A Chinese Kid’s Response to “Chinese Parenting”

An article from the Wall Street Journal went viral on the Internet earlier this month, sparking passionate debates from the American and Asian-American public. Titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it is an excerpt from a book by Yale law professor Amy Chua, now known as the “Tiger Mother.” In essence, the article makes the argument that strict Eastern parenting is superior to lenient Western parenting.

The arguments in a nutshell:

  • Chinese parents are stricter than American parents.
  • Chinese parents stress their kids’ education a whole lot more.
  • Drill/practice builds on itself: the better a child is at some activity, the more fun it will become, and the more he or she will want to improve (a “virtuous circle”).
  • “Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t.” E.g., make their kids get straight A’s. Control their extracurricular activities. Make violent threats. Insult them openly.
  • The Chinese system produces superior results, is better.

When I first read the article over a week ago, I was honestly not sure what to think. I let it drift around in my head for a little while. But if anything, my initial reaction was a respectful disagreement. Chua’s points made perfect sense on their own, but something seemed lacking, as if there was some side of the argument that was kept hidden. I looked back at the article looking for signs of a one-sided argument, but saw that it does, to some degree, highlight pros and cons for both parenting styles. So what was missing?

A few days later I showed the article to my own Chinese mother. I was very interested in what she thought of it; indeed, my suspicions were confirmed. She called the totalitarian strictness in it “ridiculous.” And now I think “ridiculous” is the perfect word to describe the article.

I feel very blessed to have a Chinese mother who is NOT like Amy Chua. Granted, I’ve seen my parents’ “Chinese” side. But to me, they are more like Western parents. They obviously wanted me to get A’s, but if i got a B on anything, it wasn’t the end of the world. They gave me control over what extracurricular activities I did and how much effort I put into any of them.

Eventually I became a chess aficionado, though my parents had never pushed me into chess. In fourth grade I saw some friends playing chess and was intrigued by the game enough so that I joined the school chess club. I think that was the first time in my life that I made an important decision for myself. Sure, it didn’t seem that significant then, but for a while in my life I was a chess person. I traveled, I went to national tournaments, I shook hands with grandmasters. It was my passion.

I don’t think it would ever have become a passion if my parents had forced me to play it.

Which brings up an interesting fact, that my parents had forced me to play the piano starting in first grade, as well as do a whole slew of other things. I suppose I was okay—not brilliant, but not terrible either, as I faired well in competitions. But in fifth grade I got tired of it. Sitting at the piano for an hour was becoming a daily chore, instead of a hobby. Did I enjoy it? Did I want to play it? Did I even make the decision in the first place that I wanted to play it? No, no, and no.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the piano is wonderful. But my 11-year old self, for some reason, didn’t see it that way. So he rebelled. And there was no “virtuous circle” of feedback that Chua was talking about. This boy saw no meaning in the high marks that he was receiving at piano competitions. He couldn’t enjoy it; the piano wasn’t for him.

So he told his parents that he wanted to quit, but of course this didn’t work. (Try this one with Chinese parents.) For weeks, tension was built. Then he started to make excuses, pretended his hands hurt, but eventually his mother stood next to the piano and forced him to play. (Think Amy Chua-style here. Actually that’s kind of scary.) But the only playing he did was the frustrated banging of random keys, creating a symphony of cacophonous sounds. He wouldn’t touch that piano again for two years.

That was the second time I had made some important decision in my life.

In retrospect, was it a good decision? I’m not really sure. In chess, there’s a saying, “A bad plan is better than no plan.” Is a bad decision likewise better than indecision? This quote certainly wasn’t running through the little boy’s head at the time, but he must have felt that way. I think making a decision in the first place was the correct choice.

As to the title of this post, I have just turned 19, which could make me a “kid” depending on the context, but really, it’s that 11-year old’s rebellion to sitting in front of the piano.

After the piano incident, my parents became Western parents. When I said that they tolerated B’s and allowed me to do what I wanted—that was AFTER this event.

Not that I cared less about education; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I became learning-focused instead of grade-focused. In class, I would be the one asking bizarre questions about material that seemed only remotely connected to the curriculum, but I never asked such a cringe-inducing question as “What percent of the grade is this assignment?” or “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” or, my favorite one yet, “Is there extra credit?”—and by the way, I’ve heard these countless times in high school from my Asian peers.

I remember on one AP Chemistry test I was supposed to get a 94 but my teacher (who is brilliant by the way) accidentally misgraded it and gave me an 88. I couldn’t have cared less about the 6-point discrepancy; I let it go. And yet, I knew many people who wouldn’t hesitate to fiercely argue with their teachers that their 96 should actually be a 97 for some wrong answer that could remotely be correct.

My parents did become “Chinese” once again when it came to the PSAT and SAT. In reality, American colleges look for a lot of other things besides standardized test scores. But my parents were used to a system, which still exists in China today, that cared solely about one score on a national exam.

So of course they tried to enroll me in some PSAT/SAT prep course (which would have cost $$$), but I told them I would refuse to go if they did, and that they should spend their money more wisely. I told them that I would compromise by doing PSAT review on my own with practice books. Of course my Chinese parents weren’t pleased with this, so they made me this $100 bet, initially as a threat. If I made National Merit, I would win. Otherwise, I would lose and also have to take a prep course for the SAT. Yeah, pretty ridiculous, right?

So they bought a plethora of PSAT review and practice exam books, and made me do all of them. And here is where I lied to my parents. I did only the first practice exam, just to see what it was like, but that was enough. For the other bajillion of them, since the PSAT is all multiple-choice, I just copied the answers from the back of the books, strategically bubbling a few wrong answers as to appear inconspicuous. After finishing the entire test in five minutes, with still hours left, I would read novels or program on my TI-84 calculator (neither of which my parents had much encouraged me to do).

I won the bet, without any dedicated “studying” for it, and eventually got into a nice college which I am enjoying. I’m still undecided about my major, and my parents are pretty Western about it; they don’t mind what I study, as long as I can enjoy it and excel in it.

Chinese parenting may be better for clawing higher grades, but Western parenting seems to be better for creativity, initiative, and all that other stuff that actually matters.

Mom and dad, if you are reading this, you may be startled about my not actually doing the PSAT and SAT reviews. But know that I meant the best.

And Amy Chua: you are, as my mother said, ridiculous.

9 thoughts on “A Chinese Kid’s Response to “Chinese Parenting””

    1. This is actually the first time I’ve told anybody about the specifics of the quitting incident. And yes, I do remember going to piano stuff with you, Melody. Good times! 😀

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  1. So many things I wanted to respond to that article — likewise, I have chinese parents, however the “piano” incident occurred earlier in my life when I decided not to learn how to read.

    Obviously, I came around to reading, but having my mother force spelling and phonetics down my throat just made me resist it all the more vehemently.

    Anyways, ridiculous seems like a good word for it. My mother also agrees. People need to be more careful about the generalization about any culture, especially when it comes to bringing up children.

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    1. I agree, sometimes more pressure only causes more resistance. (Umm, for some reason my mind immediately went physics on me after I wrote that sentence, and yeah, it doesn’t make any sense physics-wise, but you get the drift.)

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  2. I’m almost certain Swarthmore would not have accepted me if I had been raised in the “Chinese style” (quoted since I don’t have Chinese parents). Additionally, Chua’s method would probably traumatize children with learning disabilities.

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  3. Sean, I agree with you all the way. My parents are pretty “western” like yours too, and I think in the long run it did more good than bad for me.

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  4. My parents are Korean, but there are similar approaches in the totalitarian style of child rearing. Having been raised in the States, but raised in a nearly totalitarian style, (not quite Chua, but 80-90% there) and now starting to raise kids of my own, I have a different outlook than I had when I was a child, which is different from when I was 18, or even 28.

    I was forced to play piano, an hour a day, from the age of 4 until 18. Honestly, it really didn’t get fun for me until I was about 14 or 15. Then I could play the most advanced pieces, but also around that time, I could sight read things that me and my friends found enjoyable, like pieces from the Lion King or Phantom or the Cheer’s Theme Song. Even now, I only touch the piano 3 or 4 times per year, it gives me and those around me great satisfaction that I can just play Moonlight Sonata from memory. It’s like that rule where it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, well, it takes a while for piano to become enjoyable.

    When talking about academics, yes there are those exceptions to the rule where the student who never studies gets into the top ivy leagues, and the one who is forced to study can amount to nothing. But on average, you get out what you put into it. And if you spend the time and concerted effort to walk your child along this path, their future (on average) will benefit from it immensely in terms of options and financial opportunities.

    There are things that Eastern Cultures can learn from Western cultures, like learning to empathize with your children and not overusing corporal punishment. But I truly think that discipline throughout childhood doesn’t equate to a lack of love; and a lot of leniency isn’t the mark of an enlightened western parent. We see all the time on TV, these kids who are disrespectful, entitled and lazy. It is a product of their environment. So, I will lean on the side of a stricter childhood with the knowledge that it will give them a better chance at a successful future.

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    1. I agree with what you said, but I have the most relaxed and western parents ever. I still manage to pull straight A’s, but my parents never tell me to study or do my homework. I think that the one thing western parents need to do is tell their kids that their future pretty much depends on how dedicated they are to their education.

      Eastern parenting, in my opinion, would feel like a prison. I would never put forth 10,000 hours to something I don’t enjoy. Even if the parent just wants what’s best for the kid’s future, the lifestyle seems to demanding.

      Every child develops a hobby anyway. So I say, why let the parent pick their kid’s “hobby” if it’s just gonna be something they might not even like? It’s like the parent is living their kid’s life, which is bogus… Succeeding is pointless if there’s no freedom in what it is you’re succeeding in.

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  5. Nice one. Thanks for this. My (Asian) wife is reading Amy’s book right now. Thank goodness she sees that Amy’s is not the way. Anyone who scorns a hand-made birthday card from their daughter–whether they thought they “deserved” something better or not–is a straight up asshole. She may have deserved a better card–but she earned the one she got.

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