What We Can Learn from the Chinese Mother

Being Chinese does not mean I’m a Chinese mother, not in the way that Amy Chua has described us. Just this morning, I scolded my daughter for not finishing her extra credit assignment, then checked the schedule and realized she had one week left to finish it.

Guilt set in. Had I been too harsh?

I guess I’m a Western mother, not the Chinese mother that Amy Chua has made famous with her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  In recent weeks, Chua, a Yale University law professor, has become notorious for her militaristic parenting tactics.

For the record, not all Chinese mothers operate the Amy Chua way. We do not all threaten to burn stuffed animals if our children fail to master a piece of music. We do not reject handmade cards that are less than perfect. We do not drill our children for hours on academics and music. We do not deprive our children of play dates, sleepovers and drama club participation.

Chua operates from the premise that children owe their parents and that repayment involves making them proud — a very Chinese concept that I adopt on a much smaller scale and in a slightly different way. “Hey, I gave you life,” I’ve told my girls. “I think you can go do a load of laundry.” Or give me more than a crumb from your cookie, fetch me a glass of water, take the dog out – you name the task.

My mother was certainly not a Chinese Mother. I can’t recall her ever berating us for bad grades or being anything less than perfect. My father may have tried to be a Chinese Mother by sending us to Chinese school every Saturday morning for several years. When our protests became too loud and unbearable, he gave up and let us do what all our friends were doing: watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Yet my parents managed to send three of us off to Ivy League colleges. I was the exception – I attended Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. Not exactly what I’d call slacking.

Chua does make some enviable points. For one, I like the idea that she starts with the notion that her daughters – she has two, just like me – are fully capable of achieving what she demands of them. A little faith in your children’s potential would probably be a boon to their achievement.

And to be honest, I kind of like the fact she’s less concerned about her child’s self-esteem than us Western parents, who fret over every little thing we say. Taking self-esteem out of the equation would allow for some brutal, but perhaps much needed, honesty.  “Stop eating so much ice cream. You’ll get fat.” “That art work doesn’t look good. Do it again.” “Study harder. You need better grades, or you’ll never get into a college that meets my standards.”

At a time when studies show that many colleges are churning out young adults who lack critical thinking skills – “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” was just published, too — maybe Chua is on to something. Maybe we need to be a little tougher on our kids and not worry so much when we scold them for neglecting their school work. Maybe we need to have stronger faith in their abilities and be less preoccupied with their feelings.

I confess that we once tried to banish sleepovers forever. But burn their stuffed animals? Ban them from drama club?

I don’t think so. And I have a whole closet filled with handmade cards.


About healthywritermom

I'm a health writer and the married mom of two daughters, who finds herself constantly tending to the health needs of her family. Writing ab
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5 Responses to What We Can Learn from the Chinese Mother

  1. Denise says:

    Great post, Winnie! I blogged about Chua last week (what mom blogger didn’t, right?) and I think you and I had the same reaction (though I’m not Chinese!), that expecting/presuming our children’s strength and ability is much better than tiptoeing around their supposed fragility. My parents — again, not Chinese! — were, in retrospect, less worried about my self-esteem than they were about my future.



  2. JS says:

    I must be a Chinese Father…I deprive them of sleepovers

  3. AY says:

    My mom’s Chinese, but not a Tiger Mother. In fact when I looked at my childhood report cards, I realized that I was not always the great student that they led me to believe I was. Not sure how they pulled that one over on me while continuing to encourage and nudge at the same time – and I had sleepovers.

  4. Kim says:

    Great post! As you know, I’m African-American. Being raised in a black, suburban, upper middle class family meant that we were encouraged to strive for excellence. Education was stressed all the time. Mediocrity was NOT accepted. Our parents nurtured us and allowed us to explore what we were interested in but not at the expense of being respectful, getting good grades, being responsible in the community, taking care of family members that needed help etc.
    When I read about the Tiger Mom, I thought they were talking about my mom from Alabama.
    PS – And for years, we didn’t have any sleepovers either!

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