A friend sent me Amy Chua’s article Why Chinese Moms Are Superior last week to ask for my opinions and insights into Chinese parenting. In the article, Chua boasted about her strict, rigid, and often berating parenting approach for her two girls in order to help them become successful. This article has since gone viral, resulting in countless blog articles and TV appearances in anticipation of the newly-released book from which it was excerpted. Many people cringed upon reading how she berated, coerced, and threatened her daughter into playing a piano piece perfectly. Chua explained that she believed in her daughter and was willing to do whatever it took to help her daughter realize her potential.
I scoured the internet for comments, articles, and video clips relating to Chua’s article. Many Chinese Americans weighed in on Chua’s strict approach and denounced it. Chua has since responded to the overwhelming comments from people. Her response appears to be more toned down than the book excerpt. However, although I was put more at ease after reading her response, I’m not entirely convinced based on these words:
“In a nutshell, I get my comeuppance; much of the book is about my decision to retreat (but only partially) from the strict immigrant model. Having said that, if I had to do it all over, I would do basically the same thing, with some adjustments.”
I’m troubled when I read that she’d pretty much do the same thing, but with some adjustments. I’m really not sure what kind of adjustments she’s thinking about. For me, it’s an entirely different model of philosophy so it’d need a major adjustment, not minor ones.
To me, a Chinese homeschooling mom to five children, Chua’s parenting approach definitely struck a chord with me. I see many positive aspects to traditional Chinese parenting, such as the unwavering sacrifices Chinese parents are willing to extend to their children, a hard-working attitude, and being part of a strong familial support system. However, there are many negative aspects of Chinese parenting that results in negative consequences that need to be addressed.
I’ve been thinking and writing and rewriting this post for a week, and no matter how I express my thoughts, they don’t seem satisfactory to me. I initially wrote a lot about the ways that Chua’s “Tiger Mom” approach failed, disparaged, and damaged children. However, as I thought about it, I realized that this wasn’t the heart of my concern. Rather, I want to take a broader view or a high level view of this parenting approach. Hopefully this post will help those who are baffled by Chua’s article, which generated both positive and extremely negative comments and even death threats.
The biggest obstacle Chinese need to understand and overcome is the accomplishment-based parenting approach. It is a foregone conclusion in Chinese culture that children must build an impressive resume throughout one’s upbringing so that he may enter a prestigious college, which in turn will generate a high-earning job at a well-known company. You will then be able to purchase a home, get married, and have kids. This is the meaning of being successful.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with these goals, per se. The biggest problem is that there’s no room for failure. When parents set a path for their children with such high expectations and where failure is inconceivable, their children will suffer. I am a firm believer in setting high expectation for my kids as well as pushing them to do things that are difficult for them. I agree with Chua in that American parents have very low expectations of their children and that they’re always afraid of stepping on their children’s toes in the name of self-esteem. However, adopting Chua’s approach isn’t the solution. It’s like swinging the pendulum all the way from the left to the right. One doesn’t need to employ one extreme measure as a way of countering the other. I actually believe there is a middle ground where parents can put high expectations for their children, but with love, acceptance, encouragement, and a room for failure without a negative stigma.
It’s quite interesting to see different parenting styles void of God. When there is no absolute, it’s one approach versus another and who is to say it is right or wrong? As a Christian mom, I believe there is an absolute and I hold to the teaching in the Bible as the authority. In the end, the fundamental assumptions of the typical Chinese philosophy of parenting end up diametrically opposed to the heart of the Christian gospel. Let me explain.
Romans 5:8 says “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus loved and accepted us while we were still messed up, dirty, and unworthy. This is how God treats us. His love toward us isn’t based on anything we have done or could have done. Love was extended in spite of us.
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to make this very point. “Prodigal” means extravagant to the point of wastefulness and recklessness. Pastor Tim Keller makes the excellent point that inasmuch as the younger son in the parable was prodigal with the wealth his father gave him; even more so, the father himself was prodigal — recklessly extravagant — when he received his disgraced, disheveled and dirty younger son back with not a word of rebuke or correction; but with only embrace and honor and joy! This is the heart of the gospel, and I believe should therefore be the heart of every Christian’s thinking about what constitutes faithful parenting. Any approach to parenting — however noble the goals or well-intended — must at its heart have this kind of unconditional love built-in.
In contrast, the typical Chinese mentality is based on what one can do or accomplish, and your worth is largely depend upon it. If you cannot attain to what’s set before you, you are essentially a failure, thus worth nothing. It’s hard for many Chinese children to believe that they are loved by their parents unconditionally. I believe deep down that many children believe that their parents love them, but when they’re confronted by their parents of their failures, i.e. an A- or B+ (heaven forbid!) grade, it’s hard to fight against the notion that their parents’ love for them is purely conditional. I know grown adults who grew up in this kind of atmosphere who are still struggling to “earn” their parents’ love by trying to please them via work, house purchases, financial decisions, etc.
The gospel stands in stark contrast to Chinese parenting. We were loved. Nothing more, nothing less. Not by what my hands can do, but by the hand of God. This is a precious truth. Just as Christ have loved us, we too, should love our children the same way for who they are, not what they accomplish. We should value our children for who they are; boys and girls made in the image of God. This is sacred and valuable. Their worth should never be devalued based on their lack of accomplishments. This is unconditional love.
UPDATE: A friend tipped us off to an excellent analysis of the strengths & weaknesses of Tiger parenting. We’d recommend it highly!