Chinese Mothers

By Legal Eagle

I don’t know if anyone else has seen a deliberately provocatively titled piece by Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor: ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’. I’ll give you a flavour of the piece:

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.

My own parents encouraged me to excel. In that sense, my parents were not stereotypical “Aussies”; I think they would have been in the 30% of Western parents who said stressing academic achievement was important. Perhaps this is because my parents made it out of the Anglo-Celtic working class through their education – so we value education immensely. I’m sure this is also an important consideration in many immigrant families who want to build a new life in countries like Australia, America and the UK – they really want to make something out of the opportunities they’ve been given. But my parents were also lucky enough to have daughters who, like them, enjoyed learning. I’ll put it this way: once, over the school holiday, I started a project on the human body for fun. Not because anyone made me, but because I wanted to do it. And when my sister was about 4, we used to play a game called “Schools”, which consisted of me setting worksheets for her with counting, reading and writing exercises. If she got a question right, I would kiss her three times. If she got it wrong, I would firmly point this out to her and sit with her until she got it right. My sister says it was a great game, and it meant that she had an advantage when she got to school. Obviously I had the teaching bug from an early age.

Clearly Chua’s article contains some gross generalisations. I mentioned it the other day at a playdate with my daughter’s kinder friends. The mothers of my daughter’s two friends are Malaysian Chinese. The mothers took great exception to Chua’s article. “Look, I think learning is important, but I think my kids should be able to have fun,” said one mother. (Obviously she didn’t fit into Chua’s stereotype straight away because she was the one who organised the playdate). The other mother said, “I don’t agree either. That’s just too much. I don’t like that kind of traditional mentality where your child has to be a doctor, a dentist or a lawyer, and if she’s not, then she’s no good.” Still, perhaps a generalisation could be made that expatriate Asian immigrants prioritise and value cleverness more than Australian culture. There is a reason why I have a lot of immigrant friends from school and university: because I didn’t have to feel embarassed about being academically inclined with them. My friends came from cultures which valued academic achievement and didn’t hate me because I was a nerd who was pathetic at sport. It should be pointed out that they weren’t only from South-East Asia, but from all over the world.

Perhaps Chinese mothers may tend to emphasise rote-learning and practice because of the language and writing system. As someone who learned Japanese, if you want to learn Chinese characters, there’s a hell of a lot of rote learning involved, and near enough is not good enough – you might end up saying something entirely different if you write the character in a sloppy fashion. If you don’t apply yourself from an early age, you can’t read or write. Nonetheless, South East Asian cultures are not the only ones which prioritise academic achievement. From watching the upbringing of my friends, Indian and Jewish cultures also do so, for example. And most immigrant families put emphasis on academic achievement.

By contrast, in Western cultures, there has been a backing away from rote learning as a method of learning. I agree with Chua that this is a problem. Rote learning can actually be really important in building up pathways in the brain. As I’ve mentioned in a post a while back, it has been argued that the retreat of Western educators from rote learning could have had disastrous consequences for some, and that it has been found that rote learning and attention to correct execution of handwriting is more broadly beneficial:

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronounciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols.

Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007), pgs 41 – 42

As I also mentioned in the above-linked post, I am someone who experienced two very different education systems:

As someone who has experienced both modern Australian education and old-fashioned British education, I tend to think some mixture of the two is the best. If there is too much emphasis on rote-learning, this means that people may not actually understand what they are learning, or they may not be willing to think outside the square. But if you don’t give people the mental “straw” with which to construct their “bricks” of thought, then the ideas which they develop are not very useful. I found that my Australian education had allowed me to think more laterally and creatively, but that I often did not have a sound basis in fundamental principles, or that my knowledge was somewhat “patchy.” My British education supplied the fundamental principles for me. I suspect also that the horrible rote learning of dates, formulae and principles was also really helpful for my cognitive development. Yes, it was boring, but once I had gotten it into my noggin, then I found that I could do all kinds of things.

But back to Chua’s point – is a parent who stresses academic success above all else “better”? Importantly, it depends in part on your child’s capabilities. Chua can clearly demand that her kids come top of the class – she’s a Yale Law professor, and I’m guessing that her kids are no dummies. But it’s in the nature of things that not everyone can top the class, no matter how much the mother pushes the child. A teacher of my acquaintance taught students who had mothers like Chua, but unfortunately their kids were neither bright nor talented. One mother was demanding that her daughter get into medicine, and castigated her for her bad grades constantly. The girl had an E grade average, and no matter how hard she worked, she couldn’t better it. She just wasn’t academically inclined. She confessed to her teacher that she really wanted to become a beautician. Her teacher thought that she would make quite a good beautician – she had an interest in the area, as well as a lovely manner and personality.

I am someone who flourishes from being pushed. When I arrived in the UK, the school thought I was retarded because of my accent and because I didn’t know quite a lot of the syllabus. After a meeting with the principal in which she expressed this opinion to my mother, my mother came back and said, “Let’s show these Poms what you’re made of.” I blitzed the practice exams, and no one ever doubted my academic ability again. At Law School, I always did best in the subjects which were known to be impossible. But nonetheless, I think putting all one’s effort and self-esteem into academic pursuits can be dangerous. What happens when you don’t top the class? It happened to me when I started Law School – I didn’t get the hang of writing a legal essay on the first try, and I was seriously ready to throw myself off the Union Building in despair when I got a pretty ordinary mark.  Luckily, I got out of my funk and learned to write a legal essay.

Do good marks necessarily mean that you’re smart? I don’t think that they do. Sometimes it just means that you’re good at picking what the teacher or lecturer wants to hear. Sometimes I’ve had very smart kids in my classes who haven’t done so well for one reason or another (they mucked up the timing in the exam, they got the wrong end of the stick in a question, they misread something, they picked a bad essay question). Intelligence is not merely a matter of doing well in exams; there are all kinds of intelligence out there. I have a friend who worked part-time all through her last four years of high school to help support her parents who did not earn a lot of money. She didn’t end up doing brilliantly in her final year. Nonetheless, through lots of dedication and hard work, she went on to become an excellent social worker with postgraduate qualifications. She has a great idea of what makes people tick, as well as a really sensible attitude to life. This is to be compared with another friend who did amazingly in her final year, and who also chose to do social work. She may have been academically brilliant, but as far as I could see, she had no idea of what made people tick. I don’t know what happened to her (I fell out of touch), but I can’t imagine she’d be half as good a social worker as the first girl.

What concerns me about Chua’s attitude is the very narrow category of things which she considers “valuable”. Why is only learning to play the piano or violin valuable, for example? (I learned to play the French Horn, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a most noble instrument.) What about degrees more generally? Does she consider that only certain degrees are prestigious? I know that this can happen in some immigrant communities. I have a Chinese friend whose mother found out that I was doing Law. The mother turned to her son and said dismissively, “See, you should have done Law like her, not your good-for-nothing degree.” (Most embarrassing for me to sit there and have to listen to, although I did defend my friend). The son did very well in his university degree and has a most successful career. But clearly, in his mother’s mind, it counts for nothing because it’s not one of the “Holy Trinity” of Medicine, Dentistry or Law. I think that the son’s contributions to his family and to society should be valued by his mother. But they never will be. (Which reminds me of a joke told to me by a Jewish friend of mine: Q: What do you call a Jew who hates the sight of blood? A: A lawyer. Clearly the Chinese community is not the only one with such expectations.)

I know another friend’s father was forced into doing dentistry by his parents. When his sons were in his teens, he suddenly chucked it all in and became a very successful builder (which was what he always wanted to do). In actual fact, he’d always loathed teeth and never had any interest in dentistry. Good on him for doing what he loved, and for rejecting narrow-minded ideas of what was worthy.

I think sometimes an attitude such as Chua’s can actually drive children away. Part of the reason I decided to write this post today was because I saw an article in the Herald Sun about a father of Vietnamese background who had parenting rights to his daughters removed because of his attitude to homework:

The father of three pushed his two daughters to complete homework above their academic level. He tutored them in the hope of winning private school scholarships.

The girls, 13 and 11, had to write reports on their daily movements, and their mother, and read them to him over the phone each evening.

He told the Federal Magistrates’ Court this was to ensure his children were maximising time available for study.

The court, sitting in Melbourne, ruled the father was too “rigid and obsessive” in his parenting.

His demands were driven by a desire for his children to have the best education because he came from an impoverished background in Vietnam, court documents show.

“It is apparent that he is obsessive about wanting his children to achieve academically at the highest level to maximise their opportunities in life, and for them to have the opportunities that were denied him,” the judge said.

The dad’s hard-nosed parenting style was exposed when his estranged wife sought sole parental responsibility for the girls and a younger son.

The father, who is in his 40s, pleaded for shared responsibility, saying he just wanted to do what was best for his children.

But the children’s mother said she and her estranged husband constantly argued about his demands and high expectations.

The two girls had refused for more than a year to spend time with their father, the Melbourne hearing was told.

His wife was granted sole parental responsibility for all children.

The father was ordered to have counselling with his wife with a view to repairing the relationship with their girls.

Their son will continue to spend time with his dad.

The case has renewed debate about how much time parents should make their children devote to study.

This strikes me as a very sad case. The father has pushed his daughters so far that they don’t actually want to spend any time with him. That’s exactly what you don’t want. I keep wondering if Chua’s daughters might look back on their childhood and wish that their mother had let them have just a little bit of fun.

Ultimately, I think in this area, as in others, it’s always a balance. Yes, academic achievement is important, and I’m going to make sure my kids do their homework and all that kind of thing. I will encourage them to do the best of their ability. But I won’t belittle them if they try their best and fail. Part of learning is learning how to fail, and learning that it’s not the end of the world if you get something wrong. And I won’t push my children into particular careers: as long as they are happy and try their best, that’s what matters. You have to work with the talents of your child however, and I also think it’s important not to be too blinkered in what you categorise as ‘success’. There’s a lot more to life than being a lawyer or a doctor. It takes all sorts in this life and if my child desperately wants to be a beautician, a baker, a chef or a plumber, well, I don’t see why she shouldn’t be. I don’t even know that I’d want to encourage my daughter to become a lawyer (at least, not without a total overhaul of the structure of law firms). The value of a child is more than an A+ on a report.


    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    ps, Dave Bath.
    Well done, that man!

  2. Posted January 21, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink,b=facebook

    A new study provides disturbing answers to questions about how much students actually learn in college – for many, not much – and has inflamed a debate about the value of an American higher education.

    The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

  3. Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    One side effect of not letting adolescents out on their own that I’ve noticed (and no doubt will again in the coming weeks) is how poor our first-year students are at finding their way round campus. They don’t seem to be able to read maps, and I understand they can be difficult things to read, but worse, they don’t seem to be able to read signs. I have had the experience, more than once, of being approached for directions, showing a nearby sign that directs people to the place they are asking about, and being met with incomprehension. I don’t think it’s a language issue; it seems to be an issue with understanding signage. How on earth do they get on in airports and shopping centres?

  4. Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    [email protected] asks “How on earth do they get on in airports and shopping centres?”

    Ha! Guilty of hating Chadstone Warren, haven’t been in there more than once in the last 15 years. It seems specifically designed to make you wander around in circles in the hope you’ll buy more. About the only thing I could do there was follow the signs to the nearest toilet, while having trouble finding the nearest exit.

    Give me a proper strip any day.

    (And the strip, such as Glenferrie Rd malvern, with the merchants knowing faces if not names, meant that tweens were safe wandering around either solo or in gaggles before 10, and even further in gaggles on trams to friends… Great when I didn’t want the grief of dealing with buying clothes for indecisive daughter… “here’s $50, go get a few things, as much as you can, and at least /some/ knickers, then bring me the receipt.) OK, the Malvern strip is pretty safe for kids even at night with shops open, the only trouble being eggings at the end of the school year.

    Indeed, for her tenth bday, all parents of her gaggle were fine having them left alone for a couple of hours in the restaurant (2 minutes from home if I power-walked and the traffic lights co-operated), and they all apparently behaved like little ladies (with the odd loud group giggle), better than with an adult there – they enjoyed being trusted, free to choose what they ate, talk freely…

    Perhaps there are trust issues more recently, parents not trusting the environment, but more importantly, not taking the opportunities to show trust in the kids.

    Mind you, if you want discipline in kids, nothing’s better than a couple of weeks as cadets at a proper army base, subject to the tender loving care of a regular Sergeant Major…. Well, apart from losing discipline with usage of words like @#*§!

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Re-reading it, it is an absolute gem. More than than that, it is a document. Its actually an ethnological study to do with humanity and how it colonises reality within an actually occurring frame of reference.
    MH ‘s comment misreads that a uni like anywhere else, is, immanently, a “jungle”, or”village”, or “coalface” where individuals and groups interrract in complex ways. On one level MH’s drones are asking for directions on how to find anobscure lecture theatre or tute room on a big campus.
    On another, we are almost back in the trees, tribal, setting up communications based on criteria we hardly know, derived of our evolution.
    Reading the signs its easy to see that the sort of communication that MH describescan also be about hierarchy, communication, in a simulacra, as a simple request for a geographical direction.

  6. Patrick
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Their asking for directions are ‘about hierarchy in a simulacra’??

    No wonder you are a socialist.

  7. desipis
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    The research of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.

    I wonder if that 45 percent are the below average students continuing to get by on rote learning, or above average students gaining little from what is on offer at the educational institution.

  8. desipis
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Perhaps there are trust issues more recently, parents not trusting the environment, but more importantly, not taking the opportunities to show trust in the kids.

    There definitely seems to be a trend over the last decade or so of extreme risk aversion for anything to do with children. I wonder to what extent this has been driven by the lawsuit culture; forcing institutions to act in extreme risk averse manner which then influence social attitudes towards parenting. Thus creating the belief that if something, anything, goes wrong with your child’s life (physical injury, bad grades, low paying job, etc) that you are a failure as a parent. I wonder if there’s much difference between parents who see their children’s success as guaranteeing a comfortable retirement, and those that see their children’s success as a measure of their own virtue.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I specifically wrote that as wrote it, in anticipation of a remark like that, Patrick.
    the key word is “also”and it applies to life in general: a situation can indeed be so much less or so much more than its outward form suggests.
    “socialist at thirty, an idealist,
    socialist in middle age (ahem!) a realist”.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Desipis, can one venture that we are seeing dislocation as an age or era comes to an end; the effects of deindustrialisation have changed the cognitive signposting radically and the demographics have changed over a few generations. Families are smaller, matenal and infant mortality relatively nonextant compared to a few generations ago and no longer “extended” or longer subject to a rough form of patriarchal dominance as the rule, whereas literacy is now near universal, here.
    The Harvester “settlement” of a century ago and the later Bretton Woods revision did their job to the extent that society has been transformed and as change continues, the adaptive mechanism is stretched and people find themselves inaptly cognitively signposted.
    Another Aristotelian universe has been blown away and people grope, often in defensive Hobbesian Hansonist sorts of ways, as they duck for cover from a world they can no longer “understand” or find a role that equates to their cultural inscription and instincts.
    so its little wonder that incidents like the campus one described can be also possibly attributed to a general uncertainty, as we travel to a place where people have not been before, so to speak.

  11. desipis
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Paul: Yes, I can see how living in an environment of change and relative uncertainty would cause people to place an increased value on certainty and assurance, and would see it as something of value to pass onto their children. However as you point out, rapid social change has been going on for the last century and yet “helicopter parenting” is apparently a more recent phenomenon. If the cause is the totality of the change then it’ll be interesting to see what other social neurosis will result from the continual process of rapid change.

  12. Patrick
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    None of which changes the fact that what you wrote made no sense.

    Posted January 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Then what is desipis responding to, Patrick?
    you’ll say fools never differ but Desipis may like to consider my proposition that, “great minds think alike”.
    Desipis, have just back from wiki on “helicopter parenting”.
    Should not be smirking like this, but must let this go now…. (shudders, shakes, struggles for breath!!)).

  14. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    “helicopter parenting” is apparently a more recent phenomenon

    The term is recent, but the described behaviour is probably ancient – but otherwise understand PW’s and your point.

    Patrick, maybe assume the lotus position, deep breath, “Ooommm”.

  15. kvd
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Paul – sorry. Gentle dig, but with much respect.

  16. desipis
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink


    This might not be the best example, but I stumbled just across it and figured it was relevant. I’m sure over-parenting has been around for a long time; the question is about whether there’s an increasing prevalence of it. Part of it could also be a willingness to examine parenthood much more comprehensively than in the past, due to both decreasing social taboos and an increased understanding of child psychology. This could have both a distorting affect on how we judge parenting but also a feedback influence on how parents go about parenting.

  17. Posted January 22, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    It is all about money and nothing more. She uses a perfect marketing tactic to promote the book and boost its sales. Now Amy can call herself a strict and rich mother who has revealed her oppressive methods of bringing up children to the whole world. Do you really think this is a representative of a typical Chinese parent?

  18. Posted January 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Noticed This in Sci Am, discussing Chua’s paper and any supporting evidence.

    One snippet I like:

    A point she’s trying to make where I would agree is not cultivating a false sense of self-esteem. I’m not aligned with parents who think that no matter what children do, it’s wonderful. I think kids should be praised for genuine accomplishment.

    Posted January 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Desipis’ link is interesting because it offers a healthier pespective that balances out an alternative to the helicopter parenting aspect.
    Namely, in some cases, well adjusted adults sharing some time with their kids, walking to and back from school whilst ensuring everyone gets some exercise.
    Not exactly the same thing, but at that young age, being on my new three wheeler bike when my mum had me along as tail gunner for one of her missions up the shops, now those were high times.
    So, intensive parent can be good if its good quality. My folk had me early into some sort of basic literacy , but it was rarely anything but fun.
    Would there a be a fair bit of variation betyween the poles of good and mediocre parenting?

    Posted January 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Sorry “parenting”, not “parent”.

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