Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?
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.
(When it comes to parenting, the Chinese seem to produce children who display academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success – or so the stereotype goes. WSJ’s Christina Tsuei speaks to two moms raised by Chinese immigrants who share what it was like growing up and how they hope to raise their children.)
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.
First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, 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.
For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. 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.” Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials.
If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)
Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it’s probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it’s true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
By contrast, I don’t think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. “Children don’t choose their parents,” he once said to me. “They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.” This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepaway camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, “I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.” God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It’s just an entirely different parenting model.
Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey” by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.
Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.
“You can’t make me.”
“Oh yes, I can.”
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn’t think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn’t do the technique—perhaps she didn’t have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?
“You just don’t believe in her,” I accused.
“That’s ridiculous,” Jed said scornfully. “Of course I do.”
“Sophia could play the piece when she was this age.”
“But Lulu and Sophia are different people,” Jed pointed out.
“Oh no, not this,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Everyone is special in their special own way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games.”
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
“Mommy, look—it’s easy!” After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”
Even Jed gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
(—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.)
The Tiger Mother Responds to Readers
On Saturday, Review ran an excerpt from Amy Chua’s new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The article, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” attracted a lot of attention, generating more than 4,000 comments on wsj.com and around 100,000 comments on Facebook. Below, Ms. Chua answers questions from Journal readers who wrote in to the Ideas Market blog.
Do you think that strict, “Eastern” parenting eventually helps children lead happy lives as adults?
When it works well, absolutely! And by working well, I mean when high expectations are coupled with love, understanding and parental involvement. This is the gift my parents gave me, and what I hope I’m giving my daughters. I’ve also taught law students of all backgrounds for 17 years, and I’ve met countless students raised the “tough immigrant” way (by parents from Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Korea, Jamaica, Haiti, Iran, Ireland, etc.) who are thriving, independent, bold, creative, hilarious and, at least to my eyes, as happy as anyone. But I also know of people raised with “tough love” who are not happy and who resent their parents. There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach (I don’t believe, by the way, that Chinese parenting is superior—a splashy headline, but I didn’t choose it). The best rule of thumb I can think of is that love, compassion and knowing your child have to come first, whatever culture you’re from. It doesn’t come through in the excerpt, but my actual book is not a how-to guide; it’s a memoir, the story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother. Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict “Chinese” approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13.
I have a 20-month-old, and my husband and I both enjoyed the article. How can you apply this to toddlers?
We didn’t actually do anything that different when my daughters were toddlers, just the same kinds of things that you probably do already: read picture books with them, took them for strolls and to the playground, did puzzles with them, sang songs about ABCs and numbers and mainly snuggled with and hugged them! Maybe the only thing different I did is that I always had a babysitter or student speaking in Mandarin to them every day, for at least four to five hours, including weekends, because I wanted my girls to be bilingual. (I wanted my daughters to learn from native Mandarin speakers, because my own native Chinese dialect is Fujianese [Hokkien], and my Mandarin accent is terrible.)
Your method may work with children with a native high IQ—but demanding that kind of excellence from less intelligent children seems unfair and a fool’s errand. Demanding hard work and a great effort from children is the best middle ground we can reach philosophically, isn’t it? Your thoughts?
Jokes about A+s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think! It’s about believing in your child more than anyone else—even more than they believe in themselves. And this principle can be applied to any child, of any level of ability. My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a PhD! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits. Today, my sister works at Wal-Mart, has a boyfriend and still plays piano—one of her favorite things is performing for her friends. She and my mom have a wonderful relationship, and we all love her for who she is.
Ms. Chua, are you a happy adult? Do you look back on your childhood and feel that it was happy? Do you remember laughing with your parents? Do you wish that you could have taken ballet or been in the high school musical?
I was raised by extremely strict—but also extremely loving—Chinese immigrant parents, and I had the most wonderful childhood! I remember laughing constantly with my parents—my dad is a real character and very funny. I certainly did wish they allowed to me do more things! I remember often thinking, “Why is it such a big deal for me to go to a school dance,” or “Why can’t I go on the school ski trip?” But on the other hand, I had great times with my family (and even today, it’s one of my favorite things to vacation with my parents and sisters). As I write in my book, “When my friends hear stories about when I was little, they often imagine that I had a horrible childhood. But that’s not true at all; I found strength and confidence in my peculiar family. We started off as outsiders together, and we discovered America together, becoming Americans in the process. I remember my father working until three in the morning every night, so driven he wouldn’t even notice us entering the room. But I also remember how excited he was introducing us to tacos, sloppy joes, Dairy Queen and eat-all-you-can buffets, not to mention sledding, skiing, crabbing and camping. I remember a boy in grade school making slanty-eyed gestures at me, guffawing as he mimicked the way I pronounced “restaurant” (rest-OW-rant)—I vowed at that moment to rid myself of my Chinese accent. But I also remember Girl Scouts and hula hoops; poetry contests and public libraries; winning a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest; and the proud, momentous day my parents were naturalized.”
And yes, I am a happy adult. I am definitely a Type A personality, always rushing around, trying to do too much, not good at just lying on the beach. But I’m so thankful for everything I have: wonderfully supportive parents and sisters, the best husband in the world, terrific students I love teaching and hanging out with, and above all, my two amazing daughters.
What is your relationship with your daughters like now?
I have a wonderful relationship with my daughters, which I wouldn’t trade for the world. I certainly made mistakes and have regrets—my book is a kind of coming-of-age book (for the mom!), and the person at the beginning of the book, whose voice is reflected in the Journal excerpt, is not exactly the same person at the end of book. 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 not saying it’s for everyone, and I’m not saying it’s a better approach. But I’m very proud of my daughters. It’s not just that they’ve done well in school; they are both kind, generous, independent girls with big personalities. Most important, I feel I’m very close with both of them, knock on wood.
Tiger mom’s memoir meets ferocious roar
By LEANNE ITALIE
The Associated Press
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:31 PM
— A new memoir of bad-ass parenting, Chinese style, from a self-proclaimed tiger mother has unleashed a ferocious roar.
Fallout was swift for Yale law professor Amy Chua after she published a stark essay in The Wall Street Journal describing the harsh words and heavy handed methods she used with her two teen daughters.
Her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” shot to No. 6 in the Amazon sales rankings Tuesday, the day it was released, likely fueled by angry buzz over the weekend column and a headline Chua had nothing to do with: “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”
Adult offspring of Asian and Asian American immigrants are weighing in on Chua’s provocative description of Eastern-style parenting: No sleepovers or playdates. Grueling rote academics. Hours of piano and violin practice. Slurs like “lazy” and “garbage,” and threats to burn stuffed animals when things don’t go mom’s way.
Some see truth and a borderline abuser. Others see dangerous stereotype with the potential to feed China haters and xenophobes. Still others publicly thanked their moms online for similar, though less extreme, methods.
Few had read the book themselves, missing out on more facetious nuances and details on Chua’s journey to a softer approach with Sophia, 18, and Louisa, nicknamed Lulu and about to celebrate her 15th birthday with – gasp – a sleepover party.
“It’s been tough on my kids,” Chua said Wednesday. “They want to speak out over the thing that has hurt me the most, when people say, `Oh, doesn’t that kind of strict parenting produce meek robots?’ My daughters could not be further from meek robots. They’re confident, funny, kind, generous, with very big personalities, and they’re always calling my bluff.”
Chua, 48 and the daughter of Filipino immigrants of Chinese descent, insists her tone in the book is self-deprecating. It’s a point she considers lost in the blogosphere, including heat from moms employing current Western philosophies she doesn’t consider better or worse, but more lax and undisciplined.
“My first reaction was, `Is this a joke?’ I kept waiting for the punch line,” said Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, 44, a second-generation Chinese American and mother of four in Ann Arbor, Mich. She had parents with high expectations but none of Chua’s histrionics. “Her methods are so crude. The humiliations and the shaming. The kids will hear that voice in their heads for the rest of their lives.”
Christine Lu’s memories of her tiger mom growing up in Los Angeles are laden with sorrow. Mom’s ramrod tactics failed on her (“life at home used to be horrible”) but they worked on her older sister. She hit 28 and spiraled into a depression that led to her suicide after the startup where she worked fizzled.
“She graduated from Harvard with an MBA. That was the first time she had ever experienced failure,” said the 34-year-old Lu, who was born in Taiwan and moved to LA with her parents and three siblings at age 2.
She stopped short of blaming her mom, adding: “It’s the culture. Amy is a product of the culture, too.”
It’s a book of extreme parenting, for sure, a memoir and not a how-to manual, Chua cautions. Her parenting choices were conscious and reflect her upbringing: No TV, no pets, no computer games, no grades under A, no parts in school plays, no complaints about not having parts in school plays, no choice of extracurricular activities, nothing less than top spots in any school class except gym and drama, no musical instruments except piano or violin.
When Lulu had trouble with a tricky piece of music, Chua denied her bathroom breaks and threatened to ship off her dollhouse to the Salvation Army, piece by piece, until she got it right – which she did with pride, mom at her side.
When she pushed back at age 13, rejecting the violin, mom allowed for tennis instead, keeping a keen eye on her game.
Betty Ming Liu, 54, grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, the oldest of two girls of Chinese immigrants with high expectations and abusive tactics.
“This is a topic so close to my heart,” she said. “It’s frightening to see that Amy Chua is still doing it. She’s young. She’s educated. She’s American born. She’s not an immigrant and for her to perpetuate this … is frightening.”
As a young adult, Chua said she rebelled in her own way. She married a white, American Orthodox Jew after hearing from her dad: “‘You’ll marry a non-Chinese over my dead body.’ Now my dad and my husband are the best of friends.”
Liu and Chua alike acknowledge that the tiger mom parenting approach isn’t uniquely Chinese, “but we’ve perfected it,” Liu said. “I got straight Ds in college. That was my only power over my father.”
Growing up in California’s Marin County, Tony Hsieh’s parents forced him to play four instruments. He’d sometimes cheat on practices by recording previous turns at the piano or violin and playing them back while his parents slept. Practice exams for the SAT began in middle school.
Hsieh graduated from Harvard in 1995, co-founded an Internet ad network sold to Microsoft and is now CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos. He published a memoir of his road to success, “Delivering Happiness,” last year. What he didn’t do was become was a doctor, a top prize to his parents.
“For myself personally, I think I would have benefited from a less strict parenting style, because a big part of being an entrepreneur is about being creative, thinking outside the box, defying conventional wisdom, taking risks, which runs counter to the values of many Asian parents,” he said.
Shay Fan, 26, in San Francisco, didn’t rip up sheets of music like one of Chua’s girls, but she once protested piano by playing with her feet and paid for it with a fierce spanking.
“I understand her motives,” she said of Chua. “Is there a limit to what parents should do? Absolutely. Chua’s method of parenting worked for her children, lucky for her, but you have to take things by a case by case basis. … Overall, I’m glad that my mom taught me to be diligent and introspective.”
And Wendy Lin, 55, who remembers yelling and screaming over her perceived laziness as a child, appreciates Chua’s resolve to dive into the trenches with her kids.
“She was with them every inch of the way. I thought that was really touching,” said Lin, who is parenting her 15-year-old son more gently in Great Neck, N.Y. “A lot of mothers would just shout from the next room.”
Chua stands by much of her tiger mom ways: intense attention to academics, for instance. And she has some clarifications: Her girls HAVE had sleepovers and playdates, but they were few and far between.
Regrets? “I wish I hadn’t lost my temper,” she said. “I wish I hadn’t been harsh. I wish I would have let them have more freedom.”
Chua considers it a luxury to get to make those choices. Lin understands that in terms of her own parents.
“As an immigrant parent, there aren’t a lot of tools you can give your children. You’re very powerless in the system. You’re very powerless when it comes to language,” Lin said. “One of the things that you can do is make sure your kids have a good education and make sure they get into a good school, and after that you can finally rest and take a breath.”
★ 人物 “虎妈”蔡美儿
蔡美儿，英文名Amy Lynn Chua，女，1962年生，祖籍福建。其父获麻省理工学院博士，就职于加利福尼亚大学。蔡美儿幼年随父母移民美国，获哈佛大学文学学士、法学博士，现任耶鲁大学法学院终身教授。