A book excerpt in The Wall Street Journal this weekend posits that Chinese mothers are “superior” to Western mothers because Chinese mothers’ solution to “substandard performance” is “always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” According to author Amy Chua, this type of parenting is not only acceptable but commendable. She notes, sort of as an aside, that not all Chinese mothers operate this way, and not all Western mothers don’t. But she’s not afraid to go there:
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way.
Amazingly, the cultural stereotyping is hardly the essay’s most problematic and polarizing issue. Here are some things Amy Chua’s kids — photographed playing violin and piano while their skinny, pretty mother stands before them with her arms crossed — are not allowed to do:
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, choose their own extracurricular activities.
“Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences,” Chua explains. She even says that calling one’s daughter “garbage” if they get bad grades or “fatty” if they’re fat is a good thing, because bad grades are garbage and skinny is superior. So it’s an act of love: “Many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.”
A child’s happiness does not really come up throughout the essay insomuch as it’s assumed stereotypical success and personal fulfillment are interchangeable, or at least that things like happiness are too vague and frivolous (“Western”) to tackle. Nor does she ever consider the downsides of telling children what they can and cannot do or be. And another parenting wrinkle that’s left largely and conveniently untouched: how a child feels about his or her parents. (“Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything,” Chua writes.) Over 1,200 comments on the story, however, have suggested that children with these sorts of parents often grow up to hate them. “Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg grew up in an environment where they were allowed to explore. I am very doubtful they can create their companies if they had parents like the Chuas,” a commenter wrote. Another said, “I initially thought the article was a spoof, because it was so over-the-top narcissistic and, frankly, racist.”
In any case, an opposing piece ran this weekend as well: “In China, Not All Practice Tough Love.” The latter essay was written by someone responding to Chua’s characterization of Chinese parenting. The former, incidentally, is excerpted from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, to be published Tuesday by Penguin Press. This polarizing bit from the book should help promote it, so Chua can lead by example! She has, if nothing else, made a very clear point about how much she values success. And violin prowess.