Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior by Amy Chua went through the Internet hive mind today like a hot knife through butter. I have some direct personal experience of these issues.

Other Voices · But before I get into that, I should link to some of the remarkably intense and wide-ranging reactions to Ms Chua; I liked the pieces from Christine Lu, Betty Ming Liu, and the MetaFilter community.

We can draw a couple of conclusions right away: First, Ms Chua is serious and this isn’t, as some speculated, a work of satire. However, the piece may be to some extent troll-flavored linkbait for her upcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Our Exposure · My son, now eleven, attends Dr. Annie B. Jamieson school in Vancouver because of its Mandarin Bilingual Program; he’s in his third year there and is picking up Chinese at a remarkable rate.

It turns out that because of the school’s location, its student body is 80% “Chinese”, as in there are some speakers of a Chinese language at home. Also, it has a superb strings program; we have to badger my son to practice but he’s developing a pretty good tone on his violin. Also, it deals out homework in volumes that Lauren and I think is excessive for eleven-year-olds; he’s sometimes hard at it right through till bedtime.

Also, it’s a terrific school, with cheery students, no observable bullying, and meticulous organization. Taking him out has never crossed his mind or ours.

He did OK in Grade four, got himself into serious work-habits trouble in Grade Five, and with the help of a virtuoso teacher (thanks Ms Tan!) is into mostly-A’s territory Grade Six, and proud to be there. He also plays organized soccer and baseball, is a Nintendo virtuoso, and generally enjoys life.

He tells stories of other kids who have tutors in every evening; the tone is reminiscent of On being “Too Asian?”, an instance of the plentiful discourse that followed on a popular Canadian magazine’s recent Too Asian?

What I Think · Reading this piece shook me and made me wonder, because either Ms Chua is bringing her kids up wrong, or we are. Here are I some things I believe:

  • The word “Chinese” doesn’t mean anything. Are we talking about an electrician in Shenzen, a grandmother in Taipei, or a first-generation immigrant mall worker near my son’s school? Or maybe our neighbors, nth-generation Canadians who have Asian genes and a Chinese surname but are right in the middle of the cultural mainstream.

  • In Vancouver, and increasingly up and down the West Coast, these days the color of a person’s face and the shape of their eyes tells you exactly nothing about what kind of a person they’re likely to be, nor about their socioeconomic status or career choice.

    I think I’m living in the future.

  • Lots of “Chinese” mothers, just like other mothers, are overstressed with demanding jobs and child-care and elder-care and are happy to collapse with their kids in front of the TV when the assigned homework is done.

  • What’s the business with piano and violin? My boy is doing the latter because that’s what’s on offer at school, but I’d be happy if he took up electric guitar or sax or percussion or whatever when he gets a chance to choose.

  • There are lots of “Chinese” kids in my son’s class who get B’s or worse.

  • Like many, I’m troubled by the “Everyone must have prizes” and “All that matters is how hard you tried” narratives on offer to children. Among other things it’s stupid, because the kids blow that stuff off anyhow; they know perfectly well who won or lost the soccer game or got an A vs a D, and they care.

  • What do you want for your kid, anyhow? I’d be happy if he was mostly happy, and ecstatic if he managed to leave the world a slightly better place than he found it.

  • The article’s assertion that you have to be good at something to enjoy it is pure bullshit. My talents at African drumming, stir-frying, soccer-playing, and sex are all perfectly ordinary but I wouldn’t want to give any of them up.

  • I don’t observe that the populations of senior management or famous scientists or leading-edge computer programmers or successful politicians or rock stars are being dominated by people who are results of “Chinese Mother” parenting practices. On the other hand, they do seem to be loading up the top ranks of violinists and pianists.

  • If you define success as “good grades” that means you’re buying into your local education district’s notion of how success should be defined and measured. Sometimes I disagree.

  • I think we’re bringing our kids up OK.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Peter Keane (Jan 09 2011, at 19:29)

Thanks -- I was curious about your thoughts after seeing your tweet (which is how I found out about the piece). Soon after reading it, I'd already printed a copy and gave it to my wife for her reaction (with the comment "at first I thought it was meant to be ironic, but on finishing it, I think not."), then off w/ my son to his violin lesson all the time thinking "are we doing this right...?"


From: Eddie Welker (Jan 09 2011, at 21:46)

I'm actually looking from the other side. To keep my thoughts short, I'm a dumb-white-guy-American, and I had a fairly balanced upbringing, and turned out to be a very balanced adult (I'm still new to my 30's). I may have liked a stricter upbringing (which is why I feel conflicted by the article), but am not sure that would have had the effects I think it would. I received moderate grades in difficult classes, but found interests that have allowed me to excel significantly among many very smart co-workers (who are more diverse than just about anywhere). Not sure that matters, but that's just my 2 cents.

As far as your violinists/pianists comment, the most reasonable answer is the answer. I don't have statistics, but just as there are fewer and fewer white-Americans playing in MLB, NBA, etc, the same can be said for classical music. In the United States, classical music is far less prominent than in Asian or even European countries. Meanwhile (having played the cello for 20-ish years), I find that the most amazing players, the soloists from the New England Conservatory and such, are simply the children of either musicians, or successful people who enjoy classical music. All it takes is early exposure and some good training.


From: Kevin Smith (Jan 09 2011, at 22:32)

On first reading Chua's article, I was deeply troubled and wanted to scream from the hilltops what an abhorrently bad mother Chua is/was. However, I believe she is purposely stirring the pot to help sell her book. Nonetheless, her article still bothers me and I can't let it go, so I shall have my catharsis here on Tim's blog instead.

I am quite certain that if Chua was not a prominent law professor at Yale, and rather lived in a trailer park, social services would be paying her home a visit. Ah, the privilege of class to be an ass!

The other undeserved privilege her position has given her is to have an article published in a major U.S. newspaper on a subject in which she has no expertise. She may have experience being a mother but her flippant opinions are not based on any research. If she was treated as such as a child, she is merely successful in-spite of her upbringing, not because of it. Human beings are incredibly resilient and many succeed under all sorts of adverse conditions.

If you do your homework, unlike Ms. Chua, I am certain you will find that the conditions in which children most grow up to be successful adults is one that includes creativity and individual choice - not one in which children are coerced and perform out of fear. That is of course, if your definition of "success" is broader than who can demonstrate better rote memorization skills.


From: Brendan Ribera (Jan 09 2011, at 23:15)

This style "worked" for the author's childhood and during her

daughters' childhoods. We don't get to hear what happens

with the kids who fail to get A's (say, from taking classes

in a college department that curves grades around a 2.7 median), or

the kids whose piano skills don't magically burgeon during a

night-long practice session.

Perhaps 7-year-old Lulu was really being "lazy, cowardly,

self-indulgent and pathetic." But I doubt it. For every eventual Yale

professor, piano virtuoso, et cetera, there are scores of people who

simply did not excel. People who might well say, "Gee, I am just as

bad at life as my parents said."

I recently hosted a Japanese student who was attending an ESL

program. He came from a fairly wealthy family, attended one of the

best business schools in Japan, and was obviously a technically

excellent student. He also *hated* the idea of going home to

graduate and take over his father's business. When I asked what

else he might like to do with his life, he couldn't comprehend my

question -- and not in a hey-I'm-still-learning-English way. His

sense of filial duty was so strong that he couldn't even theorize

about making his own choices about life and career: "What do you

mean? I don't understand. I *MUST*!"


From: Jim Ancona (Jan 10 2011, at 05:11)

For a critical take on Chua's piece, see economist Bryan Caplan, who points out that she doesn't even mention the substantial literature which concludes that, except in extreme circumstances like abuse and neglect, parenting style has essentially no influence on kids' achievement.


From: David Brunton (Jan 10 2011, at 05:50)

Interesting fragment. It brings to mind a recent NYTimes article: "Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum." When the article was published, my partner tweeted it with this tongue-in-cheek commentary:

"My mess of a house is part of a well-thought out approach to parenting. Um, yeah. But I'll take what I can get."

Fact of the matter is, as a parent of four, I don't generally perform parental duties based upon some pre-ordained strategy or philosophy. Kids do something cool, I say wow. Kids do something jerky, I say quit it. Kids break something, maybe I fix it, maybe I get mad. It's pretty much how I interact with other people, with one caveat: I love my kids with a totally irrational fervor.

Anyhow, whether it be a messy house or an overbearing demeanor, I'm glad there are enough blow hards out there to make all of us feel like we're being a little more intentional than we really are ;)


From: Jack Cavish (Jan 10 2011, at 09:16)

My wife was educated by her Japanese mother in (stereo)typical fashion: hardcore schools and university, top-notch degree, master, PhD...

My Italian upbringing (in Italy) was obviously much more relaxed; expectations were high throughout (I was top of the class all the way to university), but I wasn't disowned when I dropped out, too bored to keep grinding for another 4 years.

As it happens I was into "computer things", got a few crappy jobs before landing a good position, and now I'm in a well-paid role. Despite her stellar CV (which includes industry experience) she's still jobless, and struggling to negotiate with a UK job market asking for specialization but rewarding flexibility.

I admire her for her academic achievements, but I reckon us Western slackers will always find a way to parlay ourselves on top of the pile.

(Oh, and Obligatory High Expectations Asian Father link: http://memegenerator.net/High-Expectations-Asian-Father/ImageMacro/5086936/why-you-program-in-C-Should-program-in-A )


From: Blaine Cook (Jan 10 2011, at 09:19)

Agreed 100%.

Amy Chua should go watch Double Happiness (a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in these matters) by Mina Shum, starring a young Sandra Oh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_Happiness_(film)


From: George Jansen (Jan 10 2011, at 11:52)

A review of her book ran in yesterday's Washington Post. I found myself thinking of Thoreau's remarks on Goethe:

He was even too _well-bred_ to be thoroughly bred.... The child should have advantage of ignorance as well as knowledge, and is fortunate if he gets his share of neglect and exposure.

(_A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers_)


From: stand (Jan 10 2011, at 19:10)

Far be it from this never-will-be-a-parent to judge, but a world filled with people raised by these "Chinese mothers" strikes me as a rather dull one.

The prohibition against computer games seems particularly short-sighted.


From: Robert Young (Jan 11 2011, at 09:29)


except in extreme circumstances like abuse and neglect, parenting style has essentially no influence on kids' achievement.

The problem is that poor kids from poor families in poor neighborhoods turn out to be thugs at 6 years old to an astonishingly higher degree. If you define such parenting as "abuse and neglect", fine; but it's by no means extreme in such neighborhoods. It's the mean (taken both definitions).

Talk to teachers. They're cheap and expendable, at least according to the Right Wingnuts, but they do know what's going on. It starts with discipline at a *very young* age. Without it, thuggery.


From: Jayson Lorenzen (Jan 11 2011, at 09:30)

Wow, yeah that WSJ article is just so wrong. How can they publish something like that, without some huge text at the top saying something like "The views in this article are that of a mad woman and not necessarily those of the WSJ". As a parent with a son heading into middle school, I have pretty much the same feelings as you have expressed.

Maybe some very small percentage of very wealthy people can raise kids in a airlock like that, but in reality, a kid has to go outside and deal with the world. The kids in that article would not last 5 minutes alone on the streets of a large city or, since they probably secretly do a number of unsavory things behind the Sargent's back, they may take to the worst of it quickly.

Parents and schools need to prepare a child for the world while nurturing the child's personality, not keep them in a box and crush them.

I live in a Chinese neighborhood (officially 60% Chinese but it seems much higher in reality) and every day I am on the streets, on buses, in stores etc. within this community and I do not see any super Chinese kids around me. Chinese kids spit, cuss and knock down old ladies (Chinese ladies as well; a close friend's Chinese Mother was knocked down and robbed on a bus stop) as much or more so than any other kids. I like my Chinese neighborhood, but it is just another place in a big city with a lot of different people and personalities.

One of the schools we toured recently, which is mostly Chinese kids, with a Chinese staff, have one of (if not THE) highest API scores around, yet the school philosophy is that kids work 9:30 - 2:30 (or whatever the normal school hours are), and they really work hard I imagine, but after school they rest up for work the next day and enjoy being a kid. Maybe they have not read General Chua's article.

AAAAaarrrg sorry for just adding a rant that probably does nothing to contribute to the discussion but that article just kills me and yours gave me some hope and I got stuck here.



From: Eddie (Jan 11 2011, at 23:38)

Hey geeks, don't spend too much time reading into this. Most of you probably don't know that the Wall St. Journal was acquired not long ago by News Corp (Rupert Murdoch) who is the king of generating controversy and in this case finding a way to stir up xenophobia. Rupert Murdoch married Wendy Deng (of Hong Kong) about a decade ago and they have two kids together (pre-teens) so don't for a moment think this was a creative Murdochian attention seeking honeypot (that most of you fell for). Don't waste your cycles on it.


From: James VL (Jan 14 2011, at 07:54)

For a more balanced view of what Amy Chua's book is really about, see the SFGate article "Mother, superior?"


It analyzes the WSJ "excerpt" and also explains why it is not necessarily representative of the book or of Ms. Chua's views.


From: Patrick Quinn-Graham (Jan 24 2011, at 04:18)

I just (this evening) read the actual book - good read by the way, though through a lot of it I found myself going "how could you?"

While the WSJ piece was a very cut down version, I don't think it misrepresents the contents of the book. Their is a clear, even when she tries to say otherwise near the end, belief that her way is right and that the western (read: not her way) is wrong, and that only domination (not just success) of an endeavor is worthwhile and that it is the only way to happiness.

I did like the dogs though.


author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
January 09, 2011
· The World (126 fragments)
· · Education (2 more)
· · Family (48 more)

By .

The opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.