Are Chinese Mothers Superior?

An article asserting the superiority of Chinese mothers in comparison to their western counterparts has been making the rounds recently.  I’ve had it emailed to me and I’ve seen friends posting it to their facebook walls.  You can read the article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” online.

The article is written by a Chinese mother (who happens to also be a Yale Law School professor and author) named Amy Chua.  In the article she anecdotally argues for the superiority of Chinese mothers (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but not really) and then provides three summary reasons why.  They are:

  1. Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.
  2. Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything….the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
  3. Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences

She tells stories about how these three principles worked out in her parenting style.  She tells a story of calling her child garbage, which she says was done out of love and respect and a sort of belief in her daughter’s potential to do better.  She also tells a story of depriving her daughter of dinner until she mastered a difficult piece on the piano.  And she recounts her strict rules refusing some basic childhood amenities afforded to most white American children (like: TV, video games, and sleep overs).  Lastly she says activities like drama and gym (and any other instrument besides piano or violin) are a waste of time.

She boasts that her children turned out well.  They excelled in life because she knew what they needed and she was willing to sacrifice her own time in order to make sure they achieved it.  I read this article just a few minutes after reading a book by Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak and I was struck by the contrasting philosophies.

Palmer is writing about vocation and how we can find a way to do the work God made us to do.  He writes:

“Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from listening.  I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.” pg. 4

“Today I understand vocation quite differently — not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.  Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.  Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not.  It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” pg. 10

You can see the difference.  Palmer believes that our true self is given to us at birth and that the pressures and expectations placed on us — by mothers and all the rest of society — force us to wear masks that cover up who we really are.  He says that by the time we hit our 20s, our true self can be so covered by masks that it may be nearly impossible to discern any part of our true self in our external self anymore.

The tension that a parent faces (in the extreme) is between telling your child who they should become or letting them become who they want.  With the former, a parent can impose masks and false identities on their child as they try and force them into a preconceived mold of success.  In the latter the parent chooses not to exert any pressures on their child so that they are free to become “who they were born to be,” in which case they grow up to be bums.  No child choose to practice piano and do math homework when given the option to watch TV or play video games.  These are extremes, but there is truth in each perspective that can be applied to our parenting.

I think Palmer is right, we are different.  Part of our journey towards self-hood is discovering what we are good at and what we aren’t good at.  But I think the parenting style that best helps a child get to this place ought to look much closer to that of the Chinese mother in this article than the stereotypical white American mother who is letting her child’s inner self emerge.  Because the truth is, kids don’t know who they are until much later in life, and without the pre-requisite skills afforded them by hard work in school and extra-curriculurs they won’t be set up to be the person they were made to be.

God made me in such a way that my true self finds expression in pastoral ministry, but I am only able to be a pastor because I can read and write, understand theology, exercise creative thought process, be analytical, and a whole host of other things that I learned through hard work.  I’m glad my parents were self-sacrificial enough to work with me and push me to learn these foundational skills. Now, I can choose to become the person God made me to be.  But I’m also glad that my parent didn’t disown me when I quit my engineering job and became a missionary in Africa.  They were willing to embrace my journey of self-discovery without imposing an identity crisis on me.

And for me all this means, I make Josiah do math and Mercy learn her letters before they go to school.  It’s also why Mary and I will consider going into debt to give Josiah piano lessons.  My wife, Korean though she is, had a chinese mother, and she secretly aspires to be one herself. 😉


4 responses to “Are Chinese Mothers Superior?”

  1. My takeaway was balance too. Thanks for the Christian perspective on this article. There’s been much written about it, but I haven’t seen anything outside the secular world.

  2. I didn’t read the WSJ article but I think it was badly written based on what I read in this SF Gate article, Mother, superior? The author in that article says she was misrepresented.

  3. Yeah, I’m realizing that there has been a lot of commentary on it too. I also really liked David Brooks’ take: He calls her a wimp because she isolated her kids from the really difficult life lessons learned in dealing with the social dynamics of teenage girls — a clever and funny angle.

    Thanks for the feedback from both of you!

  4. David Brooks’ take was good though I don’t think he should have called her a wimp. 🙂

    I read another NY Times article,, and I think that one is good too.