THE SATURDAY ESSAY : Why Chinese Mothers are Superior
JANUARY 8, 2011
Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By AMY CHUA
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being 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 No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.
All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job." Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
When it comes to parenting, the Chinese seem to produce children who display academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success - or so the stereotype goes. WSJ's Christina Tsuei speaks to two moms raised by Chinese immigrants who share what it was like growing up and how they hope to raise their children.
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
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.)
Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
I've thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets.
First, I've noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.
For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child "stupid," "worthless" or "a disgrace." Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child's grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher's credentials.
If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)
Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. "Children don't choose their parents," he once said to me. "They don't even choose to be born. It's parents who foist life on their kids, so it's the parents' responsibility to provide for them. Kids don't owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids." This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Chinese parents don't care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It's just an entirely different parenting model.
Here's a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it's also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.
Lulu couldn't do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off.
"Get back to the piano now," I ordered.
"You can't make me."
"Oh yes, I can."
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?
"You just don't believe in her," I accused.
"That's ridiculous," Jed said scornfully. "Of course I do."
"Sophia could play the piece when she was this age."
"But Lulu and Sophia are different people," Jed pointed out.
"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
"Mommy, look—it's easy!" After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn't leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. When she performed "The Little White Donkey" at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, "What a perfect piece for Lulu—it's so spunky and so her."
Even Jed gave me credit for that one. Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
—Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of "Day of Empire" and "World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability." This essay is excerpted from "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, to be published Tuesday by the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Amy Chua.
Amy Chua Is a Wimp
By DAVID BROOKS
Sometime early last week, a large slice of educated America decided that Amy Chua is a menace to society. Chua, as you probably know, is the Yale professor who has written a bracing critique of what she considers the weak, cuddling American parenting style.
Chua didn’t let her own girls go out on play dates or sleepovers. She didn’t let them watch TV or play video games or take part in garbage activities like crafts. Once, one of her daughters came in second to a Korean kid in a math competition, so Chua made the girl do 2,000 math problems a night until she regained her supremacy. Once, her daughters gave her birthday cards of insufficient quality. Chua rejected them and demanded new cards. Once, she threatened to burn all of one of her daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfectly.
As a result, Chua’s daughters get straight As and have won a series of musical competitions.
In her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chua delivers a broadside against American parenting even as she mocks herself for her own extreme “Chinese” style. She says American parents lack authority and produce entitled children who aren’t forced to live up to their abilities.
The furious denunciations began flooding my in-box a week ago. Chua plays into America’s fear of national decline. Here’s a Chinese parent working really hard (and, by the way, there are a billion more of her) and her kids are going to crush ours. Furthermore (and this Chua doesn’t appreciate), she is not really rebelling against American-style parenting; she is the logical extension of the prevailing elite practices. She does everything over-pressuring upper-middle-class parents are doing. She’s just hard core.
Her critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.
I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.
[And yet society, and American society at that celebrates individual achievements - people like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordon, etc. Yeah, sure, maybe swimmers are motivated in relay teams, but people remember Michael Phelps more than they remember the rest of Team USA.]
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.
This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.
Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?
These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.
[I think Brooks has a point, and I think his response is a more measured response but I wonder if it is an impartial response.
On the one hand, the truly gifted individuals in the world often have unusual childhoods. And by unusual, I mean often hard, sometimes tortured, obsessive, oppressive, driven, neurotic, compulsive, etc. It it often in such hard if not harsh childhoods that talent or diamonds are formed.
Brooks notes that she is just the logical extension of over-pressuring upper-middle-class parents even in America.
Chua's book is new in that she provides the mother's eye view of the process of that pressuring.
Brooks coup de grace critique is that by curtailing her children's socialisation, Chua is actually depriving them of important experiences to develop social skills that would help them in their group dynamics. He speaks of teamwork, and social dynamics and group achievements and goals. (Which supports another theory I have about how the US which is supposedly provides the most protection for individual rights, have such strong group oriented culture.)
Chua's parenting seems to be aimed at developing talents in the individual. And screw teamwork and social intelligence, Brooks seems to say. But Brooks seems to forget that if you have talent, screw social skills. Like Steve Jobs and Tiger Woods.]
Interestingly, on the same day, NYT also ran this story:]
Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!
Chaser, a border collie who lives in Spartanburg, S.C., has the largest vocabulary of any known dog. She knows 1,022 nouns, a record that displays unexpected depths of the canine mind and may help explain how children acquire language.
Chaser belongs to John W. Pilley, a psychologist who taught for 30 years at Wofford College, a liberal arts institution in Spartanburg. In 2004, after he had retired, he read a report in Science about Rico, a border collie whose German owners had taught him to recognize 200 items, mostly toys and balls. Dr. Pilley decided to repeat the experiment using a technique he had developed for teaching dogs, and he describes his findings in the current issue of the journal Behavioural Processes.
He bought Chaser as a puppy in 2004 from a local breeder and started to train her for four to five hours a day. He would show her an object, say its name up to 40 times, then hide it and ask her to find it, while repeating the name all the time. She was taught one or two new names a day, with monthly revisions and reinforcement for any names she had forgotten.
Border collies are working dogs. They have a reputation for smartness, and they are highly motivated. They are bred to herd sheep indefatigably all day long. Absent that task, they must be given something else to do or they go stir crazy.
Chaser proved to be a diligent student. Unlike human children, she seems to love her drills and tests and is always asking for more. “She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”
One of Dr. Pilley’s goals was to see if he could teach Chaser a larger vocabulary than Rico acquired. But that vocabulary is based on physical objects that must be given a name the dog can recognize. Dr. Pilley found himself visiting Salvation Army stores and buying up sackfuls of used children’s toys to serve as vocabulary items.
It was hard to remember all the names Chaser had to learn, so he wrote the name on each toy with indelible marker. In three years, Chaser’s vocabulary included 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a medley of plastic items.
Children pick up about 10 new words a day until, by the time they leave high school, they know around 60,000 words. Chaser learned words more slowly but faced a harder task: Each sound was new and she had nothing to relate it to, whereas children learn words in a context that makes them easier to remember. For example, knives, forks and spoons are found together.
Dr. Pilley does not know how large a vocabulary Chaser could have mastered. When she reached 1,000 items, he grew tired of teaching words and moved to more interesting topics like grammar.
One of the questions raised by the Rico study was that of what was going through the dog’s mind when he was asked to fetch something. Did he think of his toys as items labeled fetch-ball, fetch-Frisbee, fetch-doll, or did he understand the word “fetch” separately from its object, as people do?
Dr. Pilley addressed the question by teaching Chaser three different actions: pawing, nosing and taking an object. She was then presented with three of her toys and correctly pawed, nosed or fetched each one depending on the command given to her. “That experiment demonstrates conclusively that Chaser understood that the verb had a meaning,” Dr. Pilley said.
The 1,022 words in Chaser’s vocabulary are all proper nouns. Dr. Pilley also found that Chaser could be trained to recognize categories, in other words common nouns. She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar.
Haunting almost every interaction between people and animals is the ghost of Clever Hans, a German horse that in the early 1900s would tap out answers to arithmetic problems with his hoof. The psychologist Oskar Pfungst discovered that Hans would get the answer right only if the questioner also knew the answer. He then showed that the horse could detect minute movements of the questioner’s head and body. Since viewers would tense as Hans approached the right number of taps, and relax when he reached it, the horse knew exactly when to stop.
People project their expectations onto animals, particularly dogs, and can easily convince themselves the animal is achieving some humanlike feat when in fact it is simply reading cues unconsciously given by its master. Even though researchers are well aware of this pitfall, interpreting animal behavior is particularly tricky. In the current issue of Animal Behaviour, a leading journal, two previous experiments with dogs have been found wanting.
In one report, researchers say they failed to confirm an experiment showing that dogs would yawn contagiously when people yawn. Another report knocks down an earlier finding that dogs can distinguish between rational and irrational acts.
The danger of Clever Hans effects may be particularly acute with border collies because they are bred for the ability to pay close attention to the shepherd. Dogs that ignore their master or the sheep do not become parents, a fierce selective pressure on the breed’s behavior. “Watch a collie work with a sheepherder and you will come away amazed how small a gesture the person can do to communicate with his dog,” said Alexandra Horowitz, a dog behavior expert at Barnard College and author of “Inside of a Dog.”
Juliane Kaminski, a member of the research team that tested Rico, was well aware of the Clever Hans effect. So she arranged for the dog to be given instructions in one room and to select toys from another, making it impossible for the experimenter to give Rico unwitting cues. Dr. Kaminski works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Dr. Pilley took the same precaution in testing Chaser. He submitted an article describing his experiments to Science, but the journal rejected it. Dr. Pilley said that the journal’s advisers had made valid criticisms, which he proceeded to address. He and his co-author, Alliston K. Reid of Wofford College, then submitted a revised article to Behavioural Processes. Dr. Horowitz, who was one of Science’s advisers in the review of Dr. Pilley’s report, said of the new article that “the experimental design looks pretty good.” Dr. Kaminski, too, regards the experiment as properly done. “I think the methodology the authors use here is absolutely sufficient to control for Clever Hans,” she said.
The learning of words by Rico and Chaser may have some bearing on how children acquire language, because children could be building on the same neural mechanisms. Dr. Pilley and Dr. Reid conclude that their experiments “provide clear evidence that Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to children.”
But the experiment’s relevance to language is likely to be a matter of dispute. Chaser learns to link sounds to objects by brute repetition, which is not how children learn words. And she learns her words as proper nouns, which are specific labels for things, rather than as abstract concepts like the common nouns picked up by children. Dr. Kaminski said she would not go as far as saying that Chaser’s accomplishments are a step toward language. They show that the dog can combine words for different actions with words for objects. A step toward syntax, she said, would be to show that changing the order of words alters the meaning that Chaser ascribes to them.
Dr. Pilley says he is working on just that point. “We’re trying to teach some elementary grammar to our dog,” he said. “How far we’ll be able to go we don’t know, but we think we are on the frontier.”
His goal is to develop methods that will help increase communication between people and dogs. “We are interested in teaching Chaser a receptive, rudimentary language,” he said.
A Nova episode on animal intelligence, in which Chaser stars, will be broadcast on Feb. 9.
As with other animals for which prodigious feats of cognition have been reported, like Alex the gray parrot or Kanzi the bonobo, it is hard to place Chaser’s and Rico’s abilities in context. If their achievements are within the general capacity of their species, why have many other instances not been reported? If, on the other hand, their achievements are unique, then either the researchers have lucked out in finding an Einstein of the species, or there could be something wrong with the experiments like a Clever Hans effect.
Dr. Pilley said that most border collies, with special training, “could be pretty close to where Chaser is.” When he told Chaser’s dog breeder of the experiment, “he wasn’t surprised about the dog’s ability, just that I had had the patience to teach her,” Dr. Pilley said.
[In a sense, the training of the dog to the level of "genius" was just plain hard work, much like what Chua did for her daughters. It is a matter of expectation and investment.
Read also "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell where he covers a wider scope of how "outliers" become the success that they are.