Life Sentences, Day 116: The Chinese Mother Controversy

January 25th, 2011

Amy Chua is a petite academic, the mother of two daughters, and the center of a firestorm.  I personally think everyone who’s shouting at her should shut up and reread her book.

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua describes a grueling regimen, an exacting set of standards, and a long list of prohibitions to which she subjected her daughters.

Several of them are overboard, although from reading some of the book’s critics, you’d think Ms. Chua was kicking in the door of her daughters’ bedrooms each midnight screaming, “No wire hangers!” In fact, although some of her early measures were hair-raising, what she was attempting to do was assure academic excellence, and therefore set the stage for secure and successful lives, for both her kids.

Much of the howling comes from people who have only read (or heard about) the “excerpt” (quotation marks intentional) that ran in The Wall Street Journal.  The Journal, in a piece of journalism worthy of its new owner, Rupert Murdoch, slapped together the most incendiary bits and pieces of the book without indicating that they’d been lifted from passages dozens, or even hundreds, of pages apart, wrote a headline right out of the Bat Boy Eats Senate Building tradition, and put it up without letting Dr. Chua review it.

Presto: Joan Crawford with chopsticks.

The Journal also omitted the fact that the book is actually the story of a personal journey — how Chua learned to loosen up and bottle the inner dragon when she realized how unhappy she was making her younger daughter.  And, yes, she was unnecessarily demanding, and even cruel on occasion, but she’s learned from those mistakes.

But here’s the bottom line:  In the Chua household, studying and school come first and last. No grade is acceptable except an “A”; a “B” is the same as a fail.  Culture, which to Dr. Chua means largely classical Western culture, will be part of daily life.  Forget crap television; in her home, it doesn’t exist.

Still pretty rigid.  But here are some things to think about.

Asian kids are at the top of the grade curve all over America, and not by small margins, either.  Their grades, on average, leave kids from all other cultural and racial groups in the cold.

The percentage of Asian students in graduate school at the best American universities is roughly triple the percentage of Asians in the general population.  It’s even higher in the schools that stress science, mathematics, and engineering.

People who criticize Chua imply that Asian kids who are brought up in strict, academically focused families, are smart scholastically, but as uncreative as zombies.  With three exceptions, every major presentation of a new idea at the recent Consumer Electronics Show — the biggest in America — was Asian.  The younger string, brass, and keyboard players in American symphony orchestras are disproportionately Asian.

To put it bluntly: kids from some Asian cultural backgrounds are eating the lunch, academically speaking, of white, black, and Hispanic kids.  It’s so pronounced that there have been multiple instances of Asian kids being bullied in big-city high schools in the past year by students who are angry at being excelled.

The furor over the book (or, rather, the excerpt) ignores an enormous question.  With it now widely accepted that America’s public schools are a flawed and failing system, how do these Asian kids squeeze excellent educations from it?

The answer is obviously Asian parents.  They’re actually involved in their children’s education.  They’re not waiting for teachers to request conferences, they’re working at home with their kids daily and nightly.  They’re hiring tutors when problems arise.  They’re making their kids’ education a primary family priority.  They’re on the phone to the teacher at the first sign of trouble.

And they’re demanding excellence from their children.  I believe that children try instinctively to live up to the expectations of those they love.  Chua is scalding about the false self-esteem pumped by the schools into kids who are doing substandard work, and the tendency (as she sees it) of some Western parents to do the same.  Self-esteem, she says, must arise from genuine accomplishments; otherwise, it’s delusional.  And terrible preparation for a world that’s indifferent to the feelings of the young adults these kids will become.

The persistent low performance of inner-city kids is, I think, primarily a function of little parental involvement.  Too often, there’s only one parent and she works nonstop to feed and house the kids.  But involvement is what’s needed; higher expectations are what’s needed; strict insistence that kids live up to their potential is what’s needed.

And it’s needed across the board.  Parents should be studying Chua’s book — whether they like her personally or not — to see what they can learn.  Otherwise, they’re raising a generation of parking-lot attendants and burger flippers.

And we’ve already got enough of those.

15 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 116: The Chinese Mother Controversy”

  1. Gary Says:

    I can’t comment on a book I haven’t read (although, as you say, there have been plenty of reviews with “excerpts”). But I can comment on my flatmate.

    Xiaoran Sun is a typical product of the one-child policy: focused, hard working, and absolutely determined to succeed. Last semester he raged against the other (non-Chinese) members of his project group, whose lack of dedication and hard work robbed him of a high distinction in one of his four subjects – he got three high distinctions and one distinction.

    At the same time he’s a fully rounded, balanced individual, who gets up late at weekends, watches reruns of “Friends” over and over and laughs himself silly, thoroughly enjoys learning about the Australian sense of humor, and goes down the street with his girlfriend to buy ice cream cones. In other words, he’s a really nice, normal guy.

    Pressure to excel doesn’t automatically morph people into monsters. It just pushes them to succeed. As a child I lived in fear – or at least in healthy respect – of my teachers, and of my parents’ expectations. And it got me two university degrees and a reasonably distinguished career as an international consultant.

    In what way was that a bad thing?

  2. Debbi Says:

    Here’s a blog you might find interesting. It’s written by a teacher who essentially expresses the views you just did, along with a lot of frustration over the stupidity within the current educational system.

  3. EverettK Says:

    My wife is an elementary teacher. My best friend was an elementary teacher and then principle. His daughter is an elementary teacher.

    We all agree: the problem is NOT the system, the problem is the PARENTS. All too many parents expect to send their kids off to school each day and not have to worry further about the, and then they expect the school to turn them into superior human beings.

    HOWEVER… they’re not allowed to do ANYTHING to the children, the ONLY form of control they’re allowed is sending them OUT of the classroom (sometimes) if their behavior becomes too bad. And then when they don’t perform, the parents come in and chastise the teachers for letting their child slide.

    A good education requires three things: parents, teachers and a student. If any one of those fails, the student will fail. And right now, for all too many students, the teacher is the only one that’s really trying.

    You’re absolutely right that kids/students will generally do their darndest to live up to the expectations of those who love them.

    How we as a society can turn that around, I don’t know. All we can do is act, as individuals, and do the little that we ourselves can do. If the right pressure is applied at the right moment and at the right point, and a large enough slice of society is READY for a change, then the change will happen. In all other cases, it’s tilting at windmills.

    But we can always do the best for our OWN selves and our OWN families, regardless of what society in general is doing. Lead by example.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    This is part of a huge debate about education. I’ve only read excerpts of Ms. Chua’s book, but I do have trouble with a mother tearing up a homemade birthday card, because it wasn’t “good enough.” The message is very swift that the only acceptable parameter is perfection. Not easy to live up to. That being said, I feel that parents are indeed failing their kids when when they don’t expect good grades, and good behavior, and sabotaging teachers in the classroom. I have a teacher friend (high school) who has parents trying to get their kids better grades without their children doing the work. There is a socioeconomic issue here as well. Some of those people who are lowering standards don’t have the dollars for tutors. I do know many teachers who give extra time to their students who request it. So again, it does seem to be about the parents and how savvy they are so they can guide their children. I do like Gary’s friend who manages to get balance into his life. I think that children do need playtime, and, for me, adolescents need sports to help deal with their hormonal tsunamis. Balance is the key.

  5. Sylvia Says:

    How many of the people who are adamant that “the problem is the parents” actually have children?

    I think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother sounds fascinating and it is a shame if it has been caught up in a media storm judging her. I’m not sure that condemning parents whose children are not over-achievers is really the answer, though?

  6. Laren Bright Says:

    I’ve only heard about Ms. Chua’s book on NPR and the question I have is whether the process she describes demands excellence or perfection. I’d agree with Tim that before people decide it’s good or bad, they ought to get the fill story. I suspect there’s valuable stuff whethr you buy the whole program or not.

    And, I couldn’t agree more that a large (but not total) part of the problem with US education is that parents don’t support/encourage their kids. At the same time, I am also of the opinion that it serves the “establishment” to have an uneducated population so oversimplifications and obfuscation on the part of politicians can be cast as truth and believed by the populace at large. But I digress.

    We have a border in our home who’s a 28 year old Chinese PhD neuro-biologiost. He seems like a pretty balanced & happy guy. He was cooking his dinner as my wife & I were watching the State of the Union address last night. Obama said something about how our democratic political process worked in order to get things done — and went on to say, attempting to point out that totalitarian regimes don’t have the same situations by saying that there were some countries where if the authorities decided they wanted something done no one could stand in their way. Bo (our border) got a mischievous grin on his face and pointed his finger at himself — as if to say that’s MY government. It was pretty funny.

  7. EverettK Says:

    Sylvia said: How many of the people who are adamant that “the problem is the parents” actually have children?

    [raising hand] Me, for one. Of course, it’s a gross generalization, but true all too often. My wife comes home with story after story of parents blaming the teacher, when the problem is those same PARENTS who consider their children the “gods of the earth,” expect everyone else to treat them as such, and put no pressure on their children to learn, to grow, to become capable, responsible adults. Too many parents today want to be FRIENDS with their children rather than PARENTS (guides, teachers, and yes, sometimes jailers).

    As Lil says, “Balance is the key.” And today, IN GENERAL, far too much parenting is way out of balance. I’m not suggesting every parent should be a “Tiger Mom”, that’s just the other extreme. But we, as a society, certainly need to move back in that direction, in order to find the middle ground.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Good MORNING, class. Did we sleep well?

    Gary, great post, and see Laren’s about his boarder, below. My parents, like yours, were vigorously opposed to bad grades and deeply appreciative of good ones, and it made me stay pretty much on tiptoe throughout secondary school. My parents weren’t Chinese, so I settled on four As and two Bs as the ideal report card because I could accomplish that while sort of fluffing off the “B” classes. Of course, all that went to hell in a handbasket when math or chemistry were the topics, but my parents reconciled themselves to the notion that I was an intermittent dunderhead with plateaus of competence.

    Debbi, that’s THE GREATEST SITE EVER. All of you who want to know one of the main things that’s wrong with our schools — which is to say hapless administrators insisting on the flavor of the hour, go to
    This is written by a teacher who sends his own kids to a charter school because the children in the nearby public elementary are out of control, and you will NOT BELIEVE the idiocy he’s put through even at the charter school. I’ll read this site 3-4 times a week.

    And Everett, absolutely true about the teachers having been deprived of all modes of control over kids like the ones in the elementary mentioned above. My personal feeling is that they should suspend and then fail the little fuckers who are costing everyone else a decent learning experience, but there’s zero chance of that. The “F” is a thing of the past, and that’s sort of tragic. On the other hand, if those kids’ parents were involved in their children’s education/lives, the kids would probably be a lot less disruptive, n’est pas?

    Hi, Lil: the birthday card was a Joan Crawford moment, and one that should never have happened. And I agree with the need to balance accomplishment with enjoyment. The problem is how we’re defining “accomplishment.” Pass the class no matter what; get grades for work you haven’t done; screw around with good teachers by changing the rules all the time; resist all attempts at teacher evaluation because the unions won’t stand for it; promote idiots into administration. Not only are our kids being cheated by this system, they’re also assuming that the entire world works this way. And while that may be the case in Washington and the state capitols, in everyday, down-and-dirty life, you reap what you sow and sooner or later someone asks you to pay in gold. If you haven’t got it, guess what? Nobody’s going to give you a “mercy C.”

    Hi, Sylvia — guilty as charged — I don’t have children. But I had parents, and without their participation in my education, I have absolutely no idea who I would be today. It was worth all the tantrums I threw (poor them), all the bitter complaints about other kids not doing their homework, all the hours with my father trying and failing to teach me (sorry about this) long division. God bless them. And I don’t think this is about faulting the parents of kids at any level; it’s about faulting the parents who don’t lend a hand. Over and over again.

    I love your story, Laren. And by the way, the Chinese educational system, which is essentially an extension of the home educational system, is one reason the Chinese government will soon be selecting the blocks of Manhattan they want in payment for our spiraling debt. They’re turning out administrators, engineers, doctors, educators, and we’re turning out vaguely self-satisfied, less-than-half-educated dummies. Now, let’s see. How come we never hear about that when the political hacks start talking about “American competitiveness?”

  9. Phil Hanson Says:

    “Otherwise, they’re raising a generation of parking-lot attendants and burger flippers.”

    And doorstops. Don’t forget doorstops. (How else you gonna ‘splain “doorstop stupid”?)

    As for the faux self-esteem b.s., any child educated in a system where it’s practiced might as well hang a sign around their neck that reads “Doorstop-stupid and proud of it.”

    Kudos, Tim. Your excellent post cuts right to the heart of one of American society’s most serious shortcomings.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Phil — PLEASE read the site Debbi suggested above. It’ll make you furious and make you laugh at the same time.

  11. Philip Coggan Says:

    So nothing below an A is acceptable? Great for town in which all the children are above average.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yeah, it’s the Lake Woebegon grading curve.

  13. Larissa Says:

    Late to this post but I have to agree that while parents play a key role, there’s only so much they can do-It’s a rather tricky situation because I was a kid that no matter what you told me, no matter how you punished me, I didn’t care. It wasn’t out of spite or hatefulness or even laziness I don’t think, I just didn’t have a reason to really give a damn. I eventually did what I needed to do to stay out of trouble but overall, the only thing that really got me motivated was when I was allowed to go out and try things on my own. I was the typical example of the kid who puts their hand on the stove immediately after being told not to because it’s hot. I had to do it for myself. I used to hate geography. My mother did my homework for me once so I wouldn’t fail the class. Now, I’m a world-travelling fiend who reads historical and non-fiction books about places all the time. I’m fascinated by it. But, in the fourth grade when I was supposed to care and color in my oceans blue and my lands green, I didn’t give a rat’s fink about where Greenland was located…etc. etc.

    I digress-yes, parents need to be involved, and yes they expect too much from the school systems, however, sometimes, no matter how hard you beat your head against the brick wall that is your child, they are just going to have to learn their own way in their own time.

    Now then, I do say with all due respect and chagrined submission, that if my mother hadn’t beat certain things into me over and over again no matter how many times I said I didn’t care or didn’t seem to listen, I would have had ZERO tools when I finally did wake up and become interested in the world around me. So, of course parents matter but don’t assume that because a kid is obstinate and impossible that it’s automatically because of the parent. Sometimes, the kid just isn’t on everyone else’s time line.

    With my luck, I’ll end up raising a brat just like me.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    If you’re lucky is right, Riss — you should hope for a kid as bright as you are.

    Parents’ participation may not work miracles, but their absence makes everything five times as hard for teachers. I think that one of the most important things parents can do is extend into the home the expectation that kids are supposed to learn.

  15. Larissa Says:

    Tim-aw. Thanks. (c: I needed that today actually hehe. It’s been a morning over here already 😀

    Anyway-that is a perfect way of saying it-the expectation that kids are supposed to learn-I had that for sure. I didn’t do anything about it until I was a junior in high school, but it was there, always looming over me.

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