Framing the Eastern Vs. Western Parenting Debate

Though the provocative stories in Amy Chua’s best-selling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have incensed many American parents and educators, the spirit of her memoir should not. In recounting how she raised her two daughters in an exaggerated and authoritarian manner, Chua assertively denounced the laissez-faire approach characterized by western parents.

“To be perfectly honest, I know that a lot of Asian parents are secretly shocked and horrified by many aspects of western parenting,” Chua admitted recently on the Today show, referring to how Americans prepare their kids for the future. Forcing her seven-year old daughter Lulu to practice playing the violin for hours on end with no breaks (for water or even the bathroom) until she was able to play “Little White Donkey” was just an extreme example of her book’s major themes:

  • Chinese parents assume strength in their children, not fragility, and thus push them to be the best.
  • High expectations is much more effective than constant praise.
  • Practice makes perfect (i.e., effort).

The intense reaction to her story also illustrates the division of the current education reform debate: on the one side, a singular focus on results and achievement through constant practice and drilling; and on the other side, a more holistic development that is child-centered. With a concerted emphasis on accountability and standards, American education is clearly moving towards the former. So now, Chua’s memoir comes at an opportune time to reflect on what we want to accomplish with education reform and with parenting.

Do we want to create a love of learning? Do we want students to think critically? Or do we want to prepare them to ably confront problems and create solutions in life? Though it’s easy to idealize the first two, these objectives are all different sides of the same coin. The last one just seems more grounded in reality, as tends to be the case in pragmatic Confucian cultures.

What about happiness? There doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to which style provides a blueprint for a eudemonic life. For decades, despite explosive economic growth Americans bemoaned underachievement and progressive debasement of societal values. Asian countries have always treasured its culture of education and unity (thus excelling at international tests) but at the cost of individuality, creativity, and perhaps even sanity (see An Education Paradox for a peek into the South Korean education debates). Attempts to study the subjective well-being of countries (i.e. happiness studies) have yielded inconsistent findings.

In the end, Chua’s timely report from the trenches is noteworthy for precisely one reason: In light of a renewed “Sputnik moment” for our economic future (according to President Obama), it forces us to question our parenting and education practices.

Denouncing Chua for rejecting her daughter’s half-hearted birthday card effort is focusing on the minutiae, not the principles behind it. Are there indifferent behaviors we might be unconsciously reinforcing? What is the message received when parents or teachers commend children for a sub-effort performance? The same questions should be applied to all of Chua’s other startling stories.

In fact, her birthday card story reminded me of how I used to require my fifth grade students to compose a year-end teacher appreciation letter (addressed to me!) describing what they had learned most and why they were thankful. They had to read it in front of the class. The idea wasn’t about self-congratulation, but rather, teaching students the importance of reflection and appreciation. We just assume that children will know how to express appreciation if given the chance.

The spirit of Chua’s book, in this respect, is wildly successful.


Addendum: Writer Lori Gottlieb explored the detrimental effects of “helicopter parenting” in The Atlantic’s How To Land Your Kid in Therapy. It referred to the fascination with Chua’s approach that echoes my post:

“Chua’s efforts ‘not to raise a soft, entitled child’ were widely attacked on blogs and mommy listservs as abusive, yet that didn’t stop the book from spending several months on the New York Times best-seller list. Sure, some parents might have read it out of pure voyeurism, but more likely, Chua’s book resonated so powerfully because she isn’t so different from her critics. She may have been obsessed with her kids’ success at the expense of their happiness—but many of today’s parents who are obsessed with their kids’ happiness share Chua’s drive, just wrapped in a prettier package. Ours is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach, a desire for high achievement without the sacrifice and struggle that this kind of achievement often requires. When the Tiger Mom looked unsparingly at her parental contradictions, perhaps she made the rest of us squirm because we were forced to examine our own.”

4 thoughts on “Framing the Eastern Vs. Western Parenting Debate

  1. Because most of the times chinese mothers press their kids to do their best, they don’t want to see a half assed attempt, and it’s part of the chinese heritage. Most of the times they are going to thank their mothers when they become adults, and they will be capable of living well, it is a long term perspective, not short term and this is what people should remember. We don’t concentrate on individuals, but the family.
    We don’t focus on short term achievements, but maintain a broad outlook – the long term, that is why the chinese society has been thriving for thousands of years, and this sense will pass on to their kids. To live well in society, you have to taste sour and bitter to know what is sweet. maybe they will not appreciate it now, but when they are mothers, at some point they will realize their mother taught them well and then can taste the sweet.
    Chinese society is formed by “families”, you have to be able to take care of yourself first then to take care of others, there is no right or wrong how western or eastern parenting is being employed by mothers, is what you think is better for your kid to carry their life when you are not around, a social responsibility.

  2. I like how you use the analogy of knowing the sweet only after you taste the bitter, as well as taking a long term perspective of civilization, not just in the short term. This blog is constantly reminding about the importance of a broad and balanced look. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I really can’t believe that you support this. As an educator and someone well-read in developmental psychology I am appalled at her actions and your condoning them. Applauding the destructive act of sending your THREE YEAR OLD away to make a better card is okay? No. Never. The principle behind the act,as you say, is PRECISELY my point. I’m not bogged down in minutiae – what you’re telling the child here is (i) what you did is unacceptable BECAUSE I EXPECT PERFECTION, (ii) that your 3-yr old feelings might get hurt is not my concern. I am the first one to rail against the over-praising that goes on in our culture, trust me. But accepting an “A” graded birthday card and nothing less is sending the wrong msg. It’s not about excellence in a case like this.

    I’ll read some of your other posts to see where you;re at.

    You can find mine at

  4. Sorry, I’ve been away.

    Anyway, please note that I’m not supporting her actions; it’s the spirit of involvement that I ask we consider. It’s the need for us to re-evaluate our own parenting strategies and principles I ask we reconsider. It’s much easier to do when we have an extreme contrast, such as her. In fact, if you noticed, most of my post is really about the need see how we can use her story to better ourselves as educators or parents (such as when I asked: “Are there indifferent behaviors we might be unconsciously reinforcing? What is the message received when parents or teachers commend children for a sub-effort performance?”).

    So in the end, my post is really not even about her and her appalling stories – it’s an impetus for us to question our priorities. Many people complain about the state of education today, or the state of our kids today – the values, attitudes, learning, etc. but are shocked to hear parents like Amy doing this to their kids. Most typically, critics will denounce her book by pointing at the ghastly examples; I think it’s much more productive to use this to think, hmm….perhaps her antics are ridiculous, but maybe I AM one of those parents (or teachers) who is constantly praising my child for every little thing she does. Maybe I don’t need to throw a party for her just because she learned to tie her shoes. Or maybe I am letting him spend way too much time playing video games or watching TV.

    Do you see my point? That is why I chose to title this post “Framing the debate…” Instead of something directly about Amy Chua. It’s really not even about her; her media storm is merely the right opportunity to bring up an always timeless issue of good parenting or teaching.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *