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Berating Your Children Into "Greatness" (Now With Stereotypes)

Mother, professor and Chinese American lady Amy Chua wrote a crazy piece for the Wall Street Journal where she seemed to have confused being a strict parent with being a control freak, then wrapped it in a pretty bow of "stereotype" declaring that it was common place for many Chinese mothers to make their 7-year-old practice piano for three hours at a time whether they had an interest in it or not.

In the piece she posits Chinese people are able to produce amazingly successful children by essentially beating the greatness into them through guilt and shame and telling them they are fat and worthless unless they do this one thing exactly the way mommy wants.

So, you know. It's a comedy.

More after the jump.

From The Wall Street Journal:

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 unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers 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.)

Oh. So a two-person study on being called "garbage" by your parent versus feeling like "garbage" due to self-esteem issues? SO IT MUST BE TRUE!

What she's really describing is how some people, regardless of Asian-ness or recent immigrant status, push their kids to succeed with varying results of success. Some of these parenting decisions have cultural roots and some of it is just doing what was done to you. (In Chua's case, her mother was strict and forceful and she felt this contributed to her success in life, hence she decided to call her daughter "garbage" when she's disappointed as her mother did to her.) To make her case though she has to paint both Chinese people and "Westerners" in broad brush strokes, neither of which tell the complete story of how difficult it is to make the "right" decision in how to raise your kids.

Of course you know all the awesome stories of Asian American kids with domineering parents who got into MIT and became doctors or whatever and went on to lead fantastic lives. No one wants to talk about the OTHER Asian American kids who, you know, grow up to be emotionally stunted and neurotic, or grow up to rebel against their parents, or who hate themselves and have emotional issues, or move as far away as possible and refuse to have anything to do with their parents. Because, um, that happens too.

Being a ... ahem ... "tiger mother" (*rolls eyes at continued exoticism of Asian people done by Asian person*), does not guarantee 100 percent perfect child results. Even the scene where she describes having a complete break down with her daugher and spending hours screaming at her to perfect a basic piano lesson, seems a little odd in the sense that she had a complete break down over a 7-year-old's piano lesson. Not over, say, the kid actually doing something bad or something could potentially harm herself or her family or for the kid being needlessly disrespectful. It was like reading about someone bullying someone for three hours then becoming shocked, SHOCKED, when the person they bullied finally snapped and ripped up their piano lesson. It was like she just wanted to fight with that kid about something. Didn't really matter what.

But, you know, she eventually played that piece perfectly, so ... it was worth it, right? Is she a famous concert pianist yet, selling out stadiums?

For every kid who does well in this environment there's a story of a kid who said "Screw this," and goes off to pursue the opposite of doctor/engineer. Like actor or porn star.

My parents, who are not Chinese, were pretty strict. So I could actually relate to a few things in Chua's piece. My sisters and I were also not allowed to go to sleep overs, could not date, and were encouraged to play a musical instrument (in our case, the piano which myself and my eldest sister started playing around kindergarten/first grade and played well into high school). We were also expected to get good grades, preferably As, to the point where all three of us felt we would be in trouble if we didn't excel.

The main difference, though, in Chua's stereotype-bonanza parenting lesson was that my mother is extremely affectionate and when she saw that any of us had a gift she encouraged us to pursue it rather than picking something she thought was nice and imposing it on us. Like, my youngest sister hated the piano. My mother tried to get her to play it for a brief time, but then, upon realizing Deidre had absolutely no interest in it, she dropped it and allowed her to later focus on dance, something she truly did love. This, though, did not change my sister's perfectionist mindset. My youngest sister still puts a lot of pressure on herself to be the best at whatever she does. She's just not going to waste a lot of time on something she doesn't like or care about, like piano. But she understood that math and English were important and understood that school and work were important and worked dilligently in these areas. In the end, my parents cared about grades and getting through college. Piano was something "nice." As in, "wouldn't it be nice for the girls to play piano?" But it wasn't a do or die situation like passing our advance placement classes or getting into a four-year college.

My parents usually understood that the three of us were very different, but the expectation was always that we should do well in school, that school was our only job and that we should go to college. There was never any real debate about this. But to make it seem like it's not love if you don't call your kid fat seems quite short-sighted. Because if insulting, berating and belittling your kids meant greatness, I know a lot of kids who got this treatment, but aren't running Fortune 500 companies or acting as chief of surgery at private hospitals. Quite a few of my peers who were still getting corporal punishment well into their teen years, who weren't allowed to go to any dances or socialize and were regularly insulted by their parents, to their face, in front of their friends, did not grow up to be come concert pianists, or doctors, or engineers. A lot of them, quite frankly, maybe made it to college, got a whiff of freedom and briefly lost their minds. Some got pregnant (or got someone pregnant) or took the first opportunity they could get to get out of the house no matter what that opportunity was. Some recovered from years of anger, disappointment and self-doubt and went on to do quite well. Other's never did. Some have good relationships with their parents. Some pretty much don't speak to their parents at all.

I know a lot of people think they have the key to raising the perfect child and like to Monday morning quarterback other people's parenting decisions like Chua is doing in trying to justify her decisions and how "the ends justify the means." She loves her kids, obviously. But some of her "tactics" sound more like wealthy privilege wrapped up in ethnic stereoytping to avoid the label of what would be called Joe Jackson-esque "child abuse" if she had a few less degrees and lived in a less posh neighborhood.

It's also true, some parents are more concerned with self-esteem than results and end up raising spoiled, indulgent, layabouts. But how children turn out, even if both parents are great parents, is pretty much a crap shoot. Sometimes you can do all the right things and still wind up with a tortured, problematic child. After all, I was a straight A student, well-behaved, bright and polite with two great, strict parents and I still ended up marrying the first guy who ever paid attention to me (then shortly divorcing him), then fighting a seven year scary battle with bipolar disorder that left me broke and nearly killed me.

I don't think that could have been avoided with just a little more "Chinese mother" yelling. But I guess they could have tried.

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Reader Comments (69)

Oh this woman is a monster, there is no caveat to excuse it. She is a child abuser, there is no call to bawling AT your children. If she were black you can just imagine the slew of articles that would pop up on the web and in the papers. Race aside thought, she has no love or tenderness in her heart. If she just let her child be, maybe the child could be trusted to work. I'm sorry this answers is so inarticulate but she is a bitch.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlouise

Dead on! A much more refreshing and analytical post that some others I've read. For goodness sakes, some of them were actually believing the garbage and responding back, as if Chinese mothers were "really" like this. There are tons of factors that play into it - like trying to adjust to a new country and taking things too far when you want your kids to be great in a society that only sees them as this or that. As stated, that is NOT only the Chinese mum. She used too wide of a brush for my liking, and that needed to be questioned. Stereotypes repeated by the group member doesn't validate it or make it un-stereotype itself.


January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKandeezie

...and did she ever stop to think her parents were abusive? Duh! Go to therapy!

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKandeezie

I've seen this article pop up in a few places and every time it makes me rage a little. This isn't strict parenting, it's borderline child abuse.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrunettefury

the above responses highlight obvious differences in culture between american and asian parents.

could this be one possible reason why asian and asian american children are beating everyone else when it comes to academics? who knows.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLOL

Hmmm. well the thing is, this is very popular in eastern Asian countries---Japan, Korea (ESPECIALLY), china, etc.

I just spent 4 months in an academic setting in Korea and most if not all the students (graduate engineering students) talked about how hard their parents pushed them. It sounded like abuse to me, but across a whole nation? It has to be cultural. My husband came to visit me and it took him 1 weeks to comment on the number of times he saw a Korean mom tap her kid on the head and say fool (obviously in the native tongue). He thought it was hilarious because it didn't look abusive and to do that in the States would get you ugly one blinks an eye at this in Korea. The way their children are made to succeed is largely due to embarrassment cause by the parents.

I'm not saying it's not abuse, I'm just saying the author (while her article may be slightly flawed) is not completely wrong. This is a big part of Asian culture and it is why a lot of the people I worked with tried so hard. Fear of failure and shame of the family.

Stereotype or not. Educationally most Asian countries are light years ahead of us and most of that is because of fear of familial shame that has been driven into the kids.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterreader1

First, let me say this, I come into contact every day with the asian students that are not talked about. Cultural responsibilities and Community pressures that are demeaning and demanding cause all of these students to be distraught and troubled.

Second, I was like your friends that you talked about who got their first taste of freedom and went insane. Years later, the way I was raised affects me. I was the only girl and my father had been a womanizer so he was very insistent on me being pretty much on lockdown. Today, I am successful and whatnot but my relationship with my parents is always up and down. I do not believe in many of the ways that I was raised and I certainly don't go for anything this chick is saying.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstudpoet

"But how children turn out, even if both parents are great parents, is pretty much a crap shoot".

Very true.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermsbianca2

I would hesitate to denigrate other peoples culture or way of life. It's not my place and it's myopic to judge things stticly from my own 'westernised' background. Ultimately stats will eventually speak for themselves. The day we start to see significant and widespread pathology in Asians - by pathology I mean crime rate and incaceration, mental illness, career failure, heck even marriage failures and so forth- thats the day people can decide to dissect their way of life. Please don't be the stereotypical 'all knowing' American so detested by half the world. Y'know, the type who think they have the answers to 'all these people's' problems and whats more are determined to tell them.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLili

Parenting definitely is a crapshoot as Snob pointed out. And usually the only model that parents have to follow is how THEY were parented. I remember childhood unpleasantries that I endured from my mother. And I remember thinking that when I grew up and had children I would NOT say or do the same things to them. Now that I have my own child, I do my absolute best to be the best mother I can be to him. But, there are times where I have to stop and say "Dang! I'm turning into my mother!" because I find myself saying and doing some of the same things to my child that I swore I wouldn't say or do. It happens unconciously, so it takes a concious effort on my part to "do better." The good part is that I WANT to do better and I put in the work to make it happen.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMommieDearest

No one has mentioned the incredibly high suicide rate among Asian American females.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthelady

^^^^^ exactly

which is a potentially a result of this type of parenting.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLOL

there's a big difference between encourage and force.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterword

Hey Fattie...Lost Some Weight.......SEE ( Ber

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGODSGIRLGODSWAY

Just had some more to say after reading the comments:

My issue with Chua is that she paints all Asian people, particularly Chinese people, in a broad brush assuming that 100 percent of Chinese parents produce smart, well-mannered, successful children. But the actual country of China is not full of 1 billion scientists, engineers, doctors and concert pianists. A majority of Chinese people are poor or working class, under-educated and live in rural areas. Many end up working for low wages in factories with horrible conditions so we can buy crap for pretty cheap in Wal-Mart.

Some Chinese people are middle class or better and are very successful. Many are not. Many Chinese people go into athletics and acting and things that are not math or science. This makes sense considering every parent is different and every child is different and even if shame is a bigger issue in your culture than in others, again, this does not mean one parenting style is better than another. Chinese people deal with poverty, crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, spousal abuse, suicide and mental illness like everyone else. There is no "right" or more successful way to parent your child. What Chua is talking about is the common phenomenon where some of the most motivated people in the world leave the only country they've ever known to forge a new life in another country. And since they pretty much sacrificed everything to get to this new country they're not exactly going to sit on their ass and twiddle their thumbs. They want success and they, and their children, are going to be extra motivated. But you can't compare the type of motivation with being a new immigrant or second generation Chinese in the United States with all Chinese people everywhere. Let alone all Chinese people in China. All Chinese people in China are not successful. Regardless of societal and cultural differences in child-rearing.

I repeat. Crap shoot.

Assuming that all Chinese people produce robot perfect children and do not have issues with education or crime is the same fallacy of logic that concludes that all American children are self-indulgent, violent and lazy or that all Americans are obsessed with status and money and have sexually loose morals. SOME people do these things, hence why there's the stereotype. In some cases, the culture actively projects and endorses the stereotype if it's seen as positive (like if you watch American television you would assume we were all upper middle class, white and sexing each other up all the time). But, as you know, most Americans are not those things.

Most Chinese people, regardless of how strict or not strict a parent they are, do not by default produce genius piano playing babies. Even in a culture that is heavy on shame. They are just people, possessing all the flaws and problems that come with being human. People who happen to be Chinese.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Belton

Interesting enough African (immigrants) have more diplomas that any of other ethnic groups in the US or UK but yet Asians are always perceived as the model minority.

So may I say, the mother is buying into their ( Asians) own hype.

Also if you come from a poorer country, you are more likely to push your to push your kids to do the better as you want them to have a better life than you.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNubiah

I finally printed out the WSJ piece and read it on the subway coming home from work. I must have shocked the white dude sitting beside me when I muttered, "what the F@#k?"

As the above commenters mention, there are so many wrongs with this woman. I wonder if there is a bit of fear in her writing; if she actually has an inferiority complex, which is why she posits Asian children as being more superior than "westerners?" Is she afraid that the public will somehow downplay her half-Asian children? What did she experience as a child?

In the piece, she backtracks the offensive title by saying that "Chinese mothers" can essentially be from a number of non-westernized backgrounds - her bigotry is not racial; it's cultural, I guess. However, I think that the piece ( and probably the book) is positioned to make other non "Chinese" parents feel inferior to her way of thinking....which I agree with the above commenters, is abusive. And I must add that her husband sounds like a useless douche who should have taken a harder stance with the writer when she was threatening her daughter because she couldn't play that piano part. WTF?

I think that this book will say more about the emotional state of the writer and maybe the isolation she felt having abusive parents as a kid - it obviously stunted her emotional growth. It's hard for first-generation North Americans - I get that. But your child getting A's and going to graduate school seems more to quell the frustration felt by the parents moving to a new country and probably dealing with a whole lot of inequality, than the kids living a happy, successful life. Her husband was right - The kids didn't ask to be here. Too bad she ignored him.

I also wanted to add that she mentioned that the verbal bullying would actually promote strength in kids. Interesting. For black kids, especially girls, being "strong" is seen as a detriment, not a positive.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLainad

Great post and follow-up.
Here’s my three cents…
First, as another poster stated this is only one mother out of millions. She can’t speak for all Asian mothers, just as I can not speak all for black women who do not have children. She verbally abuses her child and blames it on her culture. I guess that’s an issue for her daughter and her daughter’s future therapist. (Seriously, I challenge to you use public transportation in any metro area in the US and record the number of time you hear young parents (mostly black) berate their little one. Do we even think constantly criticizing a child will contribute to a formula for future success in life? Have ever worked on a team with someone Asian or whatever raised in that environment.)
Second, I have a question for the poster who stated that Asian students are beating American students. By what measure? Are you measuring proficiency by standardized test? Doesn’t that metric just show that students are well-trained test takers? Also, who is taking the test? Isn’t one of the criticisms comparing different groups in different countries is that you are comparing the average elite Asian student to average American students, without correcting for tracking into certain programs. If I’m not mistaken, most countries begin tracking as earlier as the American equivalent of middle school (Oh, it must suck to be a late bloomer in Japan, Korea or China).
Finally, I had a manager from India tell me something very interesting about her country. Mind you, I learned to take everything she said with a grain of salt as she felt it was important to tout the virtues of assimilation (Yes, she was the Indian equivalent of a skinning, grinning Tom). And I suppose she said this through the filter of someone who never questioned British colonization or the long term implications of occupation. She said that Indians can replicate anything in an efficient manner but never come up with anything original. Her self-hatred aside, I wonder if there is any truth to that statement and I wonder how creativity and originality factor into the educational debate. Seriously, what visionaries are emerging from the Asian educational systems?      

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM

it's illogical to assume that since chua is writing an article based on trends and results, that she is talking about 100 percent. no, she's not. of course, 100 percent of chinese people aren't college educated. she never stated, you just read into it what you wanted. anyone with half a brain would be able to glean that from the article. there's no such thing as a concrete, fool proof way that guarantees results. there are just trends and statistics.

but the fact of the matter is that asian and asian american children are beating everyone else when it comes to academics. is it due to tougher parents? is it due to an innate drive to succeed? is it due to a higher natural intelligence? who knows. but those are the facts.

@ nubiah

48.9% of african immigrants have college degrees. 48.6% of asian people (native born and immigrants) have college degrees. 17.3% of blacks (immigrant and native born) have college degrees. so when you compare apples to apples, 48.6% is higher than 17.3%. i wonder where that model minority myth comes from.

when it comes to scoring on standardized testing in math, asian nations litter the top 10. which does not have one african nation. so really, who is buying their own hype?

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterword

@ M

yes, it is standardized test.

whatever the reasoning is, the results are the results. read into them what you will. unless you just automatically think that whoever is compiling the data has no idea what they're doing.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLOL

Well said, Danielle. As a result of this sort of parenting (not Chinese, though), sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn't. I and two of my siblings are all doctors and lawyers and one of my sisters is a college drop out with two kids out of wedlock with a baby daddy who is just soaking up all of her youth like a sponge. All of us suffer from anxiety and/or depression issues, and one of us is bipolar. I daresay the anxiety and depression are from never being good enough in our father's eyes.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I think this is what's wrong with the educational debate. Finland has the top ranged school system in the world and they don't use standardized tests at all. Yet we are relying on just one measure to determine how our children are doing. Improving standardized test scores will not make kids in the US competitive or better educated.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM

Another thing ...

It's important to make a distinction between immigrants, students in different countries and American student test scores. The US tests everyone regardless of socio-economic status. The Chinese test scores widely publicized came from only the major cities, like Shanghai, not the rural areas. And, overall, the children of immigrantrs in the US perform better than their American peers and this has largely been attributed to the fact that the US often attracts the most motivated and spometimes most educated and successful immigrants. Many immigrants give up a lot to move here with the intention of giving their kid better opportunities. To them, failure is not an option as they sacrificed so much. If you're a long time citizen of the US your not going to feel the same kind of pressure. At least not the "my parents gave up the only home and culture they ever knew so I could be a doctor" pressure many children of immigrants feel.

My point was that there is no superior way of going about this, as Chua was trying to suggest and talking in stereotypes dehumanizes those who do not fit them. There are logical reasons for why test scores look the way they do that do not point to another culture being superior over another.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Belton

this is true, i had asian 'like' parents went to 'prep' schools the nine, i busted my tail to try to get ahead,when i went to study at Oxford for a program on Oxford University's campus and realised they still were not happy with stuff i did and complained'. i gave up and said yal trippin., the only reason i didn't completely become a bum and homeless was because i care about them, but currently, i am now unemployed...and So she's right. It can work for a while but when ppl get hip to the fact it's about them and not necessarily you...well...have you seen akilah and the bee. i rest my case.

I do think tho that the name calling effects white kids more than other. i was called names, and i mean it just made me want to prove ppl wrong. not think i was garbage, but to much of that stuff makes ppl go off the deep. just my opinion.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermeme

And....i think i was the only blk kid at suzuki camp, while all my friends were at a cookout, i was playing twinkle twinkle little star with all the chiness kids(one jewish and one indian girl) at camp. My violin is now in the attic with webs. I think with blk folks you catch more bees with honey, just my opinion. thnks.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermeme
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