Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior
Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of
music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight
By AMY CHUA
Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011
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.
When it comes to parenting, the Chinese seem to produce children who
display academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success
- or so the stereotype goes. WSJ's Christina Tsuei speaks to two moms
raised by Chinese immigrants who share what it was like growing up and
how they hope to raise their children.
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.
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.
Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't.
Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely
disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in
our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and
deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem
or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I
didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.
As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage
in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I
mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately
ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears
and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to
rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem
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 think there are three big differences between the
Chinese and Western parental mind-sets.
First, 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
For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a
Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother
will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home
with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the
child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express
disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel
inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child "stupid,"
"worthless" or "a disgrace." Privately, the Western parents may worry
that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or
that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the
whole school. If the child's grades do not improve, they may
eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge
the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the
If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first
be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother
would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work
through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade
up to an A.
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.)
Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.
The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a
combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents
have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true
that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling
hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their
kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend
their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them
By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of
children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed,
actually has the opposite view. "Children don't choose their parents,"
he once said to me. "They don't even choose to be born. It's parents
who foist life on their kids, so it's the parents' responsibility to
provide for them. Kids don't owe their parents anything. Their duty
will be to their own kids." This strikes me as a terrible deal for the
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their
children and therefore override all of their children's own desires
and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in
high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also
why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part
in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after
school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a
ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Chinese parents don't care about
their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for
their children. It's just an entirely different parenting model.
Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7,
still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called
"The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The
piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling
along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly
difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep
schizophrenically different rhythms.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each
of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting
the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything
fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in
exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.
"You can't make me."
"Oh yes, I can."
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked.
She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score
back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could
never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car
and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she
didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When
Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are
you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no
Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three,
four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was
purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly
afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly,
self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't
even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think
threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just
couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination
yet—had I considered that possibility?
"You just don't believe in her," I accused.
"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."
"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."
"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.
"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in
their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are
special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to
lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm
happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because
you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and
tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the
night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go
to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice
yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even
I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came
together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable
thing—just like that.
Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it
tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and
still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
"Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over
and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep
in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When
she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks
later, parents came up to me and said, "What a perfect piece for
Lulu—it's so spunky and so her."
Even Jed gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot
about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst
things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up.
On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than
learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
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.
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality,
encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their
choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing
environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to
protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting
them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work
habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
—Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of "Day of
Empire" and "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds
Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.
"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, to be published Tuesday
by the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright ©
2011 by Amy Chua.