Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

By Amy Chua

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• 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

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job." Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

I've thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets.

Read the rest here.

—Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of "Day of Empire" and "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability." This essay is excerpted from "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, to be published Tuesday by the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Amy Chua.


  1. And then it becomes obvious why China swings from murderous tyranny to murderous revolution throughout its history.

  2. This sort of overbearing parent leads to kids who can play the piano like a trained monkey, never developing the ability to compose a song.

  3. It is strange indeed. A lot of positives involved: work ethic, discipline, brutal honesty, and incessant pressure. Some negatives included: creative restrictions, self-esteem damage. Overall, I think American parents let their kids run over them and kids are smart enough to take advantage. Asian parents are too restrictive and stunt their children's development.

  4. I would rather take the example of the Nordic countries. Their kids almost as brilliant as the Chinese but much more creative. They have a lot more livable and humane societies. After all, we are human beings, not ants.

  5. Work ethic doesn't have to be in musical instruments. I know plenty of American kids who excel in school and are fantastic athletes. When was the last time you saw a Chinese kid play college football? Or make the NFL?

    It IS possible to raise a child in a disciplined manner without being ruthless and allowing them to be a kid. I like to think I did alright in life, and I had a fun childhood. Not always, but my parents would allow me to go out and do kid stuff.

    The nerve of it all! :)

  6. There's no TV in our house, or large gaming systems. We do have the internet which is monitored very closely and only allowed on the weekends. This seems to have taken care of about 90% of the "problems" I see happening with my child's near age counterparts.

    Sorry to say but contemporary mainstream media messages are "garbage."

  7. This is delusional the idea parents have so much control over their children.

    Being a dictator with your kids is going to produce good little taxpayers but it won't bring them happiness.

    God save us from the self-sacrificing do-gooder authoritarians who want to help everyone and don't mind using force to do it.

    One of my friend's "chinese mother" turned her kid into the worst basket case I've ever seen in my life. The guy is 28 years old and every time I talk to him he is paranoid about elementary school teachers telling his boss about how he did something wrong in school (when he was 6 yrs old) and blah blah blah, yes he is literally that paranoid. He remembers every mistake he ever made in school and it haunts him constantly to this day because his "chinese mother" scolded him endlessly and the paranoia actually took.

    Dictatorship produces slaves and central planning doesn't work.

    Just because overbearing American-style paranoid parenting is horrible doesn't mean eastern-style authoritarian parenting is therefor great, both are horrible because their based in central planning and the assumption the parents know what's best.

    This socialist ideology is destroying our society and I'll happily call it pure evil. Other people are not your property to be shaped as you see fit, your children included.

  8. Children are not allowed to, play any instrument other than the piano and violin,choose their own extracurricular activities.Children owe their parents everything

  9. There are always exceptions. Obviously there will be some American students that are smarter than the Chinese. But statistically speaking, the Chinese are smarter. Why do you think Chinese mothers want their children to do the best? It's because they know that in the future when money becomes an actual real life issue for the child, the child doesn't have to work as hard. Sure people may disagree with me, but go on ahead, keep allowing your children to disobey and disrespect you, then 10-20 years down the line we'll see who's picking up garbage for a living and who isn't.

  10. I feel like this article makes the mistake in assuming that lets call it the "Chinese method" of parenting works 100% of the time. I have spent the last 2 years living in Hangzhou, China and I have realized that this is not the case. Almost every child in Hangzhou is raised in the same fashion and yet I have come to know a wide variety of people, from up and coming business managers to punk rock musicians. The truth is this method of parenting only slightly increases the chances of success and like many have already said siphons creative energy. The only reason we think that this system works is because Chinese parents love to talk about their children when the are succeeding but never mention them if they are disappointing them or just out and out rebelling. To be honest the most well rounded and surprisingly successful people I met while living in Hangzhou were the ones who disappointed their parents at first probably because that taught them to see the world in a different light and to think differently. The world doesn't need another batch of mindless robots and that is what this style of parenting produces