Are Chinese parents superior?

Just imagine. Just imagine: over a casual lunch conversation, your close friends do nothing but praise about your son being a caring ER pediatrician like Dr. Douglas Ross (portrayed by George Clooney) in NBC’s ER. If you were a typical parent, you would be quite delighted right now. If you were a typical Chinese parent, it would be difficult for you to even try to disguise the overflowing joy shown through that reflexive but highly infectious smile.

A smile of a mother with just the thought of her child’s bright prospect is second only to that of a cute baby. However, what prompted this moment of joy is also the cause of much misery in a typical Asian household.

By now you have probably heard of the name Amy Chua, a Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School. In her controversial article Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior on the Wall Street Journal, Chua promotes a rigid parenting style that yields highly “successful” adults. Her daughters, for instance, were never allowed to “be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, get any grade less than an A, [and] not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama,” among other things.

Chua highlights three major differences between Chinese and Western parenting styles critical to the “success” of Chinese American children. Firstly, Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility” in a child. A child’s self-esteem is not even a concern. Secondly, “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything,” and therefore the kids “must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.” Thirdly, “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore, can override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

The association between a particular culture and its adherents’ parenting perspective in this case is just unsound. Anyone flipping through a history text on European children during the Victorian age quickly learns that in a European household, strict rules were instated and corporal punishment was sure to follow with any violation, however minor. Self-esteem was rarely a consideration by a parent or a teacher.

On the contrary, in recent decades, “monster parents,” a neologism originated in Japan as a reference to overly protective and overly worried parents, appear to be the most heated topic among parents in East Asia. I remember vividly that when my family immigrated to the U.S., my father was impressed by the fact that American parents would never rush to help a child when she falls from a bicycle. This assumption of strength is no less noble and sacrificial than the constant ignorance of a child’s self-confidence advocated by Chua.

The belief that a child’s role is to repay the parental debt is but an egocentric concept. A borrower-lender relationship does not and cannot in any way encapsulate the relationship between a parent and a child. It is hard to imagine a lender placing a borrower’s own interest before her own. In closing of her argument on this point, Chua stated, “[it] strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent,” as if a relationship is a transaction. This dangerous seed of thought would gradually and subconsciously bring the parent-child relationship into an imbalance, as it apparently has already for Chua’s family.

As for Chua’s belief that parents should know what is best for their children is simply detrimental to both the child and society at large. Tony Schwartz, a consultant known for effectively energizing the workforce at many of the biggest corporations of the world, postulates that a sense of purpose is the most essential factor in any exceptional work. Adam Williams, one of Schwartz’s clients and the head of strategy at Sony UK, summarized this point most accurately, “I’d always thought I needed to emulate my father and uncle and set up my own business … I realized it had been about the expectations set by my father’s achievements. In reality, the scope of work at Sony … was something I’d be very unlikely to achieve in setting up my own business … I’d made a choice, and I’d made it for a reason. I love what I do” (Schwartz, Tony. The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. New York: Free Press, 2010: 254-255).

Wouldn’t you agree that Williams’ life is as “successful” as a prodigy violinist playing at Carnegie Hall, as far as his parents are concerned? I have been quoting the word “success” in this article because “success” is subjective. Chua’s parenting method may produce academically and intellectually superior adults, but its end result may not be what most parents want and the process itself is not the most enjoyable for either side. Before you buy into her theory, just sit back and think, is it that you love George Clooney in a white coat, or is it that you love your child?

Kenneth Kan is the outreach assistant at the Asian American Association.

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