A fascinating, challenging, and dare-I-say slightly horrifying article about the superiority of Chinese Mothers in The Wall Street Journal, doubling as a critique of today’s self-esteem-obsessed culture. Enough to make one feel like a dyed-in-the-wool Occidental. The unapologetic emphasis on achievement, while clearly exaggerated here, is congruent with some of the first-generation kids that I grew up with, begging a few questions:

1. Since parental demand/Law is going to be articulated whether we/they like it or not, is such a blunt approach actually preferable to the Western doublespeak that leaves so many of us psychologically deformed? 2. While love is clearly not the issue here, grace does seem to be a particularly foreign concept, pun intended. Does the Chinese Mother model allow for any relationship with one’s parents that isn’t overwhelmingly based on fear and judgment? That seems like a mighty high price to pay for college acceptance… Then again, perhaps it’s the reason the Presbyterians have had so much success with this demographic (zing?). 3. Is there an unspoken imputational dynamic at work here? That is, does unwavering confidence in a child’s ability to achieve actually create that ability? Or the opposite? 4. What long term effect does this apparent complete disregard for questions of motivation have on the internal life of the child? Mere suppression? Why doesn’t it produce more rebellion? (Or does it?) Is there a point when duty/obligation takes a backseat to desire as the motivating factor in one’s life? Does passion ever play a role or is it simply irrelevant? Or is the author’s take simply insane? What are we missing here?! I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, especially those of you with first-hand experience. I know you’re out there… A few excerpts (ht RT):

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. 

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’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.

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.)

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.