Thoughts on Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

Last week, WSJ blogger Amy Chua posted a controversial post titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html), supposedly an excerpt from a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

I read it with a smile on my face.  Some of the things she wrote is true about some Chinese parent’s attitudes to education and parenting but they are sweeping generalisations.  In my own experience, I’m an Australian Born Chinese (ABC).  Also known as banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).  My parents were strict, but not that strict.  But still I can definitely relate to being scared bringing my school report home from school, being encouraged to do more homework than prescribed, I did learn the violin and piano and my extra-curricular activities was basically only music related.  But I was allowed to watch TV, go in school plays, play computer games, etc.

Amy’s post has caused an “uproar” in some areas of the blogging community for all sorts of reasons and I read many of the thoughtful responses over the weekend.

I really don’t know where to start but firstly, I feel sorry for her kids.  Instead of the selfish and conceited title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior“, maybe the post should be titled “Why Chinese children don’t have as much fun“.  Now that I’ve done my high school, university and have worked for many years, I wonder whether it’s actually worth it.  For example, what’s the point of scoring 100% if you only need 80% to get into the course you want?  Once you’re in the workforce, no-one really cares what you scored for what test, how highly placed you were at High School or University.  True there is a certain level of scores that you may need to progress to the next step or open up more opportunities, but come on..   A instead of an A+?  Taking a few more months to learn The Little White Donkey?

Perhaps these “Chinese children” could do extra-curricular activities that they want, study a bit less, have friends over, watch some TV each week, have more a more fun and varied childhood, yet still get into the course they want if that’s the ultimate goal?  I guess a cynic could read the article and think, wow, Chinese kids must be pretty dumb if they need so much tuition!  And in the end they still get the same jobs as caucasians. 

Yes I’ve been westernised having been born and brought up in Australia (a second gen Chinese Australian), but to me, happiness, self discipline, self responsibility, learning consequences from your own decisions and actions is more important that an extra percent mark on a test.  

Yes I see the value in teaching your kids not to give up if things get hard, that they have the potential to achieve greatly if you put in the effort (10,000 hours?), but is it worth the expense of other facets of a once in a lifetime childhood?  Life and time is precious.  There are things that one would only experience or do as a child in school.

Unfortunately Amy doesn’t touch on the point that I suspect sometimes some Chinese parents are doing this for themselves.  It can sometimes be a sort of “show”, upholding their parents pride or face.  So you can boast that your child learnt Whizzbang Etude No. 2 at the age of 3 with their right hand only and can play it blindfolded backwards.  Or disgrace to your entire family name if you took 1 year to learn The Little White Donkey instead of your cousin who took only 2 weeks.   Maybe this is related to the piano and violin thing.   What’s the point in saying your daughter/son can play all of John Coltrane’s sax solos at the 7 if all your Chinese parent friends only measure success by violin and piano Suzuki book numbers.   Perhaps it’s some in built genetic self preservation mechanism – that if their kids do well, they’ll be successful, earn lots of money, and thus have the money to be able to look after the parents when they’re older.   And what with being number 1?  By definition, there can ONLY BE ONE PERSON at the number 1 position.   What about everyone else in the class/school/country/world?  Are they failures?   Shouldn’t you be happy if your child genuinely tried their hardest?

Now that I’m in the workforce, I’ve learnt that academic scores, although impressive, is not really useful if you don’t have strong people, social or communication skills, haven’t had varied life experiences, don’t take pride in personal presentation, haven’t contributed to the local community or  had team building and leadership experiences, through sports or clubs.  I think these things make a much more well rounded human than one who just did rote learning for hours on end, who is scared to score an A instead of A+ in every maths test, who is brought up with the mantra that they have failed if they’re not the top of the class or was forced to learn an instrument that they didn’t want to.  How about your child trying hard and doing the best they can and if they do, you being proud of that?

One of the things that the post raises that frustrates me is the attitude towards music.  Yes, Chinese children may be forced to learn the violin and piano, but when it comes to university/college, often they are strongly DISCOURAGED from taking up music as a profession.  You must be a doctor or lawyer instead right?   Many end up dropping their musical instrument altogether, perhaps suggesting that it was forced upon them instead of playing for the love of it – perhaps even psychologically ruining their attitude towards music later in life.   And I also hear some rare stories of people who have done the medical, law thing but then after a few years, given it up to do music instead.  If “Chinese mothers” are investing so much of their time and effort into their children to learn a musical instrument, and their children are good at it, then shouldn’t they encourage them to follow through with this into their adult lives?

And the other thing I’m frustrated about – as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I’m seeing younger and younger kids nowadays play musical repetoire that is YEARS beyond their emotional maturity.  Should a 7 year old even be playing The Little White Donkey?  A talented pianist might be able to play the notes, but are they actually making music?  Does it matter if a 5 year old can play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto like a robot with no genuine feeling of love, romance, longing?

As some other blogs have said, this is a complex issue and everyone’s got their own thoughts.  If anything, this has made people reflect on their own parenting styles and how much influence their heritage/ancestry/own upbringing has played on their parenting style.   Also, many of the things Amy raises is not specific to just Chinese parents either.   There’s no doubt that Amy Chua loves her children.  Everyone has different ways of showing love, and ultimately, as long as her children realise that what she is doing is because that’s the way she’s choosing to show her love and dedication, then all is OK right?

The sad thing is that I’ve read that Amy Chua didn’t have any say into the WSJ piece, and that it’s an edited piece of various parts of her book, which coincidentally has launched into the Top 10.   Is this all just a marketing ploy to generate interest in the book?  Have we been sucked in?

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”

  1. Gosh, I came across your blog by chance as I was browsing local food pictures for a document i was preparing. Came across your comment on Changi airport staff canteen. Am from Singapore but was studying in Perth for 6 years long time back. I just read your blog on chinese parenting and I cannot stop smiling as it is a constant struggle I go through, being a parent who wants a childhood for my 3 kids and yet they must at least hit the minimum to get to the class they aimed to be at. It just hit the chord right THERE! I do not mingle with most parents as they do freak me out with their comparison of school grades and how many CCAs they attend out there. Another fave was your cafe/ coffee blog where I can totally relate to. I am a mach lover and frequent cafes when I was studying. I miss that totally! The cafe culture here in Singapore is just so different. Am not into the chain groups like the usual starbucks, CBTL stuff. Ah. Reading your posts should give me some adrenalin from here on.

    Keep posting!

    1. Sabrina – thanks for the message and thanks for subscribing. I hope you find some entertainment and food for thought on my blog!

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