Are Chinese Moms Really Superior?

Since an excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8, there has been a flurry of vehement discussion online about Chua’s declaration that the “Chinese mother” approach to child rearing is superior.

Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, asserts that a strict regimen of studying and rote practice, with no time “wasted” on watching television, playing video games, participating in school plays, attending sleepovers or even having play dates is the reason her two daughters are prodigies. She also contends that the Western parenting style is too lax and coddles children.

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“Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches,” Chua writes. “Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

It has taken me these past days to absorb the points in Chua’s piece and the ensuing fallout – there are nearly 3,000 responses and counting on the essay’s comments page and numerous exchanges on Twitter and Quora. What I’ve concluded is that I identify with Chua’s tiger mother instinct for two reasons: I am the result of a relatively strict upbringing and I draw on that experience in the upbringing of my two children.

To be clear, I think Chua’s methods are extreme. I do not, for example, condone name-calling, conditional love or denying bathroom breaks during epic piano practices. Being successful requires discipline, indeed, but discipline does not require draconian tactics. And Chua has since had an opportunity to explain that her book is about her “coming of age” as a mom and that she’s a different person at the end of the book.

Like many of the respondents who have posted comments about Chua’s piece, I grew up amid rigid expectations by my parents. I was the firstborn and the only girl out of three children, which meant I not only had to set an example for my brothers but I had to do so with proper demureness. To that point, I was not allowed to: wear shoes without socks or revealing clothes (halter/tube tops, short skirts), attend parties or sleepovers, hang out at the mall, laugh too loudly or behave “wildly.”

Even though I often butted heads with my parents’ values and methods, I knew they loved me. We were immigrants from Taiwan and they gave up prominent careers to bring us to the States. Both of my parents had graduate degrees, but ended up opening a restaurant despite not having any experience in the business. They forged ahead because they needed a livelihood. While they never regretted their decisions, they frequently reminded us what sacrifices they made for the sake of our futures, and we were therefore obligated to be successful.

I was mostly an A student in grade school and junior high. But my grades started to decline in high school as I took on more responsibilities at the restaurant. In many ways, the restaurant was my equivalent to piano lessons, math camp and advanced placement courses. If I wasn’t physically at school, I was at the restaurant. I grew to resent the business even though it eventually afforded us many luxuries, including a nice car that I still own today, and it paid for my college education.

In hindsight, I realized the 16 years I spent growing up in the restaurant business amounted to rote repetition of the amalgam of skills that made me successful first as a journalist and now as a consultant and entrepreneur. I learned how to assess situations quickly, assume leadership roles and accept challenges without fear, relate to diverse people, be resourceful in creating solutions, and persevere.

In the 15 years since I graduated college and left home, I had to discover who I was as a young, independent woman and now as the mother of 4-year-old Meilee and 20-month-old Shen. I found my true self in the age of Oprah. So, in raising my children, I combine what I think are the best aspects of the tiger mom mentality with a balancing dose of tenderness, hugs and verbal affection. Even in the midst of a reprimand, I make sure to tell my kids I love them.

I even chose meaningful names for my children as lifelong reminders to embody the implied attributes. The Chinese characters for Meilee stand for “rose” and “strength.” I want her to be a beautiful person on the inside and out, as well as have the strength to achieve her potential. Shen’s name means “deep thinker.” I want him to be thoughtful in every action and decision.

My inner tiger mom manifests itself in matters of education, discipline, critical thinking, culture and language. From the beginning, I have emphasized language skills. We have a bilingual Mandarin and English household, with the occasional French or Spanish storybook thrown in the mix. I correct my daughter’s grammar when she makes a mistake and I’m proud to say she often recognizes when she’s used the wrong tense and will correct herself.

We practice spelling during bath time with letters that stick to the tile. I give Meilee books that are just beyond her recommended level in order to push her ability to comprehend. I recognized her artistic tendency, so I bought the gamut of art supplies to help her express and explore that inclination. We practice writing letters and numbers, and now we’ve progressed to copying sentences in an effort to help her start to read. Since Meilee doesn’t turn 5 until October, she has to test into kindergarten if we want her to go this fall. So I’m ramping up her studies to prepare for her interview this spring, with high hopes she will be accepted for the 2012 school year.

I think what’s different with my generation of tiger moms is that we also recognize that academic success needs to be balanced with social adeptness. So I do make an effort to schedule play dates for Meilee, who actually gets along well with older children and adults – a sign, I think, of her level of intellect. I also married a TV producer, so banning the television in the house would be counterproductive. Compared to Chua, I am tiger mom light. Very light.

Chua’s piece has antagonized and appalled a lot of Chinese-Americans who suffered under tiger mom scrutiny. But, if we can set aside the finer points of her particular circumstances, there is value in using her piece to start a broader discussion about what it means to be parents who are advocates engaged in the upbringing of their children.

Did you read the WSJ article or see Amy Chau on the Today Show this week? What are your thoughts on her parenting approach?

— Hsiao-Ching Chou


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