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Parenting: What Chinese-American Mothers do Wrong (and Right)

Is Amy Chua for real?

Have you read the article on by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American mother (and law professor at Yale)? If not, you probably don't have children. It is a must-read! I was both mesmerized and appalled by the article; like driving past a horrific car accident and wondering whether anyone survived. I realize that her article has lit up the blogosphere, but, as the author of three parenting books and the father of two girls myself, I just couldn't resist tossing my two cents into the cyber-well.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much of Ms. Chua's article is intended to be Asian stereotype-baiting tongue-in-cheek (Margaret Cho has nothing to worry about), sensation-seeking exaggeration to promote book sales (mission accomplished), or true-to-life parenting advice (OMG!). A recent article about her posting suggests that the content of her article was taken out of context, edited and titled without her knowing, and a distorted portrayal of the book she just wrote that prompted her article (sounds like backpedalling in the face of blistering criticism to me). But whether take in or out of context, her words are hers and seemingly difficult to misinterpret. So, until I learn otherwise, I'm going to assume that what she wrote accurately reflects how she raised her children.

If you don't have time to read her article, here is the Cliff Notes summary of Ms. Chua what hasn't allowed her children to do:

  • Attend a sleepover;
  • Have a play date;
  • Be in a school play;
  • Complain about not being in a school play;
  • Watch TV or play computer games;
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities;
  • Get any grade less than an A;
  • Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.

Let me start off by debunking a myth: Not all Asian-American children are intellectually or artistically gifted, not all go to Ivy League schools, and, believe it or not, not all reach superstardom in their chosen field (none of which would be anything other than law, medicine, computer science, or engineering). We just happen to only hear about those who do, thus our distorted perceptions of Asian-Americans.

So where do I start in debunking Ms. Chua's parenting recommendations? "...nothing is fun until you're good at it." Well, children who don't care how good they are seem to have a great time being lousy painters, sculptors, soccer players, etc. And this notion holds true into adulthood; I guess all of those golfing duffers are hating life on the links.

"To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work..." Gee, I work with all kinds of young people who are incredibly motivated (and intrinsically motivated at that!) to achieve their goals in school, sports, and the arts. The difference is that Ms. Chua doesn't allow her kids to develop that motivation because, it seems, she doesn't respect or trust them enough to allow them to find their own reasons to achieve (that's not to say that parents shouldn't push their children, but it should be a secondary motivator).

"I told her [daughter Lulu] to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic [because she didn't think she could play a piano piece]. Jed [her husband] took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu-which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her..." Yes, abusing your child verbally is highly motivating. As Ms. Chua continues her triumphant story affirming the value of her parenting techniques, she continued to threaten and verbally abuse her daughter until, yes, Lulu finally learned the piece. So the ends justified the terrible means? Perhaps if Ms. Chua had either broken the piece down into more manageable pieces or give her daughter a break, Lulu might have learned it without the resultant battle scars. And just about all child-development experts and the research on self-esteem suggest that insults are incredibly harmful to self-esteem and shame is not a way to motivate children. Think of it this way. If the person who you love the most told you that you were worthless, wouldn't that make you feel pretty bad?

"That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child...And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home." I guess Ms. Chua isn't up on the research on conditional love (or maybe it doesn't apply to Asian-American children). As I note in my upcoming parenting book, Your Children are Listening (sorry for the shameless plug), children exposed to conditional love are highly self-critical, show strong negative emotions, judge their performances severely, and demonstrate less persistence following setbacks. Additionally, children who received conditional love from their parents said that their joy in their successes was short lived and they experienced considerable guilt and shame for their shortcomings. Adding insult to injury, children resented and disliked their parents for the way they treated them.

"Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything...Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud." That might be true of the Asian people with a Confucian sensibility, but there is something strikingly self-serving in all of Ms. Chua's efforts with her daughters. I see so many parents in my practice whose own self-esteem is so highly invested in their children's achievements that those successes (or failures) become their own. What a crushing burden that is for children, that how my mom feels about herself depends on my achievements. When Ms. Chua's husband suggests that "Kids don't owe their parents anything?," she responds, "This strikes me as a terrible deal for Western parents." Gee, how decidedly Western - and terrible - to help your children to develop into strong, confidence, and caring people. Sounds like a great deal to me!

Okay, enough direct rebuttals of Ms. Chua's parenting approach (I could go on and on). Let me now discuss some key issues on which she has completely missed the boat and, for all of her love and devotion to her children, she is actually sabotaging their long-term development.

Ms. Chua seems very intent on instilling high self-esteem in her children, an admirable objective. And, yes, competence is one part of the self-esteem puzzle. But by focusing so maniacally on ensuring that her daughters are competence, she is undermining their self-esteem in several ways.

Through her impossible-to-achieve standards, Ms. Chua is creating perfectionists who, paradoxically according to the research, will feel anything but competent. When perfection is the only acceptable measure of competence (and, of course, perfection is unattainable), anything less, even excellence, is, well, incompetence. So, despite her daughters' significant current and future academic and artistic achievements, being competent is different than feeling competent, and it's not likely they will feel competent because they will never be perfect. Ms. Chua is likely ensuring her daughters will be successful in their lives, but the cost of insecurity, self-criticism, inability to experience true joy and pride in their successes (all likely outcomes based on the research) is far too high for my parental tastes.

Relatedly, the verbal abuse they receive when they "fail" (in quotes because an A- is hardly failure) from, ostensibly, the most important person in their lives, is likely instilling in her daughters a profound fear of failure (wouldn't you be terrified of failing if you knew you were going to be yelled at and insulted?).  Research on fear of failure finds that children with a fear of failure demonstrate low self-esteem, decreased intrinsic motivation, lower grades, cheating, physical complaints, eating disorders, drug abuse, anxiety, and depression.

Ms. Chua's concern for her daughters' self-esteem omits the two other contributors to healthy and resilient self-esteem. First, children need to feel loved by their parents. Though I'm sure Ms. Chua loves her daughters as much as the next parent, it appears that she doesn't express that love in healthy ways, in fact, it seems, only when they live up to her exacting standards (if she also hugs and kisses them and tells them she loves them often, then I half apologize). Also, children need to feel secure. Yet, Ms. Chua has created an family environment that is not only very insecure, but also downright threatening; "If a Chinese child gets a B-which would never happen [Pulllease!]-there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion." Living with that ticking time bomb of a mother would feel as safe and secure as living in Baghdad.

Having worked with many high-achieving Asian-American young people, I can attest to the hard work and discipline that results in straight As, artistic accomplishments, and even athletic accolades (yes, many Asian-American children also excel at sports!). At the same time, I can also attest to their low self-esteem, neurotic perfectionism, profound fear of failure, usually repressed rage and resentment toward their parents, and over-all unhappiness (of course, my clientele may not be representative of the entire population of Asian-American children).

Ms. Chua is so fixated on guaranteeing her daughters academic and artistic success now that she appears to neglect the other essential contributors that are equally important for later success (and don't forget happiness!). No playdates, sleepovers, or, well, friends, will certainly interfere with their social development. By using rewards and punishment (mostly the latter, it seems) to motivate her daughters, Ms. Chua doesn't allow them to find their own internal motivation to work hard in their achievement activities. By not allowing her daughters to play sports, she is depriving them of gaining the well-documented psychological, emotional, social, and physical benefits of athletic competition. By controlling and deciding on every aspect of her daughters' lives, Ms. Chua prevents them from learning to make decisions, see the consequences of their actions, and gain ownership of their achievements and their lives.

That's not to say that Ms. Chua has it all wrong. I totally agree that many white parents are far too indulgent and not nearly tough enough on their children. But giving children the freedom to define themselves (with guidance from their parents) is not being indulgent. And being tough doesn't mean being abusive. Yes, parents of all cultures should set high standards and push their children to achieve. Yes, parents need to instill the value of hard work in their children. Yes, parents need to place significant limits on children's exposure to media. Yes, parents must establish reasonable expectations, rules, and regulations, based on their values and the kind of people they want their children to become (I don't mean doctors or lawyers, but decent, value-driven, hard-working, caring people).

In an interview following the publication of her article, Ms. Chua states that, "...the book is about the journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model." That's all well and good, but that epiphany doesn't absolve her of responsibility for her repugnant treatment of her daughters. Nor does it heal the wounds that she likely inflicted on her daughters that they will likely carry throughout their lives (along with the advanced degrees from prestigious universities and the successful careers in law, medicine, or business).