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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pushing Kids to the Edge

Amy Chua and daughter

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I first went to teach in a cram school in Taiwan in 1999. The school was for preschoolers and primary aged students (3-7 year olds). Not long after I arrived, I was party to a conversation with Jean, the 40 year-old school director, and a another western teacher. Jean was a real tough task master, a typical “Chinese” mother who believed that drilling kids and working them as hard as possible was absolutely necessary to raise successful children. On that day I heard Jean commenting about the parents of a child from another school, whom she found “really strange”. Apparently those parents let the child do “whatever it felt like doing.” “They are just too strange”, she kept repeating.

I’ll never forget that, because Jean’s views on raising children are very different from mine. IAs a long-time teacher I know how important it is to  believe it is exercise discipline, but it is equally important to teach kids autonomy and the capacity to sense what is right for themselves. The reason I bring this little incident up is because I was reminded of it by something which appeared in the media these past few days.

Chinese-American mother Amy Chua created a genuine stir this week when she penned an article entitled “Why Chinese mothers are superior”, for the New York Times, and detailing what she believes is the ideal parenting style. She calls it “Chinese parenting”.

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of several books, including Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book covers the same subject area as the article.

To say that Chua is a strict parent would be the understatement of the millennium. Her daughters Sophia and Louisa are carefully parented – some might say micromanaged. They are 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. Click below to read more....       

The article states that Chinese parents seem to produce children who display academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success. Strict western parents don’t come close to being as strict as she is, says Chua. While half an hour practicing on the piano might seem like tough love to a westerner, Chua sees nothing wrong with three hour sessions for her kids. And the same strict discipline goes for academic excellence. Anything less than an “A” on the report card and being first in the class (except for drama and P.E.) is totally unacceptable. Chua refers to research which shows that Chinese parents spend about 10 times as long per day drilling academic activities with their children. Western parents seem more interested in developing their kids’ self-esteem, or even their sporting capacities.

As regular readers of my blog, articles or my books know, I believe that it is part of each person’s spiritual journey to honour what their inner voice is calling them to do. I believe we all need to develop a capacity to listen to our intuition and then to take positive actions according to what it is guiding us to do.

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.

First, let me begin with some sources of agreement with Chua. I concur with Chua that parental discipline is very important. In western nations we are forgetting that hard work and discipline has been a core reason for the success of our nations. Donald Trump once said that the USA is beset with a widespread “attitude of entitlement”. This has created laziness and sloppiness. My perception is that this is correct right across the Western world. In sport, great coaches have noted that “nothing creates failure like success”.  The success of Western cultures is generating bad habits which threaten their continued success.

Amy Chua’s parents were immigrants, and they tend to work harder because they are thankful for what they have, and want to get ahead. They don’t mind working and sacrificing.
Nonetheless, I think that while Amy Chu is undoubtedly helping her kids become super-achievers, she is almost certainly damaging them in other ways. The fact that her kids are not allowed to choose what to do with their lives – not even their own extra-curricular activities – inevitably retards their capacity to come to an understanding of who they really are as people. I have seen this right throughout my time in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Most Kids have limited inner worlds or capacity for self-reflection. They are often heavily dependent on parents, even into middle age. Likewise, parents can be controlling and destructive, bullying their children even into adulthood.
I am hardly unbiased in this debate. I run workshops and write books and articles teaching people how to develop intuition and Integrated Intelligence. A big part of that is getting people to stop and listen to what is inside themselves, and to start to feel again. This is a real challenge in Chinese society, because of the daily bombardment of activities, gadget fiddling and noise means that people have lost touch with the body, and in turn the spirit.
But let’s not let Western parents off the hook so easily. The other side of the coin is kids who grow up in Western families that are too permissive; families which set inadequate boundaries for kids. Those of us who have taught in Western schools or raised children in Western countries know how tough it is to deal with our kids. There are plenty of great kids, but far too many are often disrespectful, demeaning, and just plain nasty. Many think that life is going to hand them success on a platter (entitlement). “I got rights” is the motto. That’s all very nice, but you have to work hard to earn success, genuine respect and any kind of genuine power in society.

I often deal with people who might best be labeled as New Agers. They get the idea of following your Bliss right away. However many of them don’t realise that even following a calling can require a great deal of hard work and sacrifice.

A few years ago I went back to study for my PhD, and often got up at 5 a.m. to study before work. I studied on the subway on the way to work and on the way home, and then got the books out again after dinner. Often I studied while I was eating dinner. I studied during holidays and didn’t take more than a few days off for a period of 5 years. Eventually I earned my doctorate. That was some sacrifice, I can tell you!

A while back a work colleague of mine from a western country complained that I got paid more than he did, and that he didn’t get as much respect around the place as me. Somehow he didn’t put two and two together and realise that the fact that he didn’t even have a university degree was a part of the equation. While he was out boozing, I was studying and sacrificing. I put in nine more years in the education system than he. I reckon I deserve that bit extra.
Part of the Any Chua “drama” is that many western parents and the general western population feel threatened by Chinese and Asian competition. Amy Chua is right when she says it is a tough world. It’s very competitive out there. We have to compete.
Westerners have to wake up to the fact that the Western world’s time as the dominant force on the planet is over. The world does not owe us a living. There are people in other countries who are willing to work harder and sacrifice more for a better life. Many of them are angry about how they have been treated by some western countries (not always rightfully so, but the anger is an undeniable fact). Unless the culture of entitlement (and blame) is eradicated, we will find ourselves being the beggar nations of the future.
Yet in re-learning how to live and work hard we don’t want to lose our souls. I’d hate to think that my kids would end up as the subway zombies of the future. Who was it that said: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
As parents and teachers we need to teach kids not just to succeed, but what it means to be a full human being. And somewhat ironically, part of that is releasing control and letting them find themselves. It also means teaching them what it means to form close relationships, to love, to be kind and affectionate to others.  I add these last few points, because having close personal bonds with Chinese people and families, I have seen that they are often lacking in Chinese society.

And here’s a far more balanced and healthy Chinese parenting style, shown in this video, which I think suggest the best of both worlds.

Finally, below there’s a couple of posts which were put up on the comments section of the NYT. They tell of the real cost of extreme discipline.


West Coast, USA
January 11th, 2011
12:19 pm
I was raised by a Chinese mother like Ms. Chua, with the added "bonus" of frequent and harsh corporal punishment.

The postitive side of this style of parenting: I have a couple of advanced degrees and a faculty position at a prestigious University. I own a home and am financially stable.

The negative side of this style of parenting: I have no emotional connection to either of my parents and I was greatly relieved when my mother passed away. I moved thousands of miles away from my father to get away from a man who stood idle while a small child was beaten, degraded, and humiliated. I have stayed in abusive relationships because I have an unhealthy threshold for mistreatment-- it's easy to minimize bad behavior when my own mother treated me even worse in the name of love.

Is it worth it? My parents would probably say that it was, and that academic/financial success, social prestige, and family honor outweigh any of the emotional and psychological consequences. I disagree.


January 11th, 2011
12:49 pm
My mother is not Chinese, she is first-generation Italian American. However, I grew up in a quasi-Chinese style household -- I was not allowed to fail. I am a chronic and compulsive overachiever. I am 49. I am still haunted by both the emotional and verbal abuse I underwent as a child. Any B on a report card was berated because I must have been stupid. Well into my adulthood, I was still striving for her to say "you did a good job."

I am fluent in three languages. I play five instruments well and sing. I completed a five-year undergraduate program in three years with honors. I was successful as a journalist. I was the first person in my family to graduate law school and practice law. I now own my own business -- which by the way, I was told I would fail at. I am, at 49, to her, still fat, lazy and stupid.

My mother is now 88 and needs my care. I would rather see her in any one of Dante's circles of hell for what she did to me. I do not love her. I do not like her. I cannot change her, but I can change how I deal with her. (That revelation cost thousands in therapy.)

I have two girls -- ages 11 and 8 -- and I pray every day that I do not become like her. I want my children to succeed, but I don't want them to hate me the way I hate my mother. I want them to be successful as people -- which includes knowing how to trust, love and be a good person.

As a victim of this type of parenting, I do not advocate its use. The costs are too great.


  1. There doesn't seem to be a necessary connection between having high expectations of your children and abusing them (verbally or physically). On the contrary, it's perfectly possible to set high standards from love and respect for who they are and what they may become. The problem is that this type of parenting tends to come from a very damaged place, transmitting to the next generation the negative projections inherited from the previous one.

  2. My background is human development and family studies so this post is right up my alley. I believe in boundaries for young children - they do not have the capacity to create them for themselves. Allowing children to make decisions on what they want to do all of the time is very short sighted. They would eat ice cream and watch television. And respect for an adult is paramount, in my opinion. I would tell my girls that they will respect me because I love and respect them, or they will respect me because I'm the Mom and that's they way it's going to be. They can do it their way when they're the Mom.
    On the other hand, closed family systems, such as what Chua seems to be advocating - not allowing sleepovers, etc., makes it extremely difficult for children to learn how to navigate their world. There is a happy medium. I expected good grades from my children because the had the capacity to get them - what about children that do not? We constantly were around parents that expected their children to compete in sports way beyond their abilities, get straight A's and be the most popular - all things the parents were unable to do for themselves at that age. It is not okay to live your life through your child's. They should not be your status symbol. They are human beings with a path of their own.

    Great post. Very timely.

  3. I am very much in agreement with both of you, Simon and Nancy. I know how important discipline is as a teacher. Kids will start running the show if you let them. But we also have to allow them to find themselves. Otherwise there is the danger that they will be completely out of touch with their own psyches - their spirits, if you will. This is pretty much what I see happening in developed Asian economies, as I have written many times.

    As for respecting adults, Nancy, I agree totally. In western countries our culture teaches us that being a rebel and being independent is of highest value, and we have lost respect for authority. In Australia and the USA there is almost a paranoia about anyone with power. While questioning power and standing up for yourself are a vital part of the individuation process, we also need to par due respect to those who are trying to run the show. In China, many are of the opinion that one of the main reasons why Western nations are increasingly looking like the sick old man is because people keep getting in the way of governance. In China, they just bulldoze anyone who gets in the way, quite literally at times (and no, I'm not saying that's right, just that it does makes things simpler!). Somehow, we have to strike the right balance.