularity of Ms. Chua’s views is a reaction to how frightening it can be to raise our children in a society that is changing so rapidly. Technological advances mean that most children are exposed to too much too soon. One could easily see how seductive it would be to respond to our fear by clamping down, isolating our children from their peers and from the media and controlling their every move. In addition, it appears to be a solution with the added benefit that seems to promise academic excellence and mastery of the violin or piano (the only two instruments Ms. Chua allowed her children to play.)

I completely understand the fear. I also understand and advocate the desire to raise successful children. I even understand how tempting it is to want the outside influences on our children to go away. However, I think we need to remember that our primary goal as parents is to raise our children to survive and thrive in the society in which they are going to live. We live in a Western society; therefore we need to be focused on raising our children to live in a Western society.

The premise of our society is freedom and independence. When our children merge into the adult world, they will be given the same freedom and independence as other adults. Our job as parents is to teach them how to handle freedom and independence at young ages: by learning to make responsible values-based choices. Choices that are, for better or worse, different from and sometimes scarier than the ones we faced when we were young.

When children are small, we give them a limited amount of freedom. As they grow and get nearer to the age at which they will no longer live with their parents, they need more freedom until, when they enter the adult world, they have the same freedoms as adults and have been taught how to use those freedoms.

I believe that when parents control the choices their children make, those children don’t enter the adult world ready to make wise choices in the context of the almost unrestricted freedom we are given in this country.

Now, I don’t disagree with Ms. Chua that children need to feel a sense of accomplishment as part of a “happy” life. I’m also in agreement that a true feeling of accomplishment comes when one works hard at something – “struggles” as it were – and sees the results of their hard work. Additionally, I agree with Ms. Chua that children need to “see what they’re capable of,” and that we as parents need to “arm them with skills, work habits and inner confidence” that will both protect and prepare them to live in the world. (Things that Ms. Chua claims are Chinese, rather than Western, goals.)

Ms. Chua contrasts this “Chinese” view with Western parents’ goals of respecting “their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment.” And here’s the problem: contrasting these two sets of goals as if they’re diametrically opposed is a mistake and leads the unsuspecting reader to assume you have to make a choice. You don’t. In fact, while it requires an armful of knowledge and a tremendous amount of flexibility on our part as parents, the truth is that children can have all of the above: skills, good work habits and inner confidence. They can also be individuals, enjoy their childhoods, pursue their true passions, be academically successful and yes, even be musically proficient!

Not only do I disagree with how Ms. Chua has set up “Chinese” and “Western” goals as if they’re mutually exclusive, I also disagree with the road that she suggests parents take to support their child in reaching these goals – a road that, according to Chua, requires yelling, excoriating, punishing and shaming your child.

Screaming at your child and demanding that your child become the best at something so that they feel successful is, quite frankly, the lazy man or woman’s way out. It’s akin to using spanking to discipline your child: sure, you can do it that way, and you’ll probably get an obedient child, but you should ask yourself this question: “When there’s a different way to parent that’s equally, if not more, effective, why would you choose to hit your child?”

There’s a different way to lead our children to happiness, to teach them what it feels like to work hard and achieve something, to be successful. It requires a lot of work though. You have to learn how to set limits effectively, how to respect the traits and qualities your child was born with. You have to work on teaching your child how to cooperate, problem solve and resolve conflicts. You have to learn techniques that will help your child internalize your values. You have to learn how to communicate unconditional love to your child while not condoning bad behavior. You have to teach your child to have a strong sense of self-worth even if things don’t turn out the way they thought they would. (I’m reminded of my son’s friend, who was an excellent soccer player until he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Removal of the tumor left him with permanent residual numbness on his right side that prohibited him from engaging in the activity at which he had previously worked hard, become successful, and achieved recognition for. Fortunately, his mother and father had not equated his self-worth with being a star soccer player and he is currently a happy, confident teenager who is interested in myriad things.) Finally, you have to think about all of these things on a daily basis, make accurate self-assessments and adjust as needed. Certainly not as easy as being the “mean” mom (self-described in the article) who controls rather than guides her children.

Teaching our children to negotiate the complicated world in which they live can be daunting. But isolating them from that world is not the answer. Shaming and punishing them when they don’t get an “A” or play their piano piece correctly is not the answer. Taking the time to educate ourselves with proven techniques and strategies that create well-rounded, accomplished, successful, happy kids and future adults is.