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Beyond Chinese Mothering: The science and practice of child success

The science and practice of child success

By David Shenk |

Like Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, whose recent article in the Wall Street Journal,Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” outlined a severe parenting approach to getting your children to succeed, I have two kids and exceptionally high expectations for how they will turn out. But counter to Chua’s strategy, here are some things I regularly encourage my kids to do:

  • attend sleepovers

  • have lots of playdates

  • audition for school plays

  • watch plenty of great TV and play interesting computer games

  • sometimes sacrifice school work for other experiences

  • play any instrument they want to play

Here’s one thing I may discourage them from doing after reading Chua’s Wall Street Journal piece:

  • attend Yale Law School

Do I consider Chua an awful parent? How could I? Chua’s article is an excerpt from her new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but apparently The Wall Street Journal only took the most controversial material to make Chua sound as pyrotechnic as possible. Ken Kesey used to say, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” WSJ is following that model. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from taking a more careful look at these issues.

In between her shock-and-awe pronouncements, here’s the giant underlying truth that Chua understands: Children have enormous potential. Our bodies and brains are designed with the capacity for an immense array of physical and intellectual skills. This process is driven by a gene and environment interplay in which our genes constantly get turned on and off – “expressed” – like switches according to the specific environmental signals they encounter. Genetic expression, in turn, drives our famous brain “plasticity.” This means that each of us is much more like an improvisational jazz gig than a scripted classical symphony. While genetic differences do of course matter, DNA is not destiny. It is simply not accurate to regard some people as being born with certain talents while others are not. We are, in essence, plastic creatures developing in response to external demands.

But what Chua’s article seems to miss – on a tragic level, if her words are to be taken literally – is that parents do not get to control this process fully. Parents are guides, vital guides, to be sure, with powerful direct and indirect influence, but still mere guides. A child will always develop according to the totality of his or her own environment and will always make millions more decisions for him or herself than any parent can make for them. A child will always develop a singular world view, a sense of self. The smartest parenting, in my view, recognizes and respects that reality from early on – doing everything in the parent’s power to help the child make smart choices and develop strong habits. I want to practice piano. I want to solve this math problem. I want to work through this disappointment.

Chua might respond: “But I did force my kids to master piano! I did force them to be first in their class! I’m a ferocious tiger!” Sure, a strong-willed and crafty adult holding virtually every lever of emotional and physical power can coerce a child into virtually any short-term behavior. But there’s a price to be paid there – and not just in a loss of respect for the parent. The WSJ excerpt mocks the idea that kids are emotionally fragile, but she ought to understand that plasticity applies to a child’s psyche as well as his or her skills. Just as kids can be stretched to develop astounding finger dexterity, they can develop deep wells of resentment and self-loathing. For my book The Genius in All Of Us, I spoke to Columbia University psychiatrist Peter Freed about the downside of parents using emotional coercion to push a child to his or limits. “The parent beams when the child performs well and then withdraws love when he’s underperforming,” explained Freed. “The kid becomes addicted to pleasing the parent. When he doesn’t live up to the parent’s expectations, he feels his parent go cold, which of course is totally devastating. That on-again, off-again feeling about how love works sets the stage for narcissism.” A troubling adult life follows.

Fortunately, there is a much healthier way to incentivize high achievement: Parents can invest in their child’s desire to seek achievement for his or her own inner satisfaction. They can set and model high expectations while showing affection and supporting their kid’s emotional independence. They can model resilience in their own lives, demonstrating that failure is never the final verdict but rather can provide an insight into skills that haven’t yet been sufficiently developed.

To start, parents can use Chua’s DON’T list as the perfect DO list:

  • Sleepovers and play dates Helping your child form and nurture the right friendships is the most important thing you can do for them, bar none. We are social animals. We sink or thrive according to the quality of our relationships. Sleepovers in particular tell a child, “You can handle this.”

  • Drama and musical performance I’m trying to think of a desirable trait not associated with rehearsal and performance, and I can’t think of any. Poise and self-confidence, communication skills, emotional intelligence, literary deconstruction, and, yes, living up to high expectations – all these can come from public performance.

  • Access to good TV and other media Trying to separate your child from the cultural world around us is a recipe for disconnectedness (and it won’t work anyway, unless you have a plan to somehow skip over the teen years). We’re lucky to live in an age where, amid all the media crud, there is also an enormous amount of smart, witty, emotionally resonant television and film. In our family, we’ve found watching choice shows together can be warm and rich. We’ll hit the pause button often to explain civics or history lessons unfolding before us. My eight-year-old knows what a filibuster is – thank you, Aaron Sorkin.

So while I don’t agree with Chua’s methods, let me be clear: I condemn totally and utterly any parents who blithely accept mediocrity in their family life, who convey to their children that average success is all that’s expected – or worse, all that can be hoped for. That is a very dark message indeed – every bit as dark, I think, as Chua’s apparent ferocity towards her children.

The great news is that parents can have it both ways; they can nurture and set the highest of expectations. It worked for our family, anyway – and we’re not even Chinese.

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About David Shenk


David Shenk

David Shenk is a correspondent for and author of The Genius in All of Us, The Immortal Game, The Forgetting, The End of Patience, Data Smog, and Skeleton Key.

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36 thoughts on “Beyond Chinese Mothering: The science and practice of child success

  1. good chinese mother says:

    Challenging Chua

    Dear Ms. Chua,

    Like you, I am a Chinese mother, born in Manila from Chinese parents like yours, and raised like you. Unlike you, however, I vowed to be a different Chinese mother. I encouraged my daughter to enjoy all the activities you prohibited. She missed school to watch the Oscars. I had hoped she would play the drums, but she wanted to play The Carpenters on the piano.

    And still, she scored 2340 on the SAT, 60 points off perfect, and got accepted by Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

    It will be interesting to see if your methods can produce the same results.

    I did not push. I encouraged. And I loved unconditionally.

  2. Steph Thompson says:

    Gold star goes out to Mr. Shenk. I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment that we, as parents, are NOT IN CONTROL. I laughed with an older psychoanalyst friend recently over the idea that we as parents might have no impact at all.

    “I don’t think we do,” she said.

    We are just models against which our kids can compare their own great individual selves. That is what makes parenting such a wild ego-busting adventure! If we’re smart, we have no objective. Turns out our little ones, in their infinite wisdom, the wisdom we hopefully let them hold on to, set their own agenda. And they should be allowed to, given the faith and confidence that they can. We cannot and should not lock them up, physically or mentally. To do so is criminal.

  3. Steph Thompson says:

    I love the good chinese mother’s style! I am the same, leaving them to their own devices, giving them the option in the real and virtual Game of Life to go to college or no. My 9-year-old has already sniffed out Harvard as the best. I tell him he’ll have to see. Maybe that won’t be the best choice. Maybe he’ll reject “the best” in favor of something better for him.

  4. Jamie Bunn Stein says:

    My skepticism of the Chinese mothering method comes from my experience teaching English in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China. One day I was cautiously approached by a student who was very concerned about her English skills (which were completely fluent as spoken, and quite well written ). After going over the few mistakes that she did make on a particular exercise, I assured her that her English was coming along fine, and was certainly much better than my Chinese! We laughed, and she seemed immensely relieved to hear that. She then confided in me, with pain in her expression, that she was happy to know that I did not hold the same opinion of her as her Chinese teacher, who told her daily that she was worthless and stupid because her Chinese scores were not high enough. She told me she was working as hard as she could, but was afraid her efforts would never be sufficient to please the teacher. It was clear from her description that the anxiety over this was consuming her life, and it broke my heart to hear about the verbal abuse she was being subjected to each day. I had to wonder whether the constant intimidation could ever really be worth the resulting academic perfection she might achieve?
    Whether or not an Ivy League school is along the future pathways of my very small children, I don’t know, but do I believe there is more to life than material or academic success, and that there are other ways to stand out as an individual of worth.

  5. lauraR says:

    See, I do not like this statement: “accept mediocrity in their family life, who convey to their children that average success is all that’s expected” What in the world is wrong with being average? Having amazing grades is not the end-all and solution to a happy life! I had a 4.0 in high school and college – and you know what? life was not handed to me easy as a result. I picked a perfectly “average” career – nursing – but most importantly I LOVE what I do and it provides a good living and a nice work/family balance. I believe the trick is to help the child find what they love and are good at and help nurture that – they don;t have to be STELLAR in all aspects of sports or music or art or academics. They have to be a kind, compassionate, well rounded, happy person – that is ALL I expect out of my boys – and that is my role, to help them find their passions. Don’t get me wrong – they have to do well in school and make average grades – but more importantly I need to know they are hard working and putting in the effort.

  6. Vladie says:

    Ms Amy is a certified MOm; Mr Shenk is not a mom at all. So, as an American with a Chinese blood, I can actually identify myself more with Ms. Chua than with Mr Shenk Because my upbringing is for the most part, in a Chinese way which Ms Chua elaborated.

  7. ldancer says:

    I totally agree with this author. To the critical commenters: 1) A father is a parent, too. 2) “Average” and “Mediocre” are not the same thing.

    My biggest issue with Ms.Chua’s apparent childrearing philosophy, aside from its obvious abusive nature, is that it is based entirely on a materialistic, Me First attitude. She appears to encourage material acquisition and success above community, caring relationships with other people and care for one’s environment. It is attitudes like this that contribute to the atomization of our social relationships, and to the destruction of nature. If you want your kids to be money-grubbing, success-obsessed, hollow basket cases who don’t know how to have any emotional connection to others and who only measure their lives by how much stuff they own, by all means, raise them this way.

    Or you could allow them to be who they are, which they will probably do anyway. FYI, most jobs you get as an adult come from people you know, i.e. friends. So it’s good to know how to have some.

    Also, I find it hard to believe that all Chinese moms behave like her. I’m sure there are cultural behaviors she’s expressing, but she also sounds like an extreme example. Controlling, withholding mothers raise miserable human beings. I can think of many friends and exes who were raised by people like her (of various ethnicities) and none of them are doing well in their adult lives, because they can’t cope with setbacks, don’t know how to advance or even identify their own ambitions, and thus can never get projects off the ground. One of them became a bad heroin addict; another has a graveyard of broken friendships and artistic collaborations behind her; a third is a poisonously jealous and dishonest person. A fourth went to Harvard but can’t handle doing anything “wrong” and so barely ever does anything right; he is also drowning in credit card debt.

    Finally, the ranks of doctors and concert pianists swell with Jews, and yet we tend to be rather warm and nurturing parents (generally – I guess some of us are more like the dad in “Call It Sleep”). So there’s your proof that browbeating your children isn’t really necessary.

  8. Maya says:

    I do think that Amy Chua is kind of crazy in some of her extreme choices with parenting, but I actually think there is some validity to a few of her philosophies. Viewing children as strong, rather than weak, for example, or encouraging respect and hard work. While I disagree completely with how she goes about instilling those values, the values themselves and the ideas she expresses might actually benefit some children who have been raised in a permissive environment.

  9. Ale says:

    My Chinese friends that were educated this way, hated it! not coming home with an A means being hit with a bamboo stick and are educating their kids in a more nurturing, loving environment, where they have more choices.

  10. Suzy says:

    Thanks David Shenk for the great piece – this is my favorite response so far to the excerpt from Chuas book published in the Wall Street Journal. When I first read the WSJ piece, it made me so sad to think the biggest sacrifice the Chua family is making is to sacrifice their happiness. You only get this one chance in a lifetime to live and grow as a family unit. Her daughters will move on and become independent, most likely successful individuals, but your time with them, living under one roof is finite. Why not enjoy one another? My mothers philosophy was the polar opposite of Ms. Chua and she turned out stellar children (yes, including advanced degrees, Ivy League diplomas and successful careers in completive fields). My mother would be just as proud of us if we had taken entirely different paths in life as long we turned out happy. My mother believed that if you are happy, success will follow. If anything, we pushed ourselves and she created a safe haven where we could recharge. The other thing my parents encouraged us to do was to form independent social connections from an early age that have proven vital to our happiness and quality of life as adults. We dont just have great careers, we have great friends, and now stable families of our own – i.e., great lives. My mother recently passed away, much younger than we ever thought we would lose her, and when we met with the minister to plan a memorial service, the first thing we all agreed on was what a wonderful, kind and loving mother we had not a mean bone in her body. You dont have to be a tiger to raise one.

  11. Febriani Pratiwi says:

    OMG I totally agree with this.. “A child will always develop according to the totality of his or her own environment and will always make millions more decisions for him or herself than any parent can make for them. ”

    thumbs up..!!

  12. Febriani Pratiwi says:

    And I just read the article on WSJ, I think parents must differentiate “motivating” and “threatening” .. Amy Chua’s daughter Lulu might performed perfectly with her music, but what does that accomplishment mean compared to their freedom and happiness..??

  13. Screen Time app says:

    David, I love your take and I agree with most what you said but as I’ve said before, when we use words like “achievement” and “success,” we need to carefully define those words. America highly associates success to financial gains and social status. That is but ONE definition. A child can be successful in many ways and we want to nurture those traits as well, be it self-confidence, intellectual, emotional, etc. Great article.

  14. anon101 says:

    hey lets just be careful not to call it “Chinese mothering” because not all chinese mothers are like this.

  15. Rufus Griscom says:

    Wonderful piece David — the best response to the Chua Tiger Mother controversy that I have read so far, and I have read a dozen of them.

    At the core of this controversy is a challenge that all parents face — how can we help our kids discover passion for their work and play, how do we get them beyond the boring phase of skill building to the self-fulfilling, invigorating phase? I think it may be overly optimistic to think that learning will always be fun every step of the way — as much as I would like it to be otherwise, I think there tends to be a “dues paying” phase of the learning process that requires tenacity to get through before one arrives at the virtuous cycle of mastery-affirmation / greater mastery-greater affirmation. What gives people the hunger to work through this point? There are such a wide range of motives, some more psychologically healthy than others. But I do think that people who develop a deep passion for their work tend to be more gratified in the long run, and that it’s natural to want our children to have this experience.

    One of the factor that is missing from Chau’s analysis is how much the skills demanded by the world are changing — creativity and social skills are ascendant, and rote learning skills are becoming less valuable. In the age of google, the ability to store and repeat back information, and duplicate tasks, is far less valuable than it used to be. Thank goodness … work is getting more interesting over time, and that work requires more dynamic, adaptable, creative and socially nimble people. I would also make the case that academic pedigree is becoming less and less valuable as the world becomes more meritocratic.

    The best two books I have read on the subject of how to motivate young people are David Shenk’s Genius in All of Us and Daniel Pink’s Drive (more about adults but applicable to kids). Thanks again David, great stuff.

  16. Mike Lanza says:

    Here’s a parody of the original article entitled, “Why American Parents Are Inferior.” Enjoy!

  17. Beth Demko says:

    As much as I shudder over Ms. Chua’s narrow view of success, and means of bringing out the “best” (according to a very narrow view of what’s best) in her daughters, consider this: living in Germany, I have observed much lower standards for “proper” behavior than what is standard in the US! Kids are allowed to be kids (which is great) but often at the expense of learning basics like “please” and “thank you”, considering others’ feelings, apologizing, etc. A lot of it has to do with a more argumentative culture that is not so interested in social “saving face.” So what the Chinese say of us, we could say of other cultures. It’s ALWAYS relative. And I find that the US is ‘between’ China and Germany on a lot of things. :)

  18. Robyn Margulis says:

    Excellent article! Here’s my take on Tiger Mom vs. the Western emotional approach.

  19. David Shenk says:

    Great comments, everyone, and thanks for the kind words. I’d like to respond specifically to two of the remarks.

    1. Vladie is absolutely right. I’m not a mom.

    2. LauraR: Thanks for your pushback on the issue of mediocrity, and sorry if I was unclear. I did not mean to imply that academic success, or any sort of ambition, should supplant values like kindness and compassion or obscure the goal of a contented and even joyful life. To the contrary, I think having high expectations across the board has a nice feedback-loop quality, and I think what we want to aim for as parents is a home culture that doesn’t need to make much distinction between different aspects of living well: in any given dinner conversation with my kids, I hope they’re picking up signals that we hold ourselves to high standards of intellect, of generosity, of tolerance, and of fun. (New Yorker cartoon: “I work hard, I play hard, I hang out hard.”) What does having high standards mean to me? It’s trying to emulate the behavior of people I most admire. It’s retaining a healthy dose self-criticality — wanting to live a life of constant self-improvement. It’s cutting myself some slack when I don’t quite hit the mark (which happens all the time).

    It is also the understanding that truly outstanding achievement can only come from within, as Rufus and others have suggested, and all we can hope to do as parents is to plant the seeds of that passion. And it doesn’t have to be just one seed or one type of passion. I want my kids to be passionate about music, about politics, about math, about science, about words, etc, and I’m always trying to find ways to stoke those passions. I know they won’t all take, but hopefully some will.

    To be honest, I’m a little confused by your comment that you expect your kids to “do well in school and make average grades.” Doing well in school, as I define it, is getting very good grades (or reports), and actually learning the material. We shouldn’t demand absolutely perfection, because that’s harsh and unreasonable. But in my experience, both as a student and a parent, so-called “average” grades in most schools indicate that the student is not doing particularly well or that something is amiss. We’ve been taught for decades that certain people just don’t have the innate intelligence to do well in school, and that’s complete crap. Intelligence is not a thing that you have a certain amount of from birth. It is a set of skills that we accrue in our lives. (I go into some detail about this in my book).

    I also should make it very clear that I don’t consider any profession less worthy than another. A person can become a great nurse, a great teacher, a great mechanic, a great gardener. When I say we should have high expectations of our kids, it doesn’t mean that we should be disappointed if they don’t go into high-paying or high-esteem professions. It means that whatever they choose to do, they should aim to do it extremely well. High achievement is a gift to yourself, and to your community.

  20. Leila says:

    Intelligence and success cannot be forced upon your children. And even the most brilliant and high-achieving kids will face failure in different areas of their lives. If you raise your kids to think that they’re either first place or losers, then you’ll be raising individuals that will forever be stressed out and with the worst self-esteem whenever life doesn’t turn out the way they expected. Besides, they’ll be extremely arrogant people thinking they always have to be better than everybody else.

  21. Ajeng Kusumaningtyas Pramono says:

    I am not a chinese, but I am an asian,
    Amy Chua article is kind of describing my childhood. My mother raised me this way, and I am totally fine and feel grateful for who I am now.
    If I try to look back, there are moments that I feel so stressed out, but from those moments I could learn a lot of things too. Despite what my mom has done to me, I feel so thankful for her, and have no objection on her way to raise me.
    I am standing in the middle. I think there are children who can handle this kind of parenting style, like me, and can improve because of it, but then there are also children who cannot handle it….

    See…it s the matter of cultural difference…so people, please dont be so judgmental :)

  22. lalafusion says:

    I completely understand and respect our ‘new parenting generation’ afterall, I am one of those parents; however, I do wish that we would/could keep things in perspective: 1. Parenting is generational. Like most things, there are a lot of commonalities but none of us can negate the impact our environment, culture, personal experiences and/or social setting comes to bear on our own parenting aptitude and skills. 2. We all try to do the best we can with what we have at the time. I would like to think that this is what most parents have and still are doing today. None of us come with an instruction manual – the entire process is a crash course. Why don’t we spend more time celebrating the positive of what we got out of childhood and spend more time self-correcting (or with the help of a trained professional) so that we can aim to be the type of adult we want to be….

  23. Rufus Griscom says:

    Steph — I love your comment below … very interesting. There is no doubt that we parents dramatically overestimate our impact. However I wouldn’t go so far as to say we have no impact — the profound effect of birth order (second child much more attention seeking in comparison with first, among other birth order effects) shows how powerful the home environment impacts kids. David, I love what you say below about the benefits of having high expectations, of striving for excellence. I think we Americans have for some reason reached a point where we consider “striving for excellence” to be a bad thing left over from previous generations of sadists. What this view misses is that the exerience of developing excellence (or mastery as Dan Pink says in his great new book Drive) is among the most satisfying experiences available to humans. It’s not about making money or beating the Jones’s, it’s about the deeply human satisfaction of developing skills. And kids do need — or benefit from — their parents example, and perhaps sometimes encouragement. I think the intensity of the response to Amy Chua is partly do to how conflicted was feel as a culture to this kind of ambition … let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  24. Eliza Scott Harris says:

    My favorite response yet to the Amy Chua debate

  25. Liza Jordan says:

    This is a really interesting response to the whole Tiger Mother debate.

  26. Angie Howell Carter says:

    Lovely counter-argument to the infamous Chinese Mothering article.

  27. good chinese mother says:

    I am Chinese, and I am a mother, but I am not a tiger mother. I wanted to be a better mother than my mother, and in my quest to be one, I read parenting books. I sought advice from parenting experts. I talked to other parents.

    Everyone had something to say to me about parenting, the right way to parent, the better way to parent, the best way to parent.

    It has been more than two decades since I read my first book on parenting. And now looking back, I see that I had the best teacher in my daughter. From the minute she was born, she was telling me how I could be the right mother for her…the best mother for her…

    And I learned…by listening to her…by watching her…and by knowing her…

  28. Sarah David says:

    My favourite response to the Tiger Mother debate so far.

  29. Kylie Brailey says:

    Interesting counter to the Tiger Mother Style of Parenting

  30. pheonix1920 says:

    I ADORE the article . . . up until the second to last paragraph. I have a problem with the part that “totally and utterly any partents who accept mediocrity.” First, I don’t like hearing one parent judging others without being in their situation. For some reason, we are judged on every level in parenting–something I’ve not experienced to this degree until kids came. Nursing or bottles; working mom or SAHM; homeschool, public, or private; etc.

    Second, it bothers me because not all parents have the same education and opportunities that I have. I mentor children at a low-income school, and the difference between that school and my children’s is vast. There are no parent volunteers there–the parents are too busy working. My mentee’s father is no longer in the picture, so her mother works two jobs trying to keep her children fed, clothed, and sheltered. I can’t imagine being a single parent, much less one who works 2 jobs. It would be lovely if she had enough energy after both jobs to dedicate to her childrens’ future success, but I can’t condemn her for having little energy after both jobs are done

  31. Stephen Seiler says:

    And Part 2: A rebuttle from an American Dad and author of a very good bookcalled “The Genius in All of Us”

  32. Ellen Spirer says:

    My favorite rebuttal to Tiger Mom so far…though Yale Law School would be fine with me.

  33. Darold says:

    Got it! Tkhans a lot again for helping me out!

  34. Aileenp619 says:

    Love this point of view on parenting! And for those of you who continue saying “stop judging” … nobody is judging! Simply stating opinions, which we are all entitled to. As parents, we have the right to decide what’s right or wrong for our children. Can you imagine if everyone instilled the same Tiger Mom values in there kids. What a boring, militant world this would be! Let people be who they are! Embrace your childs curiousity, personality and unique way of being… above all, love and protect them and do the best you can! There is no manual for parenting!

  35. Anonymous says:

    I agree with The Good Chinese Mother. Our kids are our best teachers at showing us how to parent them -our individual child- while I may not agree with other parents, I believe its their right to do the best they can for their children…and their responsibility. Different kids respond different to different approaches. I also agree with this article, a combination of high expectations, and nuturing is the best approach – for me, and my girls – and while they are completly different kids, and I will adjust to their particular needs, I’ll follow my guidelines I have set for myself, and them. We have the Future in our hands – our children, and we should strive to do the best we can for them, and their Future.

  36. aipingpig says:

    A child will always develop according to the totality of his or her own environment and will always make millions more decisions for him or herself than any parent can make for them. A child will always develop a singular world view, a sense of self.

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