Posted by: Hannah | 01/14/2011

of Chinese mothers & expectations

I wasn’t online much for the last week or so; just got busy and only had time for a quick peek at Facebook plus my customary in-and-out on Twitter.  So I missed the whole Chinese mother controversy until this morning.

(If you haven’t read the original Wall Street Journal piece yet, go ahead.  There is also a defense the author, Amy Chau, posted for herself after 5000+ comments on the original article and 100,000+ comments on WSJ’s Facebook page).

OK.  Now, we’ve all read it, right?

On the face of it, Ms. Chau’s methods sound abusive.  Like, Joan Crawford-level abusive.  *You sit there until you learn that, if you starve to death in the meantime it just means you aren’t trying hard enough, disobedient daughter!!!*  Abusive, and also stereotypical Chinese dragon-lady stuff.  Even though the writing isn’t very strong (it isn’t) it does still create a picture in your mind… although I suspect that’s got more to do with Hollywood and Amy Tan novels than anything else.

I read through the article twice.  I couldn’t imagine WSJ publishing something so inflammatory just to foment five minutes’ worth of controversy.

On second reading, I’m pretty sure Ms. Chau is using a ham-fisted attempt at humour to make her point; namely, that modern Western parents are not expecting enough from their kids.

It’s too bad she went too far with her metaphor (and also too bad that people are immediately willing to believe the stereotypes about scary Chinese mothers) because I think she has a point.

I’m not trying to blow my own horn here, but neither am I going to have any false modesty – my kids are good kids.  Pleasant, generally respectful, well-behaved.  I have no fear taking them to restaurants, or shopping, or museums.  They interact well with others.  Thing #1 is getting a great start in school.  I expect Thing #2 will do as well.  This has not come without effort.  And sometimes, being the parent *does* mean pushing your kids a bit, because Ms. Chau is right – nothing is easy, at first.  Practice and repetition of certain skills is required before you get good enough at something to make it genuinely fun.  Malcolm Gladwell knows this, too; his theory that 10,000 hours of practice are needed to truly excel at any given skill has a lot of validity in my book.

Case in point: learning to read.  Which Thing #1 is doing, at what I think is a great rate.  But I need to be the one who sits him down every night and gets him to practice.  Not for hours and hours as Ms. Chau says in her book; not until he’s in tears but can read War and Peace and give me a synopsis.  But every night.  We also practice when we’re in the car; I get him to read signs while we’re driving.  When we’re shopping, same thing.  Here’s the thing – he wants to be able to read the books he really loves; books like the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, anything by Beverley Cleary.  He’s bored silly with the “look! a helicopter! I see the helicopter!” type stuff he’s getting in school, but he needs to work at it if he’s going to get better.


Thing #1 has a friend at school.  I’ve spoken at length to this kid’s mother, because she gravitates to me at every school event.  She likes my son a lot.  She’s joked about borrowing him on weekends because her son behaves better when they’re together.  She and her husband have admitted to me that they think they’ve done their kids and themselves a disservice, because they don’t often leave the house to do things as a family for fear of how it might upset the children.  And I’m not talking major epic outings here, I mean going to a movie or for a walk in the woods.  Neither of their children have any kind of developmental issues; they’re just normal kids who think the world begins  & ends in their playroom.

I find that sad.

They believe that their son is incapable of behaving politely in public, so they never give him the opportunity to practice.  When circumstances force them to take him out somewhere, he lives up to their low expectations by having a total meltdown.  The idea that can’t behave is reinforced, he feels bad because he knows his parents are upset, they feel bad, and everyone goes home.

I’ve had so many people ask me for parenting advice.  I really have!  (God, I sound so obnoxious right now.  But it’s true.)  And I always say it boils down to expectations.  You set the level of expectation, you give the children the tools and support to meet those expectations, and voila!

I *think* that’s what Ms. Chau was trying to say.  Too often we as parents (and teachers, and coaches) have bought into this whole “everybody is special” thing.  We don’t hold kids back a grade in school anymore, because it might damage their self-esteem.  So we move them from the second grade to the third grade even though they don’t know enough of the material yet, and they start the third grade behind, but we move them on to the fourth grade anyway and… yeah.

We celebrate mediocrity under the guise of building up self-esteem through praise and encouragement.  But the best way to help our kids feel good about themselves is to help them set goals and achieve them.  After all, don’t we feel satisfaction when we succeed at something difficult, or challenging?  Why should it be any different for them?



  1. I agree that there are elements of humour and hyperbole in Chau’s article that I certainly wasn’t prepared for based on some of the dead-serious responses I’d read to it. (On the other hand, a few bloggers yesterday posted some incredibly funny responses, which offer much the same critique, but in a way that is much less earnest and humourless.)

    I don’t think that Chau was really giving parenting advice at all. I think her point was cultural – it was an exercise in showing how what counts as good parenting (and even mandatory parenting) in one culture can look like bad parenting in another. If we’re offended by her parenting style and write earnest articles about how she’s abusing her daughters, we’re really just making her point for her.

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