Society

Tiger mums

Do Chinese mothers nurture smarter kids?

Great at raising kids: Chua

Until two weeks ago, Amy Chua was best known as a Yale law professor with a focus on globalisation. Then her essay ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’ was published in the Wall Street Journal making her the most talked-about – and most criticised mother – of the moment.

In her article Chua, 48, discusses her approach to child-rearing – the same way her Chinese-immigrant parents raised her. Her daughters, Lulu and Sophia, she writes, have never been allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the top student in every subject except gym and drama, or play any instrument other than the piano or violin.

More than a million people have read Chua’s story online, more than 5,000 have commented on the newspaper website. Though her two girls, now teenagers, were standouts academically and musically, Chua’s authoritarian tactics angered countless readers, with many outraged parents calling the Ivy league academic an “abusive monster”. Chua told the New York Times that she has received “hundreds of emails,” as well as death threats.

Chua’s article is controversial for a slew of reasons. But Tom Yam, a Hong Kong-based management consultant, told the South China Morning Post that he believes the controversy has been heightend because it comes at a time when many Americans are also worried about China’s economic ascendency – and likewise the decline of US influence abroad and the disproportionate number of Chinese students winning places in America’s elite colleges today.

Worse, in December students in Shanghai outscored international competitors in reading as well as in maths and science, according to the results of the widely respected Programme for International Student Assessment tests, which measures learning by 15 year-olds in 65 countries (America’s 15 year-olds ranked 14th in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th in math). The Shanghai kids came top in all three (see WiC89). So perhaps subliminally, Chua has tapped into insecurities about how to make American children (and the country) thrive in this global, competitive age?

Maybe just as interesting: how was the article received in China itself? Intuitively, Chua’s ideas should find supporters. Confucian cultural roots place great emphasis on education and the nation’s parents, on the whole, are aggressively attentive to their children’s education (even lavishing gifts on teachers to encourage them to better educate their offspring, see WiC78).

But Americans aren’t the only ones awash in self-doubt about how to raise their children. Today’s Chinese parents are also full of insecurities, says Guangzhou Daily. Most Chinese parents – the bulk have only one offspring – want their children to succeed, but not at all costs. Chinese parents, especially those in the middle class, are increasingly concerned about their children’s emotional health and happiness.

Bestselling books on parenting in China these days encourage parents to nurture their offspring’s independence and confidence, as opposed to focusing exclusively on high academic achievement. A few examples: A Good Mom Is Better Than a Good Teacher and and My Kid Is a Medium-Ranking Student.

Meanwhile, the country’s internet users weren’t huge fans of the extreme Chinese parenting strategies Chua advocates in her article either. Many say “Tiger mums” – Chinese mothers, as Chua calls them – are the reason why China has only been producing mid-level accountants, computer programmers and technocrats and not innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

One netizen commented on the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese site: “Chinese parents adopt slave society attitudes and make their children into slaves. Parents are a child’s first teachers, and ideally act as teachers throughout their children’s lives, but you have to be careful not to be a negative influence on their development or a leech on them. Classic Chinese parents and classic Western parents both go to extremes. The best would be to find an East-West middle ground.”

“It’s exactly because of this BS style of education that China still has a feudal-slave culture…That’s what distinguishes Chinese people, absolutely no creativity,” was another comment .

But at least one netizen on Netease detects a different motive: “Chua’s teaching methods are so extreme I can’t figure out if she’s really stubborn, or just trying to screw with the foreigners.”

Meanwhile, Chua finally spoke up. In an interview last week with the San Francisco Chronicle, she claims that the Wall Street Journal piece – an excerpt from her latest book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – misrepresented her views. The article “had been edited without her input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it,” she says.

The book, Chua says, is in fact a memoir about her journey as a mother and her doubts about “Chinese parenting”. The cruelty that some readers found in the Wall Street Journal article is present in the longer text, but it is also counterbalanced she says with her reflections of their efficacy, and the damage that was being done to her relationship with her daughters.

But then again, there is no such thing as bad publicity. The book is now the number four bestseller on Amazon.com.


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