“Chinese Mothers Are Superior”

January 10th, 2011

Yale law professor, Amy Chua, thinks Chinese mothers are superior. She describes this as not allowing kids to:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• 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

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

She continues:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.

She writes that “Chinese” children’s self-esteem isn’t hurt by this; that’s bullshit. I know people who still struggle with it, because their family was long on the “hey fatty”s and short on the “wow, great job!”s. One of my good friends was accepted into University of California at San Diego (UCSD), but not UCLA. She was incredibly excited; UCSD is a great school and has very good sciences departments, which she was entering. She was proud, because she worked her ass off in school for years and finished with a 4.0 GPA. Yet when she told a very close aunt she was accepted into UCSD, all she said was, “Why didn’t you get into UCLA?”

It’s not that she thought their family didn’t love them, but she was hurt because they weren’t more supportive. She cried telling me this story years after it happened, so excuse me, but Chua is absolutely wrong. I don’t have children so I won’t tell Amy or anyone else how to raise their children, but what I do know is that this kind of stuff certainly does leave a lasting impression.

Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepaway camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, “I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.” God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

What a shame this is. What Chua is saying is that “Chinese” parents know what their children should really be doing: focusing absolutely on core academics, on getting straight-As, getting into a good (read: prestigious) school and entering a profession that pays, like medicine or law. Any activities extraneous to this—playing sports, reading comics or science fiction, playing around on the computer, school plays—are a waste of time. Everything must be put toward the ultimate goal: landing a steady, large income.

What about playwrights or screenwriters or actors, who found out in elementary school they had a love for acting and writing by participating in plays? Chua says: go and do some math problems.

Or what about those who played around on the computer as kids, discovered they really love computers and decided to become industrial engineers to build future computers, or to become software engineers to build great applications? Chua says: you’re not allowed to touch that thing unless you’re doing research for school.

And those who found out they had an overriding fascination for space from reading comics and science fiction when they were a kid, and thus became aerospace engineers? Chua says: give me that comic, I need to feed it through the paper shredder. Go play the piano until you play “Little White Donkey” perfectly.

Chua thinks this controlling form of parenting is right because it has their best interest in mind; from her perspective, she’s preventing them from doing dumb things kids are wont to do and is ensuring they have a stable, profitable career.

That’s true; but what else is true is it prevents them from learning to make decisions independently and suffer their consequences (“I got a D on that exam because I decided to play handball instead of studying”). Affording children some autonomy helps breed individual responsibility and critical thought, but it’s difficult to learn that when every single hour from waking up to going to bed is regimented by parents.

Moreover, this prevents children from discovering passions and developing their own creativity. Chua would scoff at that, I’m sure, but we need creative people as much as we need engineers, doctors and lawyers. In fact, someone who’s learned how to think creatively would probably be better at each of those professions, too. But for Chua, work is almost entirely about discipline, not passion and creativity.

She’s right that children need structure to operate within and parents should not allow their children to quit anything they start, but this parenting technique isn’t somehow exclusive to Asian parents. There’s a long tradition in America of “hard-ass” parents who don’t baby their kids and demand they put in their full effort into anything they do.

There’s a difference between calling your child garbage, controlling every waking hour of their life and refusing to allow them to participate in anything deemed academically distracting, and being an involved, demanding parent who expects complete effort from them. Chua tries to create a false choice between her “Chinese” parenting style and a new-agey, permissive, “everyone’s special in their own way” parenting style. That isn’t the choice, however much she wants it to be.