Lessons from 'Chinese Parenting': Do You Have to Be Strict to Get Your Kids to Succeed?

At school pickup yesterday, some of my mom-friends were going off on a recent Wall Street Journal article comparing “Western” parenting to the “Chinese” approach. Anxious to see what I was obviously doing wrong and they were doing right, I ran home and googled it. Written by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor and author -- who also appeared on Today this morning -- the article is titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," and reading it made me incredibly sad and depressed. Not for my own destined-to-be-average kids, but for their perfectly-behaved, scholarship-winning, violin-playing-prodigy Chinese peers.

Chua is unapologetic when she describes the austere Chinese mother-culture (no sleepovers, no TV, no computer games, no being in the school play and no complaining about any of it... and oh yeah, you’d better be top of your class). In fact, she maintains that calling your kids fat, lazy or worthless isn’t insulting -- it’s motivating. Chua clearly believes that American parents worry too much about our children’s feelings, and allow them to fall far short of their potential by not demanding excellence and perfection in every single thing they do. 

“What Chinese parents understand,” writes Chua  (after offering an up-front disclaimer that she uses terms like “Chinese” and “Western” loosely), “is that nothing is fun until you are good at it.” Which is an excellent point and I couldn’t agree with it more. However she goes on to explain how Chinese parents will basically torture their kids into studying or practicing a musical piece on empty stomachs and with bleeding fingers until they get the A or master the song or achieve whatever it is mom and dad expect. (OK, she doesn’t say the part about bleeding fingers, but you get the feeling she’d approve.) The message: Our kids are capable of greatness, but only if we parents are willing to spare no expense or effort to drag that greatness out of them. (And then we get to congratulate ourselves on how all of our sacrificing has paid off and we get to have perfect kids. Score!)

I would never deny that many Americans (and like Chua, I use the term loosely here) overindulge their kids. We let them tell us what activities they want to participate in and what they want for dinner. We coddle them, spoil them and make excuses for their (often ghastly) behavior. And unlike our own “Western” forebears just a generation or two ago, many times we don’t even demand basic respect from them -- much less excellence.

Maybe I’m just lazy, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised to believe that grades mattered all that much. (The funny part is, I got straight A’s -- but nobody cared.) Maybe I’ve been brainwashed into believing that calling any child stupid or disgraceful might cause him or her irreparable harm (and also would be just a crappy, unnecessary thing to do). Or maybe I foolishly believe that -- since I’m the one who decided to bring my children into this world, a decision they had very little say in -- I owe them more than they owe me. All I know is that if loving my own less-exacting parenting style (and striving to raise kids who are happy and whole -- and not necessarily the very best at everything they do) is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Do you think kids need to be pushed in order to succeed? Chime in below!

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