Student Achievement

Is the Chinese Style of Parenting Really Superior?

By Caroline Cournoyer — January 20, 2011 1 min read
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A Chinese mother’s explanation of how she raised such “stereotypically successful” children has made more than a small stir. An excerpt from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in the Wall Street Journal has prompted more than 7,000 comments and a sharp rebuttal from New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Amy Chua—author, Yale Law professor, and parent of two musically acclaimed, straight-A students—points out the differences between Western and Chinese parenting, which she says are why the latter “produce[s] so many math whizzes and music prodigies.” She points out in the Journal that the average American parent is constantly concerned about their child’s self-esteem, while that doesn’t even cross the Chinese parent’s mind.

“Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners,” she writes. “If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.” She recalls a time her father called her “garbage” because she was disrespectful to her mother. “I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done,” she says. “But it didn’t damage my self-esteem” because “I knew exactly how highly he thought of me.” She has since used the word on her own daughters.

If a Western child gets a B, “some Western parents will still praise the child,” Chua says. “Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child ‘stupid,’ ‘worthless’ or ‘a disgrace.’”

David Brooks has a somewhat novel take on Chua’s piece—he says she is the one guilty of coddling her kids.

“She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t,” he writes, noting that Chua barred her daughters from sleepovers, play dates, TV, video games, and extracurricular activities of their own choice.

“Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group—these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale,” he writes. “I wish she recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.