What Chinese-American Mothers Do Wrong (and Right)

January 18th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Have you read the article on wsj.com by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American mother (and law professor at Yale)? If not, you probably don’t have children. It is a must-read! I was both mesmerized and appalled by the article; like driving past a horrific car accident and wondering whether anyone survived. I realize that her article has lit up the blogosphere, but, as the author of three parenting books and the father of two girls myself, I just couldn’t resist tossing my two cents into the cyber-well.

To be honest, I’m not sure how much of Ms. Chua’s article is intended to be Asian stereotype-baiting tongue-in-cheek (Margaret Cho has nothing to worry about), sensation-seeking exaggeration to promote book sales (mission accomplished), or true-to-life parenting advice (OMG!). A recent article about her posting suggests that the content of her wsj.com article was taken out of context, edited and titled without her knowing, and a distorted portrayal of the book she just wrote that prompted her article (sounds like backpedalling in the face of blistering criticism to me). But whether taken in or out of context, her words are hers and seemingly difficult to misinterpret. So, until I learn otherwise, I’m going to assume that what she wrote accurately reflects how she raised her children.

If you don’t have time to read her article, here is the Cliff Notes summary of what Ms. Chua hasn’t allowed her children to do:

  • Attend a sleepover;
  • Have a play date;
  • Be in a school play;
  • Complain about not being in a school play;
  • Watch TV or play computer games;
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities;
  • Get any grade less than an A;
  • Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.

Let me start off by debunking a myth: Not all Asian-American children are intellectually or artistically gifted, not all go to Ivy League schools, and, believe it or not, not all reach superstardom in their chosen field (none of which would be anything other than law, medicine, computer science, or engineering). We just happen to only hear about those who do, thus our distorted perceptions of Asian-Americans.

So where do I start in debunking Ms. Chua’s parenting recommendations? “…nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” Well, children who don’t care how good they are seem to have a great time being lousy painters, sculptors, soccer players, etc. And this notion holds true into adulthood; I guess all of those golfing duffers are hating life on the links.

“To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work….” Gee, I work with all kinds of young people who are incredibly motivated (and intrinsically motivated at that!) to achieve their goals in school, sports, and the arts. The difference is that Ms. Chua doesn’t allow her kids to develop that motivation because, it seems, she doesn’t respect or trust them enough to allow them to find their own reasons to achieve (that’s not to say that parents shouldn’t push their children, but it should be a secondary motivator).

“I told her [daughter Lulu] to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic [because she didn’t think she could play a piano piece]. Jed [her husband] took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu — which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her….” Yes, abusing your child verbally is highly motivating. As Ms. Chua continues her triumphant story affirming the value of her parenting techniques, she continued to threaten and verbally abuse her daughter until, yes, Lulu finally learned the piece. So the ends justified the terrible means? Perhaps if Ms. Chua had either broken the piece down into more manageable pieces or give her daughter a break, Lulu might have learned it without the resultant battle scars. And just about all child-development experts and the research on self-esteem suggest that insults are incredibly harmful to self-esteem and shame is not a way to motivate children. Think of it this way. If the person who you love the most told you that you were worthless, wouldn’t that make you feel pretty bad?

“That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child…. And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.” I guess Ms. Chua isn’t up on the research on conditional love (or maybe it doesn’t apply to Asian-American children). As I note in my upcoming parenting book, Your Children Are Listening (sorry for the shameless plug), children exposed to conditional love are highly self-critical, show strong negative emotions, judge their performances severely, and demonstrate less persistence following setbacks. Additionally, children who received conditional love from their parents said that their joy in their successes was short lived and they experienced considerable guilt and shame for their shortcomings. Adding insult to injury, children resented and disliked their parents for the way they treated them.

“Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything…Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.” That might be true of the Asian people with a Confucian sensibility, but there is something strikingly self-serving in all of Ms. Chua’s efforts with her daughters. I see so many parents in my practice whose own self-esteem is so highly invested in their children’s achievements that those successes (or failures) become their own. What a crushing burden that is for children, that how my mom feels about herself depends on my achievements. When Ms. Chua’s husband suggests that “Kids don’t owe their parents anything?,” she responds, “This strikes me as a terrible deal for Western parents.” Gee, how decidedly Western — and terrible — to help your children to develop into strong, confident, and caring people. Sounds like a great deal to me!

Okay, enough direct rebuttals of Ms. Chua’s parenting approach (I could go on and on). Let me now discuss some key issues on which she has completely missed the boat and, for all of her love and devotion to her children, she is actually sabotaging their long-term development.

Ms. Chua seems very intent on instilling high self-esteem in her children, an admirable objective. And, yes, competence is one part of the self-esteem puzzle. But by focusing so maniacally on ensuring that her daughters are competent, she is undermining their self-esteem in several ways.

Through her impossible-to-achieve standards, Ms. Chua is creating perfectionists who, paradoxically according to the research, will feel anything but competent. When perfection is the only acceptable measure of competence (and, of course, perfection is unattainable), anything less, even excellence, is, well, incompetence. So, despite her daughters’ significant current and future academic and artistic achievements, being competent is different than feeling competent, and it’s not likely they will feel competent because they will never be perfect. Ms. Chua is likely ensuring her daughters will be successful in their lives, but the cost of insecurity, self-criticism, inability to experience true joy and pride in their successes (all likely outcomes based on the research) is far too high for my parental tastes.

Relatedly, the verbal abuse they receive when they “fail” (in quotes because an A- is hardly failure) from, ostensibly, the most important person in their lives, is likely instilling in her daughters a profound fear of failure (wouldn’t you be terrified of failing if you knew you were going to be yelled at and insulted?).  Research on fear of failure finds that children with a fear of failure demonstrate low self-esteem, decreased intrinsic motivation, lower grades, cheating, physical complaints, eating disorders, drug abuse, anxiety, and depression.

Ms. Chua’s concern for her daughters’ self-esteem omits the two other contributors to healthy and resilient self-esteem. First, children need to feel loved by their parents. Though I’m sure Ms. Chua loves her daughters as much as the next parent, it appears that she doesn’t express that love in healthy ways, in fact, it seems, only when they live up to her exacting standards (if she also hugs and kisses them and tells them she loves them often, then I half apologize). Also, children need to feel secure. Yet, Ms. Chua has created a family environment that is not only very insecure, but also downright threatening: “If a Chinese child gets a B — which would never happen [Pulllease!] — there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” Living with that ticking time bomb of a mother would feel as safe and secure as living in Baghdad.

Having worked with many high-achieving Asian-American young people, I can attest to the hard work and discipline that results in straight As, artistic accomplishments, and even athletic accolades (yes, many Asian-American children also excel at sports!). At the same time, I can also attest to their low self-esteem, neurotic perfectionism, profound fear of failure, usually repressed rage and resentment toward their parents, and overall unhappiness (of course, my clientele may not be representative of the entire population of Asian-American children).

Ms. Chua is so fixated on guaranteeing her daughters academic and artistic success now that she appears to neglect the other essential contributors that are equally important for later success (and don’t forget happiness!). No playdates, sleepovers, or, well, friends, will certainly interfere with their social development. By using rewards and punishment (mostly the latter, it seems) to motivate her daughters, Ms. Chua doesn’t allow them to find their own internal motivation to work hard in their achievement activities. By not allowing her daughters to play sports, she is depriving them of gaining the well-documented psychological, emotional, social, and physical benefits of athletic competition. By controlling and deciding on every aspect of her daughters’ lives, Ms. Chua prevents them from learning to make decisions, seeing the consequences of their actions, and gaining ownership of their achievements and their lives.

That’s not to say that Ms. Chua has it all wrong. I totally agree that many white parents are far too indulgent and not nearly tough enough on their children. But giving children the freedom to define themselves (with guidance from their parents) is not being indulgent. And being tough doesn’t mean being abusive. Yes, parents of all cultures should set high standards and push their children to achieve. Yes, parents need to instill the value of hard work in their children. Yes, parents need to place significant limits on children’s exposure to media. Yes, parents must establish reasonable expectations, rules, and regulations, based on their values and the kind of people they want their children to become (I don’t mean doctors or lawyers, but decent, value-driven, hard-working, caring people).

In an interview following the publication of her article, Ms. Chua states that “…the book is about the journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.” That’s all well and good, but that epiphany doesn’t absolve her of responsibility for her repugnant treatment of her daughters. Nor does it heal the wounds that she likely inflicted on her daughters that they will likely carry throughout their lives (along with the advanced degrees from prestigious universities and the successful careers in law, medicine, or business).

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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11 Responses to “What Chinese-American Mothers Do Wrong (and Right)”

  1. John |

    There are innumerable ways to raise a child. The “just about all child-development experts and the research on self-esteem suggest. . . ” approach, like many theories advocated by “experts,” does not appear to be going so well. Few, if any, parents have used perfect child rearing techniques. This woman has inflicted “wounds” on her daughters. Has a child ever grown to adulthood without “wounds?” They will suffer with their advanced degrees. Other will suffer as they sit on the stoop drinking wine from a bottle in a brown paper bag.

  2. Tom Carter |

    One of Amy Chua’s daughters, Sophia, gave her opinion on her mother’s parenting in an article in the NY Post. It’s a must-read; puts some perspective on the whole thing.

  3. Dan Miller |

    I recently finished re-reading three books (two by John Morton Blum and one by David McCullough) on Theodore Roosevelt in preparation for writing an article about his politics. Among other things, I learned that TR was a sickly youth, suffering from childhood asthma. His parents obviously loved him very much and for a long time did their best to relieve the symptoms of asthma by taking him with them on long vacations in climates more conducive to breathing and lack of stress than prevailed in New York City even in the late 19th century; they could easily afford to do so. Often, it was thought necessary to get up in the middle of the night and remove him at least temporarily from his home environment. He was, to a great extent, coddled. Finally, his father had had it and told him to go exercise, strenuously, and get better. This was not consistent with the medical advice of the day.

    TR did that throughout his life and generally overcame his limitations. Remarkably, he became sufficiently fit to enjoy hunting big game and ranching in the Bad Lands, both of which as with everything else he approached with great passion. Ranching, he was often in the saddle eighteen hours per day and once had to spend forty hours in the saddle (wearing out five horses in the process) chasing cattle stampeded one night by a severe thunderstorm.

    TR almost worshiped his parents and his siblings and had a strong need to please them; he had few close friends as a boy or while in college; he developed some but relatively few over the years. He took up his father’s Progressive causes (quite different from the so-called progressive causes of today) with his usual great passion and pursued them as President and in his private life. He also wrote his own speeches and presidential messages and more than twenty books dealing with history, literature, politics and natural history. Well rounded and able to fit well into “normal” society? Probably not, but he accomplished much.

    I have no idea how a Chinese parent would have dealt with the young TR; few people could afford time and money expenditures of the magnitude the very “comfortable” Roosevelts of New York easily could. An at least quasi- “tough love” approach seems to have worked fairly well with TR but he was an indeed exceptional youth, hardly devoid (most of the time and at least on the surface) of self-esteem.

  4. drjim |

    I’m a big believer in “tough love” (my daughters would attest to that). But tough doesn’t mean abusive. Rather, it means setting limits, establishing expectations, providing consequences, while expressing love for them intensely and frequently.

  5. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I agree completely with what you said in the article. But after reading Sophia’s article, I have to wonder if her mother’s ideas really were “taken out of context” and “distorted,” as you noted might be the case.

    I also note that Sophia uses the name “Chua-Rubenfeld.” That indicates that her mother, a Yale professor, is a highly intelligent person of Chinese descent and her father is a highly intelligent person of Jewish descent. That’s not such a leap, really — intelligent, accomplished people tend to be married to the same kind of people. And given that intelligence is highly heritable, that East Asians have higher than average IQs, and that Jews have even higher IQs, I suspect that these two girls are most likely very smart cookies who would have been very successful in life without mom cracking the whip.

  6. drjim |

    Agreed on all points, Tom. But your view on IQ tends to diminish the necessity of Ms. Chua’s quite abusive parenting style.

    I haven’t seen Sophia’s article. Can you send me the link?

  7. Tom Carter |

    Here’s the link to Sophia’s article: here.

    What I said doesn’t really represent “my views” so much as all the literature I’ve seen on many years of very extensive research. I’m just repeating what the experts say.

  8. What I Love about the Tiger Mom | Geo436 |

    […] you look at the title of my recent post about Amy Chua, What Chinese-American Mothers Do Wrong (and Right), and the title of this piece, you may be thinking that I have Multiple Personality Disorder, […]

  9. Billz |

    I will get into trouble by saying this, but chinese parenting is one heck of a parenting. It’s almost abuse. I want my day to go this way and my parents verbally shoves me into threatning waters. When I’m sending messages on Facebook, which is practically the same as sending messages by Yahoo or Hotmail, I get forced off the computer right after, during the load time of one of my computer games, by my parents accusing me of “playing too much”. The whole day has been hell for me and I do not consider playing Wii Sports as “intense gaming”. My parents are typically asian and I must always have something to study or some homweork to do.
    I am a breakdancer and am planning to start a Youtube account, but I am afraid that my parents would demolish my plans by always forcing me off the computer. I want to edit videos in peace! And since I’m not good at it, I spend plenty of hours which my parents think are more worthwhile for revising my courses. Recently, my mom took away my camera, my only hope for getting some face time on Youtube. I am on vacation and it feels like free time doesnt exist. My parents have to shout me out of bed all the time…and early. This whole month I’ve never even heard my alarm clock ring because my dad is always yelling me out of bed, saying that I’ll be late for school. If I don’t obey, things get tough. But when I do, I always arrive too early at school and wait outside at the entrance. My parents always cheat me into doing things that Western kids would dislike to do by throwing trash facts at me. For example, I always eat my veggies and my dad always move the chiken away, saying that it’ll increase puberty. My mom also tells me a lot of crap about how staying on the phone (even when I’m talking school and work with my friends) is harmful for the brain. That, I later found out, is only true for the cell phone. Having done some research on all the crap my parents tell me, I found out that all but one are false: eating fish makes you smarter. I dont get to keep facebook on when I’m working because my parents think I’m distracted. I can’t play games during weekdays and vacations are spent working. When I do have facebook on,they always check up on me to the extent that I had to block my mom and all of her friends. My dad thinks that my life should not be wasted on a little bit of fun and that I should focus on the future.
    Well, what future? Doctor or lawyer, of course. I don’t even get to express myself in dance because my parents think taht a breakdancing career is unfruitful and miserable (which is not true according to PlanetBboy)and that all sorts of jobs are “typically lazy and underpaid” (Bboys work very hard) and do not need any skill (not true: creativity). My dad says that North American countries are outsourcing all of their jobs elsewhere and therefore I must become a doctor because the older they get, the higher they’re paid and the less they get fired. Additionally, my dad actually spends more time on his labtop than I on TV and desktop altogether, streaming movies off chinese channels and reading articles off the Net. I once stated that fact to him and he says that the day will come when I’ll get a good job and a financially stable household because I spent my youth working hard, and that’ll be the time when I’ll get to have free time and have fun. I stated that a doctor’s job is very demanding in energy and time-consuming, that a doctor never has time to even see his kids over the night, therefore making it the second most depressing job next to dentistry with the highest suicide rate. It gave me the feeling that my parents wanted only financial security for my life, thinking that it’ll bring me happiness. They dont want me to have fun now nor later. I sometimes feel that the chinese teenager suicide rate is fantastically typical and I wonder how come in our homeland a student failing to enter university would jump off a building and land safely but killing the young woman directly underneath him? I cannot contradict my parents even if their own words are (most of the time) stupid and contradictive, because they say that my life cannot go to waste because they have already invested so much money into it. I cannot complain about it because I go to an expensive private school against my will. My dad forces me to work the boring school work because he says that children in China work till midnight. He says that he could’ve leased two cars with the money invested in my education and he thinks that I should excel in math and science and arrive in the top 3 of all other classes. I want to breakdance next to the desktop so that I can play my music too but my dad says I’m too noisy and the music is not “comforting” (I play the piano too and I try to excel in it). I struggle to keep dancing and expressing what I love but after a long and tiring fight, my dad sent me to dance in the basement, “where the floor is appropriate”. Turned out that the floor was worse because all my powermoves dented it into the foundations. I cannot dance anywhere in the house now and my chances are almost effortless without the music.
    I’ve been playing the piano for five years and I used to spend all my nights working on Keyboard Theory. It became tiring and I persisted until the last book. I finally dropped it but when mI have free time, my parents always complain that things were better when I did my tiring theory homework. Another thing that I disapprove about chinese parenting is that kids at school exclude me.

  10. Billz |

    Kids at school think that I am uninteresting because all I do is study. I think that parents like Ms.slutty-Chua are dirt because they give their kids a bad image. I recently got a bit popular because I kinda showed-off my breakdance skills at school but aside from dancing people find that they dont have much to talk about when they’re with me. Most of my friends are asian because my parents share a negative image about “blacks and smokers”. I try to explain that smoking is a life-style and that afro-canadians are very fun and sociable but my parents always find out about the people that I hang out with at school that they qualify as “kids with no future” . I have a few friends who redoubled and my parents qualify them as dumb. I’m undergoing a period of depression. My parents made me swear not to have a girlfriend until I am financially stable. Nowadays, I found out about their little trick. I’m not going to have a girlfriend until I finish ALL of my studies, get my M.D., right at the time when all my female contacts are taken and I’m 30 or older…
    To just piss off my parents, I’m about to start a very racial complementary Youtube account in which I’ll illustrate my parent’s view on blacks and gangsters to the extreme. Check out my youtube account coming soon: billzkrieg
    Bboy Billz

  11. Tom Carter |

    Bill, you’re obviously having a tough time with your parents. Having heard only your side of the issue, I’d make a suggestion. Get you parents to let you see a therapist, and talk it out. If the therapist agrees that they’re going too far, maybe he can work with them and you to get more balance into your family life.

    I have to say one thing, though: If I had a soon who wanted to pursue a career in break-dancing, I think I’d probably have a problem with that, too.

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