Chinese parent, Western parent, superior parent: have we figured it out yet?

How hard should we push our children?

Posted Jan 14, 2011

By now you are probably familiar with the WSJ article Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, where Amy Chua describes a parenting style she calls "Chinese parenting" and differentiates it from her view of what she calls "Western" parenting.  This article has created a firestorm of comments and blogs and created tremendous controversy.

In the article, Chua describes an intense, rigid, demanding and sometimes belittling style that she says breeds high-powered, successful adults.  She says that Chinese parents allow no play dates, participation in school plays or any extracurricular activities other than piano and violin (which is a requirement), no TV, computer games, or sleep-away camps.  Children are expected to get nothing less than straight "A's" in school and if they are overweight they are called "fat" and told to lose the extra pounds.

Chua points to three major differences between Chinese and Western child-rearing.  First, she says that Western parents worry about their children's self-esteem whereas Chinese parents do not.  Chinese parents, she says, "assume strength, not fragility."  Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything, and therefore must work hard their whole lives to repay their debt to their parents.  Third, Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, attention to a child's experience (Western or otherwise) is a completely new idea.  Child abuse laws, child psychology, and books about the experiences of children have only been around for less than 60 years.  Prior to this, no one paid much attention to children - their ideas, thoughts, feelings, experiences, self-esteem, or desires - or even thought there was much to pay attention to.  Children were expected to be seen and not heard, and to grow up quickly so they could be useful to society.  This could be part of the anxiety that Chua has picked up on - as a culture we do not have a long-standing tradition or way of understanding or attending to the experiences of our children as people, and we are still trying to find our way.

It may be that many parents have erred on the side of attending to their children's self-esteem and desires, and do not feel empowered to know what is best for their children (or instill in them a sense of obligation to try their hardest).  Chua makes an important point in the article that "nothing is fun until you're good at it."  She goes on to say that "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."  Anyone who has had a child and worked to help them master something knows that this is part of the deal - at times even the most motivated and exceptional child has to be nagged, coerced, prodded, and otherwise made to practice a sport or instrument, or to do their homework.

However, it is also true that in recent years there has been an enormous volume of research that has revealed that infants are born with a temperament, with feelings, with a personality, and with an exquisitely sensitive attunement to relationship and attachment Infants - and children - respond powerfully to an attuned environment and equally as powerfully to an environment that is not attuned, or is abusive.  What children learn about attachment, love, and relationship in their home they take with them for the rest of their lives.

There is a balance, then, to be reached.  On the one hand, children are people who require love, nurturance, and the ability to have self-knowledge.  There are many people who "survived" the "Chinese parenting" and vowed never to be that kind of parent for their own children - wanting something more nurturing, loving, and compassionate.  On the other hand, there are important and valuable lessons to be learned in childhood that a child can take with him or her into adulthood.  Many "Western" families do not set firm limits, have clear expectations, and are afraid to make their children do things they don't really feel like doing.  As a result the children grow up to lack discipline, the ability to achieve things, and the confidence to take risks and work hard.  How many people have you heard say, "I had talent.  I wish my parents made me stay with it."? 

According to Jeff Yang of SFGate, the WSJ article strings together only the most controversial of her ideas and not her journey and growth.  When he interviewed her about the WSJ article, Chua stated that while parenting her daughters she learned she had to become something different than being a stereotypical Chinese mother.  Her love for her daughters, and the rebellious spirit of her younger daughter, finally forced her to moderate her stance and allow her them to make some of their own choices.  Ultimately, she ends up somewhere in that vast place we refer to as the middle, trying, like the rest of us, to figure out the right balance between the two.

Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images