American versus Chinese parenting: What we sow, and what we raise

Recently, the Wall Street Journal carried an excerpt from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin, $25.95), a sort of cultural memoir written by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, who put forth “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” Reactions from Western parents, particularly mothers, ranged from thoughtfulness to mild hysteria. Chua’s emphatic endorsement of what might be called the Way of the Dragon Mother was seen by some as an unsubtle critique of both their parenting choices and their intentions. 

Writes Chua: “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. […] 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.” 

Chua does have a point. In America we have allowed genuine excellence to be sacrificed upon the altar of our children’s self-esteem, and our barely earned praise has become a kind of cheap grace. In our schools, every test gets a star, every assembly gets a “participation certificate” and every sporting try gets a trophy. Often children do begin to realize that when everything they do is overpraised, their specialness has been undervalued through condescension. That, in turn, reveals the flimsy foundation upon which their self-esteem has been so carefully built. Such a realization can be shattering.

Tough love 

Still, to Western sensibilities, Chua’s methods can seem extreme. Chua relates being called “garbage” by her father, noting it inspired her to work harder and never made his love feel out-of-reach. Relating at a party that she had replicated his method on one of her extremely successful daughters, Chua found herself immediately ostracized, and also the cause of some Western High Drama, as one party guest “broke down in tears and had to leave early.” 

That response forces the question: Have Americans become such hypersensitive violets that they cannot bear a bracing wind? 

Six years ago, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of female scientists at elite universities could partly be attributed to “innate” differences between men and women. His remark caused a female biologist from MIT to dramatically depart the meeting in a near swoon. 

Perhaps some of this is a reflection of cultural differences that seem sharp-edged in the first throes of immigration, but eventually dull. My mother, born of an impoverished, knock-about family of Irish immigrants, seemed to believe that raising her children with a psychic callus would serve them well in the world, and so she dished out the criticisms along with the boiled potatoes. Being the stumpy member of my otherwise-tall family, I never did understand what was particularly funny about being referred to as “the after-birth,” but, on the other hand, I have never had to exit a gathering of people because someone’s perspective gave me a case of the vapors. My husband had parents who demanded excellence — “no B’s; you can get A’s” — and he has not only excelled his whole life, but the discipline and leadership culled from their regime has allowed him to help nearly 20 boys become Eagle Scouts, including his own sons. Still, neither he nor I would feel comfortable calling our sons by rough names, or banging a textbook upon their heads. 

What we sow 

But there must be some happy medium between making extreme demands of our children and being too afraid to demand anything at all. The recently released book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” has made the case that our students are not developing critical-thinking skills, and that their learning seems more centered on how to “get by and get through” than a genuine pursuit of excellence. The book may serve to bolster Chua’s assertion that by not allowing our children to struggle, and not demanding persistent hard work from them, we have dulled their curiosity or the sense of competitiveness in a way that, Chua suggests, will deprive our children from reaching their full potentials. 

This conversation will doubtless continue. But readingChua’s description of her Chinese methods versus Western ideas on child-rearing and challenges, a line from Scripture seems worth pondering: “Weakness is sown; strength rises up” (1 Cor 15:43). 

Elizabeth Scalia is the managing editor of the Catholic portal at Patheos.com and a columnist for First Things.