Why Chinese Mothers Are Average, Part 1

Why Chinese Mothers Are Average, Part 1 January 12, 2011

For the record, the title of this post deliberately does not say that Chinese mothers are mediocre.  Chinese mothers are average parents because they, just like mothers in every culture on every continent, do some things right and some things wrong.  Also for the record: my Chinese-American mother-in-law is a fantastic parent, far more balanced than the mythical “Chinese mother,” and I say that not only because I need her babysitting help.  It’s actually true.

Amy Chua’s Why Chinese Mothers are Superior (extra background here) has stirred impassioned dialogue.  Insulting people’s parenting, and telling them (let’s not kid ourselves) that their children are inferior, is just about the surest and swiftest way to enrage them.  Yes, the smug sense of superiority, the rampant stereotyping, and the cartoonish western=bad and Chinese=good attitude, are infuriating.  But there actually are lessons to be learned here if each side is humble enough to listen. An arrogant my-way-is-better-than-yours will create a lot more heat than light.  So let’s discuss this with humility.

Amy Chua with her daughters in Connecticut

I am going to break this series into three parts.  Part 1 will examine the problems–and they are many and grave–in the way Amy Chua has framed the issue.  Part 2 will consider what “western” parents might learn from “Chinese” parenting methods.  And Part 3 will consider what “Chinese” parents might learn from “western” methods.

First, some qualifiers.  Although I am not of Chinese descent, I know something about the subject.  I grew up with Asian-American best friends in the San Francisco Bay Area; my sister is adopted Korean; I belonged to, and led, predominantly Asian-American Christian fellowships at Stanford and Harvard; I married an extraordinary Chinese-American woman and have belonged to a wonderful Chinese-American family (and its extended community in Atlanta) for ten years; I’ve spent two summers in China; and I pastored a Chinese-American youth group in Princeton, New Jersey, for three years.

Also, I do not write the following out of any sense of envy or inferiority.  It would be churlish to list my academic and extra-curricular accomplishments, but find them here if you require proof that I’m not just seeking to justify my own mediocrity.

Finally, I am responding to Chua’s piece in the WSJ.  Her book may be more nuanced.

With these qualifiers in hand, let’s proceed.  In this Part 1 of my response to Chua, I want to deal with…


1.  Employing a false dichotomy.  One of the silliest parts of Chua’s argument is her steadfast refusal to consider that there might be a happy middle between the strict, controlling, stifling “Chinese mother” and the lazy, permissive “western parent.”  She might refuse to consider a third way because (a) it would imply that she might have something to learn from the western model, (b) it would imply that the “Chinese mother” model has flaws, (c) it would make for a less controversial (and probably far less profitable) book, (d) she’s a true believer in the Chinese mother model, and/or (e) all of the above.  My money’s on (e).

The best parents know when to challenge their children and when to comfort them, when to discipline and when to show mercy, when to give strong direction and when to give their children the freedom to follow their hearts.  Yet Chua shoves the “western parent” and “Chinese mother” to their extremes and evacuates the rich and expansive territory in between.  This would be like saying “A quarterback who can throw is better than a quarterback who can run.”  Well, perhaps, but what about a quarterback who can do both, and who knows when to throw and when to run?

2.  Trafficking in inaccurate stereotypes.  I agree with Chua that westerners can be over-squeamish about stereotypes, and that stereotypes often do reflect genuine statistical differences.  (Actually, the typical “western” objection to stereotypes is not that they have no basis in accurate generalizations, but that they are too often used to judge an individual by the racial/socio-economic/gender group to which they belong.)  But Chua’s use of stereotypes is misleading.  First, (a) the parenting model she describes is more accurately described as Chinese-American than Chinese.  It bears the imprint of the immigrant experience.  The study she cites at the beginning–the only non-anecdotal evidence she offers–refers to “Chinese immigrant mothers.”  This is very important because of Framing Problem #4, below.  (b) It is beyond ridiculous to refer to a singular “western” parenting model, given the multiplicity of ethnic groups in America (which is just one western country) and the multiplicity of parenting approaches even within a single ethnic group.  (c) Given how few Chinese or Chinese-American mothers are as extreme as Chua describes, and how few “western” parents are as “western” as she describes, it’s not even helpful to use those terms.  It unnecessarily racializes and nationalizes the argument.

3.  A narrow definition of success.  Chua assumes we all agree on what equals “success” for our children, and the only question is how such success is achieved.  Success on her terms means producing “math whizzes and music prodigies” who earn straight-A’s and attend the highest-ranked universities and become affluent doctors or engineers or investment bankers.  This is easily understandable given the immigrant experience, which is often characterized by financial insecurity and a desperate desire to be publicly successful in their adopted society.  But it is not the only image of success, and perhaps not the best one.

My parents’ view of success–for themselves as parents and for me as an individual–was for me to be a good person who loves others and loves God.  They didn’t much care how much money I made, or how prestigious the school I attended.  And they’re not alone.  Many American parents just want to raise children who are happy, healthy and able to provide for themselves and enjoy their families.  We only have 80 years on this rock; our grades and our diplomas and even our piano skills really don’t count for much.  And for those who believe in an eternal life beyond this one, everything else necessarily pales in comparison to the importance of securing our eternal future.

Chua’s response could be that you find happiness and satisfaction in excellence and achievement.  And that’s certainly one path to fulfillment.  But it’s not the only one, and it’s not the surest one, either.  Some parents would be mortified to see their children become socially-isolated, one-dimensional engineers, no matter how financially secure they might be.  They would rather see their children live lives of faith, of family, of purpose, of creativity and self-expression, of justice and service, or etc.

But that’s the point: Chua is assuming one vision of the Good and how to achieve it, and she shows no awareness whatsoever that different families run the race differently because they’re pursuing different objects.  “Western” parenting models often emphasize the development of different skills and character qualities because they are based on a different vision of what “success” means for the children and for the parent.

4.  The pool of Chinese-Americans is highly self-selective.  For proof of the effectiveness of Chinese parenting, Chua points to the Chinese-American reputation for academic achievement and entering high-paying professions.  And it is true that Asian-American children have higher grade point averages, higher average SAT scores, and enter high-paying professions at higher rates.  The question is whether this performance is due to (a) a superior genetic inheritance, (b) a cultural inheritance that strongly emphasizes education and achievement, or (c) because Asian-Americans tend in the first place to be the best and brightest that Asia has to offer.  I don’t see any reason to believe (a).  I believe in (b) to an extent, but (c) is a huge factor.

A large percentage of Chinese-Americans (especially Mandarin speakers) became Chinese-Americans precisely because they were the elite within their own country.  Back when the American economy was the envy of the world, we used to talk about a “brain drain.”  America was drawing the best and the brightest from around the world, especially from Asia.  In other words, a very high percentage of those highly-successful young Asian-Americans have parents who came to the United States for graduate school–because they were smart enough, ambitious enough, and resourceful enough to win entry to, and travel around the world to attend, American graduate and professional programs.  Of course that kind of parent is more like to produce those kinds of children.  Go to China, as I have, and you find a much higher percentage of Chinese who are just as undisciplined, unambitious and intellectually mediocre as the stereotypical American.

An earlier generation of immigrants (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) from China were more often from the lower classes, and entered menial labor jobs.  Due to dramatic social, historical and political changes, immigrants in the 1960s-1980s came to the United States because they had the means, the values and the abilities that are needed to travel around the world, enter prestigious graduate and professional degree programs, and start building flourishing lives for themselves.  It was not necessarily the political or economic super-elite, who often had more motive to stay and less motive to leave their home country.  But it was the top 1% in intellectual terms (consider that only 1% of Chinese get to go to college in the first place, not to mention entering American graduate or professional degree programs), or those who had the highest earning potential if they could move to a country that rewarded initiative and smarts.

Look at it this way.  If you were to peel off the intellectual top 1% of Americans and send them to, say, Australia, they too would prove to raise remarkably successful children.  Or imagine that the only Tanzanians who got to come to America were those who could earn basketball scholarships, and then a sociologist decided to compare the basketball skills between the next generation of Tanzanian-Americans and the next generation of Caucasian-Americans.  In the Caucasian-American category are children of parents who had all levels of basketball skill, but in the Tanzanian-American category are only children of those who had the skills and qualities to earn basketball scholarships.  It’s really not a fair comparison.

Chua herself is a Yale professor.  Compared to the children of Americans in general, her daughters (who, I must say, look and sound like lovely young women) are outstandingly impressive.  Compared to the children of other Yale professors, they are impressive but not especially unusual.  The best comparison is not between Asian-Americans and Caucasian-Americans, but between Asian-Americans and other Americans in the same academic and socio-economic categories.

Along these lines, probably the best comparison is between Asian-Americans and Jewish Americans.  American Jews also tend to value education, achieve high levels of educational attainment, and enter into prestigious professions–and their children, like Asian-American children, also tend to do very well in college and the early careers–without the extremely strict and coercive parenting methods Chua describes. So if Chua thinks that these methods are necessary to produce children who are “successful” according to her terms, I think she is demonstrably incorrect.

5.  A lack of perspective.  As Socrates taught, nobody can say whether a person’s life has been well-lived until that person dies.  Presumably Chua would agree that parents should do their best to equip their children for an entire lifetime of “success” and fulfillment–but her daughters are still young and it remains to be seen whether they will flourish or regress as the years go on, or how else they might suffer as a consequence of their mother’s parenting methods.

I will go into this more in the next installment of this series, but I have known many children subjected to these kinds of parenting methods who, once they had escaped from their mothers, lost their sense of purpose and motivation, threw themselves into self-destructive behaviors, or even lapsed into severe depression and multiple suicide attempts.  I have also known many who performed well enough in college and early in their professional careers, but never developed socially and remained caught in a kind of suspended adolescence, failing to form families and spending all their non-working hours playing video games.

Time will tell whether Chua’s daughters–or more generally whether Chinese-American children–are more prone to: (a) feel deeply estranged from their parents due to anger and resentment over how they were treated, (b) suffer anxiety and depression as their parents so controlled their lives that they never quite learned to deal with life’s uncertainties and responsibilities for themselves, (c) suffer social alienation because their social development was stunted, (d) prove less successful professionally than their peers because the workplace rewards the kinds of social and teamwork skills that are developed in sports and in the pursuit of a social life, or because they did not learn to think for themselves and color outside the lines, (e) suffer eating disorders (I have known many, many young Chinese-American women with eating disorders, and they absolutely hate it when the older generation calls them “fat”) as a consequence of their parents’ comments, or as a way to try to control their world, (f) have difficult forming happy families, or (g) generally find their lives empty and unenjoyable because they never learned how to relax and enjoy the recreation for which we were intended.

Perhaps most profoundly, as many young Chinese-Americans have observed in books, Chinese-American youth have an especially hard time understanding divine grace because they were raised in households where love was expressed so conditionally.  I am not aware whether Chua is Christian; I assume not.  But for Christian families, this should be a great concern.  Shortly after I began attending the Chinese-American church in Princeton, I overheard a mother actually tell her young (around 8 year-old) daughter that “Jesus will love you more if you do better in school.”  As plain as that.

Certainly Chinese-Americans who were raised in such households can still come to a deep understanding of the grace of God.  But it’s tough.  And that sense, that hunch, that God will only love them if they perform up to expectations, and that nothing they do is ever good enough for God, comes directly from their relationship with their parents.  And it may well haunt them the rest of their lives.  For example, there is a tendency amongst the Amy Chuas, when a child apologizes, to use that guilt to manipulate the child into better behavior.  Your sins against your parents are never quite forgiven or forgotten; they are used to guilt you into being better.  I saw this haunting many of the Chinese-American youth to whom I ministered.  They never quite believed that they were forgiven by God.  And consequently they could not follow God simply out of joy and gratitude, but had to follow God because they felt like they were always disappointing him, and he always had something against them.

It’s hard to believe that God looks at you and sees Christ when your own mother looks at you and calls you “garbage.”

So while Chua stands proudly in the WSJ picture and goes to great lengths to congratulate herself on raising such “successful” daughters, she really has no idea what might be the long-term consequences of the way in which she raised her children.

These, then, were the problems in the way in which Chua’s argument was framed.  She presented a false dichotomy between an extremely strict (“Chinese”) parenting method and an extremely permissive (“western”) one; she based that dichotomy on dubious stereotypes; she offered a surprisingly superficial argument that never once reflects deeply on the meaning of “success” (indeed it is striking how completely she has bought into one western materialistic vision of success); she based her theory on the successes of Chinese-American youth, whose successes are at least largely explained in other ways; and she does not possess the perspective even to say that she has been successful on her own terms.  When all of these problems are taken into mind, her argument as a whole is much less compelling.

Still, in the next part of this series, I will consider what her so-called “Chinese” parenting methods really do have to teach the rest of us.  And there are some valuable lessons to learn.

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