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The Real Reason "Chinese Mothers Are Superior"

The Chinese respect quiet -- and quiet people.

While researching my upcoming book, "QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," I met Tiffany Liao, a soft-spoken Taiwanese-American high school senior from Silicon Valley. She’d been a shy and quiet child, she told me. When she accompanied her parents to their friends’ houses, she always brought a book. The grown-ups praised her. She’s so studious, they marveled.

It’s hard to imagine Caucasian-American parents smiling down on a child who buries her nose in a book during a backyard barbeque. But Tiffany’s parents may have been on to something. Today she’s a poised Swarthmore grad, aspiring journalist, and recent Editor-in-Chief of her college newspaper.

In the wake of “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s manifesto, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” Americans have done a lot of hand-wringing over why the Chinese economy is growing so much faster than ours and why Chinese students do so much better in school. (Americans came in 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math in one important standardized test, while kids in Shanghai took first in all three areas, according to Time Magazine.)

The Chinese drive their kids harder, it is said; they have more will power.

But here’s another explanation: the Chinese respect quiet – and quiet people. “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know,” goes the famous quote from Lao Zi. A pillar of the Chinese approach is to think before speaking, to put one’s head down and study, to diligently practice new skills until they come effortlessly.

Many Asian-American kids I interviewed for my book told me that they’d rather listen to their teachers than interact with other kids in the class. “Introversion is not looked down upon,” one college counselor serving a largely Asian-American population told me. “It is accepted. In some cases, it is even highly respected and admired.”

It’s impossible to generalize about an entire social group, of course, and we should be careful of stereotypes, even flattering ones. But a host of research points to the same conclusion. For example, one study found that shy and sensitive kids are shunned by their peers in Canada but make sought-after playmates in China, where they’re also more likely than other children to be considered for leadership roles.*

Gregarious Americans find this quiet approach curious. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks said that if Tiger Mom really wants her kids to excel, they should spend less time studying and more time socializing in the school cafeteria. “…Groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals,” he wrote.

I generally enjoy Brooks' social observations, but I disagree with him here. When it comes to productivity, forty years of research on brainstorming shows that individuals produce more and better ideas than groups do. Studies also suggest that the path to excellence in many fields is not only to practice, but to practice alone. And creativity researchers have found that many highly creative people were shy and solitary in high school, and recall adolescence with horror. (I explain all this in detail in my book.)

Of course it’s true that social skills are key to health and happiness (and indeed the Chinese tend to have more cohesive family and social bonds than Americans do.) But forming intimate attachments and hanging out with the gang are very different things.

One reason Chinese students are pulling ahead is that they’re not overly distracted by the court intrigue of eleventh grade society. There are only so many hours in a day and so much social capital to go around. If as a culture we allocate too much time and status to pep rallies and popularity contests, then there isn’t much left over for math, science, and art – or for the quiet types who often populate these fields.

I once met a university professor who confided how hard it was to be the parent of an introverted teenager. He knew how wonderful his son was, but he felt that he had no bragging rights with his fellow parents: “When your friend tells you how well her children are doing with travel soccer, you can’t say, well, my kid read eighty books this summer.”

But Chinese-American parents can say exactly that. And Chinese-American parents do.

*These attitudes seem to be changing as China Westernizes, according to recent studies.

If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

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