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Amy Chua on Chinese Mothers: Parenting Genius or Dictatorship?

By Heather Turgeon |

Amy Chua and Chinese mothers

Chinese mothers superior?

If you’ve ever thought you were too strict, too hard on your kids — maybe you sent someone to their room, raised your voice, overdid a time out — take a read through Amy Chua’s essay “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Surely (hopefully) you look like a softy in comparison.

But then again, is your child a piano prodigy with straight A’s in “everything but gym and drama?”

Chua, a Yale professor, is bold and confident, even mocking of western parents in her Wall Street Journal article — excerpted from her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

Chinese moms are demanding, bribing, ridiculing, unrelenting, and slave-driving (see her account of berating her own daughter for a whole night, calling her names because she couldn’t get a piano song right). And that, says Chua, is the secret to why Chinese children are successful math whizzes and music prodigies.

Western moms: permissive, insecure, wish-washy, all caught up in their kids’ self-esteem. Good luck with that, she says.

“Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t,” writes Chua. “…Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best…Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight.’ By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue.”

Is it smart parenting or emotional abuse to drive your kids that hard — does the end justify the means? Here’s why the article has over 1,800 comments so far:

She’s describing an authoritarian household: parents have ultimate authority, no respect for the kid as an individual, and fear is pervasive. It may produce obedience and success (at least on the outside), but studies show this isn’t the way to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids.

On the flip side, permissive households have their downsides too — not enough structure and kids don’t know what to expect, can push the boundaries too far, and parents are unsure of themselves.

In our house, I’m going for the balance — an authoritative style. And that’s what most of us do. Authoritative means giving our kids rules, expectations, limits, and not changing our game too much. But at the same time respecting them as people, actively caring about and attending to their feelings, needs, wants, thoughts (cue Chua’s eye roll).

What I can’t stop thinking about is how Chua seems to see childhood as a means to an end — a sacrifice in the moment for long term goals and success. Only when you master and achieve is life worth it.

I think I’ll take the opposite view on this for my family. Childhood is about exploring and enjoying. Yes, I’ll make my son stick to his plans and follow through, but I’ll try to make sure he’s the one in the driver’s seat, and that he’s having fun along the way.

Image: flickr

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Amy Chua on Chinese Mothers: Parenting Genius or Dictatorship?

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Babble Strollerderby, Heather Turgeon. Heather Turgeon said: Why Chinese mothers are superior: Amy Chua a parenting genius or tyrant? [...]

  2. laura says:

    She made some incredibly interesting points…I always assumed I’d be helping a kid’s self esteem by saying they did great on an A- test, but really you’re also sending a message that you think that is the best they are capable of doing. I think there is definitely a middle road, though. One that keeps in mind that having high expectations means believing in your kid, and your kid eventually believing in themselves. And it is sooooooo true about Western parents blaming schools, teachers, curriculum, etc instead of stepping up and working with their kid and staying on top of them/their work. I’m not saying all teachers, curriculum, schools are awesome, but still. It speaks volumes. Also, I’d never ever call a child fat. Even if she makes a good point that you can tip toe around it and the kid can end up in an outpatient eating disorder treatment facility anyway. It’s more about emotion regulation (and in the case of anorexia, genetics) than just about anything.

  3. Larissa says:

    I find this mildly intriguing but not enough to go track down the original essay. I do wonder what her authority is on the subject other than being Chinese herself. I have read one study that indicated that Chinese mothers as a group were not less caring or affectionate with their children than white mothers, they just also focused on performance and strategies for success while caring about their children – the study had kids completing an exam and actually observed the behavior of the mothers when they were interacting with their children during a break.

  4. Katherine Lewis says:

    You hit the nail on the head that authoritarian and permissive are not the only two choices when it comes to parenting style. (Thank goodness!) I was raised by a Chinese mother (and Western father) and often feel that I got the best of both worlds — high expectations from my mom and unconditional love from my dad. Maybe between the two of them they averaged out to a positive parenting style! Of course, my mom never called me “fatty” or “garbage” so I don’t have scars from the kind of abuse that my friends endured. They were called “fatty” and could never please their Chinese parents, and ended up acting out sexually and drifting as adults. Or committing crimes, I kid you not.

    You can set high expectations and encourage your children to meet them without having to resort to threats or abuse. It just takes more time and energy to parent in a positive way than in an authoritarian way. I would love to hear from Amy Chua’s children, both now and in 15 years, for their own perspective on how they are being raised. Although hopefully Chua’s WSJ excerpt is hyperbolic and she’s not that cruel a mother in real life.

    I blogged about this issue, and linked to your piece, here:

  5. Lloyd Lofthouse says:

    I’m sure that Amy Chua had no idea she was about to light a fuse that would explode when her essay was published in The Wall Street Journal about Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, which they are.
    However, I am not surprised at the response.
    I suspect that most of Chua’s critics are either of the US Baby Boomer generation, the Narcissistic, Self-esteem generation (NSG) raised by the Boomers or children that resent mothers that sets strict rules and use the word “NO” often.
    In 2000, Paul Beagle, who was a political strategist for President Bill Clinton, wrote in Esquire, “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self aggrandizing generation in American history.”
    He was right.
    Studies show that the average American Boomer parent talks to his or her children less than five minutes a day and more than 80% never attended a parent-teacher conference for their children kindergarten through twelfth grade.
    NSG parents are worse.
    In fact, according to data at the Media Literacy Clearinghouse, in 2009, the average hours:minutes spent with each medium in a typical day among eight to eighteen year olds in the US was 4:29 watching TV; 2:31 listening to music/audio; 1:29 on the computer; and 1:13 playing video games.
    When do these children and teens have time to study? Where are the parents? Do these parents know how to say “NO” as most Chinese mothers do?
    A close friend of mine, who isn’t Chinese but was a US public school teacher once as I was for thirty years, read Amy Chua’s essay and many of the comments attacking Chua for her tough stance as a mother. He said it’s obvious that Chinese mothers love their children and American mothers don’t because love means sacrifice.

  6. Chris says:

    Chua did not write that article and she had no editing power over what was written, the book isn’t at all about what the article implies- Chua says she WAS a *Chinese mom*, but had her parenting hat handed to her by her younger more self-willful dare I say more American ;D daughter and she now parents more *Western*.
    Research is always a good thing

  7. Gretchen Powers says:

    I think many of us are hitting “Tiger Mother” fatigue…but someone sent me this link, which I thought had really good perspective:

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