Monday, January 10, 2011

Are Chinese parents better than Western parents?

Over at, I'm weighing in on the latest parenting controversey: Yale Law professor Amy Chua's assertion that "Chinese mothers" are superior to "Western Parents."

Chua's book excerpt appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend and immediately touched off a firestorm among parents, readers, bloggers, and child development experts.  While some of her points make a lot of sense -- she writes that one of the worst things a parent can do to a child's self-esteem is to not insist on success -- her methods have led many to accuse her of being abusive. Here's how she describes coercing (her word) her then-7-year-old daughter, Lulu, to play a difficult piece on the piano:

"I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.... I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom."

Her husband, who is not Chinese, was aghast. "He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful," Chua writes. She persisted, the child eventually learned the piece, and Chua chalked it up as proof of her parenting superiority.

I talked to three experts, who weighed in on the "Chinese mother" concept. You can read the entire piece over at Yahoo's Shine:

Are Chinese Parents really the best parents?

By Lylah M. Alphonse, Shine Staff

Her daughters were never allowed to go to sleepovers, have playdates, or be in a school play. Watching TV was not permitted. Neither was playing video games, choosing their own extracurricular activities, getting any grade lower than an A, or playing any instrument other than violin or piano. But they both grew up to be musical prodigies who excelled academically and so, in an excerpt from her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Yale Law professor Amy Chua declares her "Chinese mother" parenting skills superior to those of lax, touchy-feely "Western parents" and describes the methods that led to her success.

After a quick disclaimer to address stereotyping (she says she uses the terms "Chinese mother" and "Western parents" loosely and acknowledges that parenting styles aren't exclusive to a particular location), she launches into the ways in which Chinese and Western parents differ. For the most part, the Western parents don't make out so well....
One of the people with whom I spoke, Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child-development expert and professional speaker, pointed out that the way people define success has a lot to do with whether they think their parenting practices are superior to another person's or another culture's.

"I think there is a continuum of parenting from those who emphasize external standards and rewards to those who emphasize internal positive feelings and rewards," she told me in an interview today. "Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle."

"There needs to be a nod towards the individual’s needs, personality, and learning style. There needs to be a desire to uncover that child’s gifts and personal assets. There needs to be what I call SPARK --  Support, Passion, Action, Reason why, and Knowledge/Skills —a parent’s decision to encourage and support their child’s passions, help, encourage, and keep them on track to take consistent action on their goals, uncover the intrinsic reason why they want this goal so badly, and exposing them to people and programs that allow them to access to skills and knowledge they need to succeed in this manner."

Chua insists that her methods teach children what they can achieve, in spite of the fact that she admits their success is based on making them feel ashamed of themselves. "Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem," Chua writes. "But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

Dr. Silverman says that there needs to be a middle ground. "Yes, sometimes parents want to protect their children's self esteem to a fault," she says. "They take them out of 'trying' and allow them to quit but, ironically, this can have a negative affect on self esteem as the child has no experience with succeeding at the thing that has challenged him so much."

"When children have a pattern of quitting when younger, it sets the precedence of quitting later in life when stakes are high," she points out. "The child (now an adult) may wait for another person to step in and save them. But really, we can see this on both ends of the spectrum For the child who is pressured to succeed at all costs to be perfect, the child may not try for fear of failing."

I have to wonder how much China's "one-child" policy comes into play here. The whole concept of filial piety comes from a time where people were expected to have large families -- one child would be expected to help care for their parents in their old age, while the others could make their own ways in life. But if you have only a single child, your future stability rests upon theirs. There is no room for failure, so is there a drive to push a child as hard as possible, to ensure financial success?

Read Chua's excerpt and make take on it here, and weigh in: Is there a such thing as a perfect parent?

No comments: