Of Tiger Moms or Chinese Mothers

Recently in the US there’s been a bit of controversy over Amy Chua‘s new book on the superiority of the “Chinese” mother in which she catalogs her approach to parenting and fostering achievement and academic excellence within her kids with a whole slew of things her kids can NEVER do such as:

  • 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

To name a few.

She also discusses frankly some of her strategies for parenting . . . such as threatening to burn her child’s stuffed bunny if she did not learn a particular piano piece.

Since I live in Asia . . . coming up on my twenty-second year living in Taiwan . . . this controversy interests me as I’m on the other end of the stick in terms of being a minority in a culture. There are certainly some things about the Taiwanese education system that I’m all for while other things I am less than thrilled about when it comes to my own daughter’s educational experience (for instance, when she was in Junior High School, Kaye and one other classmate were the only two students in her grade whose parents did not require that they take several hours of cram school classes every day after school). A friend once asked me how Lorraine and I managed to “keep Kaye in line” after finding out that we do not beat our child and have never laid a hand upon her (with a single exception when she was four years old and we were coming out of Sogo Department Store in Taipei and loading purchases into the back of a taxi and I had told her to “stay” on the sidewalk while I was moving boxes and she walked out into traffic and I grabbed her and lightly patted her butt with an open hand and said “no, you stay on the curb” and the shock – a pattern interrupt – was quite a bit to her so she refused to sit next to Daddy on the way home – just to be clear, it was the shock of the act that upset her so as there was absolutely no pain involved and the purpose was to delay the behavior long enough to get things sorted and to get her safely into the car – anyone who has been in downtown Taipei on a rainy night can attest just to how dangerous it is for a child to be darting out into traffic) . . . the friend was curious because her daughter – a junior high school student – had started having night terrors waking up in the middle of the night screaming and begging her mother in her dream to stop beating her. At the time, the friend honestly believed that her daughter would never behave or study well if she wasn’t forced to through threats of beatings.

The thing is . . . Amy Chua is both typical and an exception when it comes to what folks may think of as the “Chinese Mother” (albeit, more accurately, the “Asian Mother” in terms of some of the generalities being thrown about).

Many Asian parenting strategies are indeed far harsher or strict in comparison to those of the average American household while some are less so. I’ve met folks who put Chua to shame in terms of the beatings and humiliation and guild trip strategies used to control their parents but I’ve also met folks who are incredibly gentle with their kids and use a form of positive discipline that fosters a sense of filial duty and desire to achieve without all the pain, fear, and humiliation we see thrown about as the “typical” strategy.

Certainly, there are differences . . . long ago, a group of my university students did a panel presentation on Corporal Punishment in Education for the Communication course I teach at the university (one of the top universities in the country so these kids were not slouches when it came to intellectual achievement) and they found that pretty much every major academic study on corporal punishment found that it was not an effective means of getting kids to study well or to behave well. Rather, corporal punishment tends to delay unruly behavior temporarily with a much higher possibility that they child will act out more powerfully later. The students could find no single study that supported corporal punishment, not a single one (this doesn’t mean they don’t exist but that these particular students could not find any). Their conclusions? That while corporal punishment is inappropriate for Western children, Chinese kids need to be physically punished in order to behave well. Sometimes, folks will make assumptions that are so powerfully placed that no matter what the evidence says they will stick to their story of reality. The Freakonomics books come to mind on this one.

Certainly, there are great benefits to at least some of the behaviors of the “Chinese Mother” as the top honors roles in the US are populated by Asian immigrants. However, there are also advantages to the way some Americans handle things with open trust and an acceptance of allowing their children to make their own way in the world and to choose their own way and to have some fun in their childhood. Of course, not all “Chinese Mothers” are as Amy Chua describes them . . . certainly her brand of extreme parenting is less than as typical as she projects. Likewise, not all American parents are as laissez faire or as gentle as the media is sometimes portraying them (growing up, I absolutely feared the beatings administered by my stepfather who I was terrified of as a child but who I now recognize was merely as weak twisted man projecting his anger and frustration at his children in an effort to control and terrorize others due to his own weakness and a rather large helping of sadistic joy in the sensations that fear afforded him; in short, I now know he was just a twisted fucked up little man who had absolutely no business fathering children and it was that realization that spurred me to never lay a violent hand upon my wife or child . . . ever . . . certainly, most of us grow up and we either become our parents or we spend our adulthood trying very hard to not become our parents, the latter path was the one I chose, and deliberately so).

In any case, for much more . . . some of it quite scary . . . discussion of and by Chua and her assessments of Chinese parenting as well as some of the followup based upon surveys and interviews of others, see

For me . . . I know that we have made mistakes in our parenting . . . we all do . . . however, when I read the catalog of behaviors and punishments and fear-gambits used by the like of Chua, my response is that I much prefer the sort of mistakes we have made with out child’s upbringing and the benefits and advantages that she has gained through them than those that Chua has deliberately made and has purposefully tried to justify in her book and public presentations.

All the best,