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Posted at 6:02 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Why Western mothers are inferior to 'Chinese mothers' (but feel better about it)

By Alexandra Petri


I am the child of Western parents. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua, Western parents are mistakenly fixated on tending to their children's fragile psyches, in consequence wreaking more havoc than they avoid. "I ... once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her 'beautiful and incredibly competent,'" she notes. "She later told me that made her feel like garbage."

This makes sense. After years of Western parenting, I spend most of my days and nights in abject terror that I might have done something wrong, tempered only by the sense that I might be fat. True, I have great self-esteem. I frequently walk into doors and I once spent an entire weekend fishing for compliments because I thought those were a rare fish and not an idiom.

So I certainly don't want my self-esteem tied to my performance. That's a terrible idea! I don't always perform well, and I would like to feel good about myself all the time. I have a great relationship with myself. We frequently go out to dinner and occasionally I will buy myself small gifts for no reason.

Surely this isn't a problem. A study just came out that said today's students value self-esteem above, say, food and sex. This makes sense! After all, too much eating tends to decrease your self-esteem, as does, in certain cases, sex. But now people are saying that more self-esteem isn't necessarily good. Because it's ubiquitous, it seldom correlates to performance anymore. Forget sticks! Increasingly, we're left holding carrots with no idea how we got them.

So when I read Chua's "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," I was stunned. Is this how the other half lives?

"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," Chua notes.

"Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

She describes forcing her children to excel -- shouting herself hoarse, looming over the piano, barring them from participating in school plays, and the works. Everyone makes the Mommie Dearest comparisons, but while avoiding wire hangers doesn't give you marketable skills, Chua's process certainly does. In one memorable incident she forces one child to play the piano for hours, amidst tears and screams, until she masters a piece called "Little White Donkey." As a person who was probably in the audience at that piano recital, I say, "Thank you."

Like Chua's offspring, I used to play piano as a child. Unlike Chua's offspring, I was only forced to practice for limited periods. Instead, I spent a lot of time sitting underneath the piano, because I heard this was what Chopin had done. It didn't help my playing much. My teacher came once a week to bridge the gap between me and Mozart, with little tangible impact.

Still, why my outcome should have been any different from, say, Beethoven's continued to elude me. I felt great about my playing! Beethoven felt great about his! Surely we ought to sound identical.

After reading the article, this suddenly made sense. Beethoven had what Chua describes as a Chinese mother, except that instead of being an Asian woman with high expectations, it was an alcoholic father who came home late at night and forced him to get up and play.

Neither of my folks were willing to commit to becoming alcoholics, straggling home late at night and hounding me to play, and as a consequence I slowly meandered through sparse patches of classical music over the course of several years. Eventually my parents noticed that I was becoming better at it and suggested I stop. "I mean, where can you go with all this piano?" my father pointed out. "You might wind up playing jazz in a hotel lobby."

My efforts at piano might best be summarized by a fable my parents read to me about a camel who dances ballet. "You are terrible at ballet," the camel's friends inform her. "Your dancing looks as though penguins are trapped inside your clothes fighting each other." "That's okay," the camel responds. "I dance for my own pleasure."

As a child of Western parents, this was the rationale behind most things I did. It wasn't that my parents didn't want me to succeed. They spent vast amounts of time reading me literary classics and textbooks of art history. This had little impact except to inspire a vague but lasting hatred of art history, but it showed effort on their part. The point was to find something that I would love enough that I would want to do it on my own.

And I think it was worth it.

It's often difficult to distinguish between the things that people dedicate themselves to because they have a natural enthusiasm for them and the ones they do because they happen to be good at them. Chua theorizes a virtuous cycle -- force your child to do something until he or she becomes good at it, and then allow the delight in mastery to handle the rest. Force your child to be good at math, and he'll love math. Force your child to be good at music, and he'll love music.

This is all very well, but it isn't conducive to sparks. You know what I mean. The spark the moment Bill Gates got his hands on a computer, or James Cameron slipped behind a video camera, or Paul McCartney heard his first strains of Rock 'n Roll. How much you value the spark may vary. Are hundreds of lawyers and doctors worth one Picasso?

Personally, I place a premium on the artistic temperament, mainly because it allows you to get out of bed around noon and wander around wearing pork chops as a hat without people thinking you're a dangerous eccentric. "I am waiting for inspiration," you explain to the other people in the coffee shop, as you bang giant tongs together in front of a statue of Yehudi Menudin. "Ah," they say.

In fact, the categories Chua singles out as ones in which she did not require her children to excel are telling -- gym, dance and theater; in other words, the ones that require a natural affinity rather than simple dedication. This seems like a tacit acknowledgment that the Chinese Mother Method only goes so far. It can create competence, expertise, even, but it can't manufacture inspiration.

If musicians and mathematicians are what you value, then this is an excellent system. But it seems to foreclose the alluring possibility of -- well, anything else.

And we put a premium on inspiration these days. Look at college admissions. Increasingly, a benign eclecticism reigns -- maybe as a subconscious excuse to admit more children of Western mothers. Gifted math students and violinists are a dime a dozen, the logic runs, but this particular boy happens to play the Bulgarian Whistle -- and he makes skateboard art! These days, it's all about the extracurriculars! Who's to say whether this is working or not, but it seems to be the system we're trying.

After all, we're in a crisis, everyone says. Our test-scores are squarely middle-of-the-pack. Our students are failing. Our economy seems to have come down with a case of something. What to do? Innovate our way out! How to do this? Don't cultivate competence -- cultivate creativity! Who needs better test scores? We just need a spark of genius to pull us all up out of this rut. Sure, this might be lazy. But it's the rationale we're going with.

And we feel great about it!

By Alexandra Petri  | January 11, 2011; 6:02 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  art, kids these days, science  
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True, hunderds of doctors and lawyers are not worth one Picasso, but be realistic, just how many kids can make it and become another Picasso? Creativity is great but lack of discipline is what is failing our kids.

Posted by: veralin319 | January 11, 2011 8:25 PM | Report abuse

To ignore Dr Chua's article completely is to ignore the plethora of social issues we are facing in the modern age: unhealthy dependence on credit, obesity, education, and the list goes on. Many of these issues can be attributed to the decline of the importance of discipline in raising a child.

Posted by: broh | January 11, 2011 8:44 PM | Report abuse

Sometimes the stress of a Mom to see to it that her Child succeeds is so great that she will go to the extreme to achieve this goal, even at the detriment of herself and her child. As an artist here is my take on this concept: "The very thing the Mom hates she gives to her Child", photography by r.g. phillips, #BeNumberOne

Posted by: rgphil | January 11, 2011 9:05 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't help but laugh when I read the following sentences: "Sure, this might be lazy. But it's the rationale we're going with. And we feel great about it!"

Creativity is absolutely necessary for growth and development of a society. But how can you have that when you don't have engineers to plan out city and highway infrastructures, doctors to treat heart attacks and prevent cancer, lawyers to protect citizens and develop our legislature.

Our poor testing scores tell us that our youth will not be able to create a stable future to build on. Why leave it to chance that a random genius will one day appear and save us all? That's like supporting strict pro-life laws simply because it's possible that life born out of incest has the miniscule possibility of bringing forth the ultimate genius that the world has ever known.

That sounds ridiculous and unrealistic. Similarly, I could only shake my head by the statement, "We just need a spark of genius to pull us all up out of this rut."

Posted by: paraivie | January 11, 2011 9:10 PM | Report abuse

This is one result of the "superior" parenting "skills" of Chinese mothers:

"Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group."

When you give children love, attention, and praise for actual achievement, they will do well. When you punish them for failure by screaming at them, isolating them from peers, and physical abuse, they will develop failure phobias. This leads to a lifetime of anxiety and relationship problems, even if they are "successful."

The most successful people are those who love what they're doing (like Petri), not those who do it because they're afraid of failure.

Posted by: divtune | January 11, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Let’s get one thing right here. I am a successful inventor and entrepreneur and from my experience from the school of hard knocks, I can tell you that we need a combination of good education, creativity, discipline and self-confidence, (which only comes about from the demonstration of competence). All these go hand in glove. Everything has a recipe of key basics. If you have all these qualities, you can expect to lead a successful life instead of a meager one. Similarly, you can compose a recipe for a poor life, a criminal life and so on.

It’s never just one thing or quality. It’s not an either/or choice with discipline, creativity and competence. And of course, without competence you ain’t going anywhere either. Incompetence alone breeds failure.

As most people are probably aware of these days, generally speaking the East tends to be missing on creativity and the West on discipline. We can learn something from each other.

Posted by: Aries-Z | January 12, 2011 1:00 AM | Report abuse

divtune: And one of those was a friend of mine. Tiger mom and dad eventually drove her to kill herself. And that is because many Chinese parents believe that their precious children will only be worth it if they can get a career THEY deem worthy. Genetic and biological shortcomings be damned. So instead of being a successful fashion designer or a successful chef they must become a miserable doctor or engineer. As usual, the solution is always in the "middle road". I agree with the author and I would extent the concept further by saying that the "self-steem" school of thought that plagued the late 80's and most of the 90's has produced a generation of self-absorbed weaklings who fall apart the moment they are told "no, you suck at this. Reallt bad. Whoever told you you were any good at it was lying to you." But to swing to the other extreme like Miss Chua is the ultimate act of self-importance idiocy. And last time I checked, Amy Chua was born in Illinois, which makes her a.....Western Mother. (Unless, of course, we continue to use "Chinese" as convenient adjective for both the race and the nationality).

Posted by: Mighty7 | January 12, 2011 3:46 AM | Report abuse

As the mother of 2 boys and a girl, I wonder how Dr Chua would raise boys. My elder son is an AP taking, driven, top of the class boy and my younger is more of a B student, excels at sports and has a very high EQ score (Mr Popularity.) My husband and I privately joke that the eldest will be a worker bee all his life, while our youngest will own the company and be out on the golf course all afternoon. My husband was much like our youngest. He barely finished college, but he's a natural salesman, has a million friends and is a very successful businessman. There are many roads to success.

Posted by: corina2 | January 12, 2011 7:58 AM | Report abuse

It behooves me as a mother of Chinese ethnicity to separate myself and my friends from the likes of Amy Chua and her kind.
Pause for a moment, please. If all Chinese mothers resemble Chua’s portrait, why haven’t we witnessed an explosion of R&D, ideas, positive social and cultural changes and enlightenment amongst the Chinese? It can be argued that the Chinese are currently experiencing a phase of ascendency in the world. (However, they are not the only group.) Instead, let us take a look at the list of Nobel Laureates, true artists (as opposed to perfect technicians), thinkers, scientists, inventors and innovators, etc.

Chua’s article reeks of egocentricity, ethnocentricity, shallowness and smugness. The class of mothers of which she wrote is but a small percentage of the total world Han Chinese of approximately 1.3 billion. Motivated parents who encourage or push academic achievement on their children can be found across the board. (Think: bell-shaped curve) Yes, I agree that discipline and guidance are necessary, and constructive encouragement is effective.

What I think is a significant difference is that while the western mindset emphasizes creative and individualistic thinking; the Confucian –based system stresses discipline, honor to the parents(rather selfish of the parents) and towing the social paradigm.

Chua’s dispensing of her medicine to the rest of the world is quack medicine.

I do not share Chua’s persuasion of producing compliant, automatic children of ‘directed’ development and personal growth. Chua needs to be humble (Humility is a supposedly Chinese trait) enough to desist in painting the rest of us balanced Chinese mothers with her fat brush.

Posted by: mingzhu | January 12, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher who has not only taught in the United States, but abroad as well (including Japan and China), I have experience working with children from a variety of cultures and differing home environments. To those who feel that teaching their children self discipline is too painful to themselves and the child (that is, MOST American parents, likely including YOU, dear reader), and that it might harm their creativity and self esteem, I have bad news: You are paving the path to frustration and despair for your child.

The most fundamentally unhappy children that I have ever worked with are American middle class high school kids. We do everything we can for them, rewarding everything short of complete failure, carefully avoiding drawing attention to their mistakes and failings, bending over backwards to make lessons more like entertainment than real work; yet they remain listless, apathetic, unhappy and unengaged.

On the other hand, the most cheerful and fundamentally happiest students I have ever worked with have been Chinese and Japanese ones, who were raised in 'authoritarian' households with strict discipline. Their positive outlook on their lives, their futures and themselves contrasts starkly with the typical American child's darkly cynical and negative ones.

Why are American children so unhappy? (Really, they are. If you have not noticed your child's unhappiness, then perhaps you've not been paying attention).

American children are generally not equipped with the self discipline necessary to achieve anything worthy of being proud of. Sure, we make a big deal about their showing up to class fully clothed and with a pencil in hand, but at the end of the day the child knows, at some level, that they have done nothing worthy of praise. Further, they know that they are overweight, physically and mentally sloppy, and lack any skills that could help them achieve anything meaningful in short order even if they tried. All that they have is empty braggadocio and weak excuses about how they 'learn differently'.

Conversely, by the time a typical Japanese child gets to high school, he has acquired a few achievements that are his alone and are genuinely worthy of respect. He can look in the mirror and truly be proud of what he sees. How does he achieve these things? Determination and practice enabled by strong self discipline. Where does he get the self discipline? From his family, his community, and his culture.

So, go ahead and teach your children to be weak and ineffective rather than giving them the tools to be masters of themselves. No matter how you want to justify it, you are failing your children.

Posted by: Geezle | January 13, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

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.

Posted by: gaimusho | January 14, 2011 12:56 PM | Report abuse

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