Controversy Wednesday: CHINESE PARENTING

26 Jan

Scary Chinese Mommy and Her Zombie Slaves


I know, right?  Kind of a weird Controversy Wednesday topic.  But oh, just wait till you see what I’m gonna share.

Jake recently told me about a piece he’d heard on NPR about a woman who decided to try parenting her children like Chinese parents do.  I won’t go into detail – you’ll have to hear it for yourself – but it involves punishing a three-year-old child for not practicing piano by telling her to stand outside in the cold. 

Then my friend Patty passed along a couple of articles out of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times talking about this same woman and her approach to parenting.  Here’s one.  Here’s the other. 

Her name is Amy Chua, and she has written a book about being a Chinese parent entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  If, by chance, you haven’t caught wind of this crazy book or its crazy author, you might consider crawling out from under that rock because it is H-U-G-E right now.  In essence, Chua purports that by prohibiting her children from enjoying their childhood, she has been able to mold them into genius, virtuoso zombies with a bright future and no soul.  Yeah, that’s my interpretation.

Interestingly, there is one point on which I agree with Ms. Chua.  In her book she discusses the importance of forcing a child to push through their desire to quit playing a musical instrument. 

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.

Like it or not, this woman has nailed it on the head.  In teaching piano for more than half of my life and working as the education director for a symphony orchestra, I’ve seen so many parents who just want their children to “try” an instrument to see if they’ll like it.  But it is a law of the universe that people – whether children or adults – don’t enjoy doing things at which they’re not yet very good.  The kid picks up a violin the first time and gets excited because it’s shiny and red and new and expects it to sound as good as it looks.  But then it doesn’t.  BECAUSE THE KID DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO PLAY.  And then they don’t want to do it anymore because practice is hard and the teacher is creepy and old and has bad breath.  The parent battles with the child for a few months – maybe even a few years – until they finally give up, assuming that little Joey or Jenny just wasn’t cut out for the violin.

On this, I agree with Ms. Chua, though perhaps not for the same reasons.  I have no expectation that Seabass will play an instrument in Carnegie Hall (Ms. Chua’s daughter ended up playing that prestigious house,  by the by), but I do expect him to have a lifelong love of music.  And I know that the best way to get him to enjoy playing music is to get him good enough to like what he hears.  And that, my friends, requires practice.

Wait, don’t shoot!  Other than that, me and the Tiger Mother have very little – scratch that, NOTHING – in common. 

Enough outta me.  What do you think?  Do you agree with any part of Amy Chua’s “Chinese” approach to parenting?  

26 Responses to “Controversy Wednesday: CHINESE PARENTING”

  1. Husband January 26, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    I am down with Discipline!

    • Debbie January 28, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

      Surprise. Surprise:)

  2. BA January 26, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    Interesting post today. I enjoyed reading your position. Over at 4mothers1blog this week we are each weighing in on this exact topic. Check it out:

  3. Megan January 26, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Oh, this is one of my favorite topics. While I am a proponent of letting kids be kids, I also feel that we do them a huge disservice when we don’t require them to require discipline of themselves. They spend a few years as kids, but an entire lifetime as adults. Sooner or later they are going to have to get the message that discipline and personal accountability are going to make their lives much easier. ‘Because I said so’ is totally underrated. They get it eventually. (unless you never say it, then they turn out just like you…standards of the lowest common denominator.) You understand music because that is ‘what you do’ –we have been vilified for having the same opinion bout our kids and sports…but the truth is, we are that way about sports, academics, behavior…We have always told our kids that if they don’t have time to do it right, how do they think they will find the time to do it twice? And we don’t allow them to quit just because they are tired, bored, whatever. Listen to them, sympathize with them, then make them finish. And don’t ever let them start without telling them when the earliest possible finish point is. Vagueness in parenting never works.

  4. Oma January 26, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    I must weigh in here – you yourself, darling daughter, wanted to quit piano at one point. I think you were in 6th or 7th grade? We said no. You were right on the cusp of growing into a beautiful pianist, and it was getting hard. Just a few years later you were earning a living as a teenager teaching piano!
    “Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.”
    ~Douglas MacArthur

    • parkersanpei January 26, 2011 at 11:30 am #

      Gotta love the DOMP: Dear Old Mom Perspective.

      • Oma January 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm #


      • Selda January 23, 2013 at 8:38 am #

        Good points Kathy. I have heard that the prseruse to be successful on both Chinese and Japanese children does lead to a significant rise in suicide rates in those cultures. However, I didn’t find Chua’s book to be set as a clinical or even opinionated statement that the Chinese way was better. It may have been implied due to using her own experiences as examples, but what I found (from only reading the excerpt) was that it was a pretty honest look at the differences and looking at the weaknesses in each approach. I think there is much we, as parents, can ponder based upon the thoughts Chua puts out there. Any time an author encourages thoughtful discussion and reevaluating how we behave, I think they are successful. Chua did so and therefore I am very glad she wrote this book. Parenting to me is not clinical. I am not going to read reams of scientific studies telling me how to treat my children. I am going to take the good from my own upbringing and continue it and hopefully not repeat the mistakes (or too many of them) of my parents. Along the way, I also hope to improve my skills to give my INDIVIDUAL American kids the skills and support they need to be successful and happy American adults. Each of them needs something different that no study or book can identify without knowing my children specifically.

    • Gemma Yardley February 16, 2011 at 4:47 am #

      We’re producing a new series of World’s Strictest Parents for the BBC in the UK – if you’ve ever had a chance to see the show it’s fascinating to see just how different families from around the world put their parenting skills into play. The title of the series is often misleading as the truth is that the families often have strict boundaries, but the common denominator is that they are all loving and really care a great deal about the welfare of their children. We are currently looking to produce a new series in the UK and I am keen to present a New York family with Chinese origins almost to show for itself the debate over Amy Chua’s book, which has sparked such intense controversy. If anyone is interested in this I would be very grateful if you could contact me at
      Kind regards


  5. Jim January 26, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    I was interested in the news stories about this book too. I think the key is finding the right balance. In my opinion, the Chinese method as I understand it (from bits and pieces on the news) goes too far.

    As a parent of two teenagers, if I could turn the clock back and do it all over again, I think I would try to be a little more strict in helping my children learn the value of hard work at an appropriate, early age. In general, I think too many kids, including my own, are not learning to work. My son, although brilliant and able to work endlessly IF it is something he’s interested in, procrastinates, gives up easily, complains, and does sloppy, shoddy work when it is something a teacher or parent wants him to do (but still gets A’s in school). And I realize that many of the poor habits and lack of discipline that I see in him are from my own lack of parenting when he was younger.

  6. Kendra January 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    Now if I am not mistaken if you were to parent the Chinese Way, shouldn’t she have figured out how to trade her daughter for a son, and what is with tapping out the country’s resources with having two children. Clearly she could devote more time and decipline had she just had one child. (Had to say it, enough with my political opinion).
    Here is my real thoughts on this topic…I do agree to have your children stick with a commitment from start to finish. To have them engaged in activites that give them a break and balance from the 3 Rs. The only thing is to make your presence appropriate for their age. I have seen parents on the sidelines of sporting events who are expecting their child to be Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Tim Lincecum, or Mia Hamm at age 10. Only to see shame and embarasment across the child’s face when they miss the play. Or those creepy stage parents who have their fingers crossed that Disney is going to come by and make thier little darling the next Britney or Justin Timberlake. There just needs to be balance. I hope that Jason and I can find balance for Hazel, as we secretly dream of full rides to Stanford or Cal for Volleyball.

    • Pasquale January 23, 2013 at 2:28 am #

      PUSH ONWARD! kamusta na mga brods and sssies. ginagawa na rin ung website namin LCBA chapt (gamma alpha). Brod Gordon. ano nang update?Meron kaya tayong mga brods at sssies na nandito sa Dubai?Baka pwede kaming magtayo ng alumni assn dito kung marami kami.sige dito lang. Lap, Batchname: Tri Scientis (Jan. 27, 1991)

  7. Stephanie T. January 26, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I loved your blog today. Always love it actually. But we are exactly in the middle of what you are talking about. Our youngest has been taking Piano for over a year and now wants to quit because it “is not fun.” She doesn’t like to practice but enjoys playing piano. Her teacher says she is a natural and has a real talent for it. We were leaning towards letting her quit- but now we will really have to think about it again. You have made me see a different side. Thank you!

    • jaimeclewis January 27, 2011 at 7:39 am #

      Hooray for making people think!

  8. eric January 26, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    you could give him a love of music by playing lots of flaming lips and wilco for him now while he is young.

    • jaimeclewis January 27, 2011 at 7:40 am #

      Consider it done, my friend. Radiohead, Band of Horses, and Temper Trap on repeat.

  9. M January 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    I have been under a rock apparently because before your blog post I hadn’t read/heard anything about this. I think its awful. I mean truly awful. I wouldn’t want to be the friend or girlfriend of someone who grow up that way because I can’t imagine what kind of narcissistic egomaniacs they probably are as adults.

    (I’ve also had a frustrating day with a person like this, so I might be projecting =) )

    • Anonymous January 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      I read about this woman in Time Magazine. There is NOTHING mentioned in this article about raising your children to be good, honest compassionate people. It’s all about surviving as adults in the cold, cruel, competitive world. I agree that kids should be exposed to various extracurriculars, and they should be encouraged to stick with an activity they enjoy, be it music, sports or art. I don’t agree with Chua when she told her little girl that her handmade Mother’s Day card was “trash” because it wasn’t done well enough. By the way, that woman’s “memoir” is on the best Seller’s List, and she is making plenty of money exploiting her questionnable mothering. And she’s Chinese-AMERICAN–if this is the way to parent, then she should take her children (both GIRLS) to China. PS Her husband is a wimp.

      • jaimeclewis January 28, 2011 at 11:29 am #

        I agree with you, Anonymous. But there’s a rule here at Higher Highs, Lower Lows: You can’t call anyone a wimp if you sign in anonymously. That just doesn’t fly.

      • Anonymous January 28, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

        You are very clever–and I am not. I’m trying to sign on, and my computer won’t let me. I’m really not afraid to give you my email and fake user name. So my fake user name is BabsMcK. So I can now saqy, without harrassment, that Chua’s hubby is a wimp. However, I have seen more current press, that Chua actually regrets some of the methods she used. Hmm..good timing now that she is on the cobver of Time Mag and on the Best Seller’s List.

      • Anonymous January 28, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

        Sorry for the typos!

  10. Aaron January 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Time magazine has a cover article on Tiger Mom’s I just read. After reading it I felt surprisingly supportive of some of Chua’s philosophy. As a teacher I see many of her points about the faults of western parenting. Although I don’t agree everything she says I do find myself wanting to make sure our young know how to struggle, fail and ultimately succeed via hard work, practice and patience…even when it is very painful. The Tiger Mom philosophy is to assume strength (within the child) and teach them resilience. Western philosophy seems to be to protect the children so their confidence isn’t shattered

    • jaimeclewis January 28, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      I read that article yesterday at the gym. And yeah, I can see where a high school teacher would resonate with what Chua is advocating! Kids today are whack, straight up. BUT! The truth is, the stuff Chua is focusing on isn’t actually the important stuff of life. On our deathbeds, none of us will be thinking about our grades in school or the jobs we’ve had. It’s all about relationships.

  11. Debbie January 28, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    As a mom, I wanted to protect my kids. Of course they were perfect, so protecting them was all I had left to do. As a teacher, I wish more parents were Tiger parents.
    Actually, it’s a shame we can’t meet in the middle.

    • Anonymous January 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

      I agree. There must be some parents out there who can encourage their children to work hard and take their responsibilities seriously without degrading them; forcing them to practice a musical instrument they do not want to play for hours on end without bathroom breaks or food; or depriving them of fun, normal childhood activities. There must be parents who teach their children to be good people; kind to others and respectful to their teachers and other adults.
      I really love being a mom, and I feel like the love and respect we show(ed) our kids is reflected in the wonderful people they are today.PS–They don’t play musical instruments, but they are very good at sports and have a lifelong love of tennis, football and almost every other sport.


  1. Follow-Up: MINIVANS AND DEPRESSION (coincidence?) « Higher Highs, Lower Lows - August 18, 2011

    […] have I seen such a response to any topic – not spanking, working outside the home or even the crazy Chinese dragon mother.  Well done, team HHLL.  We are officially that […]

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