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Why ‘Chinese Mothers’ Are Not Superior

By Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya

Every day you can read a newspaper article that frets about China’s rise to dominance on the world stage. Today, thanks to Amy Chua, you can read about China’s rise to dominance on the parenting stage. In her controversial Wall Street Journal article and equally controversial best-seller, Amy Chua advocates for strict “Chinese” parenting methods over more lax, “American” methods. The main fault in Chua’s argument is that “Chinese mothers”—a term for an authoritarian, domineering parent, regardless of ethnicity—may raise high-achieving children in the short-term, but, in the long-term, their authoritarian methods stunt success.

“Chinese mothers” have proven so successful in raising hardworking, intelligent offspring because of the immense esteem they hold for education and because of the sacrifices they are willing to undertake. However, there is evidence to believe that their methods do more long-term harm than good. The authoritarian, perfectionist mindset that drives many of these parents tends to vastly underestimate the value of self-motivation and intellectual curiosity as factors of success.

From Chua’s perspective, “Chinese mothers” are any parents who value their children’s achievement over their children’s self-esteem, and who believe it is their responsibility to ensure this achievement. At the heart of it all, “Chinese mothers” believe in teaching their children the strength to overcome obstacles, even at the expense of individuality and a slightly bruised ego.

Chua claims that true confidence is born of hard-earned achievement. She tells an anecdote about forcing her seven-year old daughter to learn a difficult piano piece, denying her bathroom breaks and dinner until after she has completed the task. When she finally masters the piece, both mother and daughter are ecstatic.

But no matter how glorious the aftermath of achievement, the psychological impact of leveraging achievement for parental affection and approval is questionable. While Chua’s daughter may have gained confidence from playing the piano piece, she also gained reinforcement that social approval is earned through achievement. This leads children to disastrously conclude that they need to impress, rather than befriend, the individuals around them in order to gain social acceptance and inclusion.

Child development literature consistently supports an authoritative parenting style as the healthiest and most successful parenting model. By definition, authoritative parents hold authority in the household but are still responsive to their child’s opinions.

By contrast, an authoritarian parent “values obedience as a virtue and favors punitive, forceful measures to curb self-will at points where the child’s actions or beliefs conflict with what the parent thinks is right”. A 1994 study showed that children from authoritarian households actually exhibited lower academic achievement than children from authoritative households, especially as they matured. In the same study, children from authoritarian households showed the highest prevalence of stress-related symptoms of all the parenting styles observed.

Still, the greatest test of confidence comes when these children have to leave their strictly-regimented households for the spontaneous and socially driven environment of a college campus. A recent CNN article by Pforzheimer house masters Erika and Nicholas Christakis discusses the harmful aftereffects that a childhood of “all work and no play” has on college students. The article comments on the difficulty that many college students have with simple skills, such as listening to others and sharing emotions. The Christakises encourage parents to let children have sufficient playtime, arguing that the ability to understand and contribute to society is dependent upon these essential skills.

Chua claims that confidence comes after achievement, but what of initiative and creativity? While the “Chinese mother” parenting style might be effective in raising successful, six-figure salary adults, it is a less convincing model for raising future senators, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Google executives. Denying children the right to make basic decisions independently of their parents’ input denies them the chance to deal with their own mistakes, an essential milestone of adulthood.

Sorry, Amy Chua, but “Chinese mothers” are not superior. Instead, parents who promote the value of education without sacrificing their children’s autonomy are. It would be ideal to combine the best of both worlds and stress academics while giving them room for growth. It would be best to make them understand that there are more important things in life than impersonating Kim Kardashian, but let them watch enough TV to know who Kim Kardashian is. Not only will they turn out to be smart, competent human beings, but they'll be independent, socially adept, and self-motivated.

Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy house.

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