Let the Global Mommy Wars Begin

Heather Murphy-Raines/Scout's Honor
Just when it seems safe to go back to not choosing sides between the stay at home moms and the working moms, it happens. 

Yet another reason to feel inadequate as a mother ... that is if you are Western. Yep, let the culture wars begin.

According Yale law professor Amy Chua's essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," “Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best."

She claims, "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it." She says Western parents give up too easily.

She asserts, "Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't." One example cited? She recalls almost proudly calling her own daughter "garbage." She was surprised when she was ostracized by her Western friends when they found out.

Yep, let the culture wars begin.


Ms. Chua uses as evidence several studies to support her querulous claims:

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."

I have to admit that sounds about right in my experience.

By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school, then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job."

Shame: A Valid Parenting Tool?
She boils the differences between Western and Chinese down to three in her WSJ essay:

  • Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently. Shame works.

  • Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.

  • 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.

Anyone else starting to get a little steamed? Feeling a bit sorry for Chinese children? Ms. Chua goes on to relay a personal story of forcing her young daughter to play a piano piece -- with threats, deprivation of food, sleep, and bathroom breaks -- until she got it right. 

This was seen as a family triumph.

Anyone else thinking being called garbage and denied basic needs in the name of perfection a bit abusive? 

I'd love to hear what Ms. Chua's daughters really think about her pride that her daughters were "never allowed to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, and not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama."

In the meantime, I do not deny I know some very accomplished, driven Chinese children with equally driven parents. Does that mean they are better? 

No. In fact, academic success is definitely not a mandatory precursor to success financially, in one's career, or even in one's life.

One of my favorite stories from Berkeley: I was going with my future husband to Cal's Mechanical Engineering Honor Society. There, the professorial advisor mentoring the program took great glee in pointing out the highest starting salaries of Berkeley engineering graduates were in direct reverse correspondence to their GPAs. 

The C students historically had the greatest salaries and best career paths. The A students tended to putter along in academia or mediocre career paths.

Why? Their lives were balanced. They had a social life. They had creativity. They were more willing to take risks. They were to become the entrepreneurs. The leaders.

Think Outside The Box?
I cannot help but compare Western and Chinese mothering outcomes the same way. Chinese mothering may result in academic prowess, but Western methods inspire balance, risk-taking, individualism, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Yes, Western kids rebel. (Chinese children do too!)

American kids think outside the box.

I maintain that neither is better than the other.  Just different results with different priorities.

What is not better, I maintain, is the attitude and oozing superiority in Ms. Chua's essay. Worse, it turns out she has written an entire book on the subject. 

Will you be rushing out to buy her book? Is it wrong to thank my lucky stars I was not raised in her so-called Chinese mothering style? How do you mother your children?

Images via Scout's Honor, by Gabriela Camerotti, and by fritzon /Flickr

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