Are strict Chinese mothers the best?

Toddler looking at a laptop

Amy Chua's memoir The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which advocates a strict Chinese parenting style, has sparked furious online debate. So should a parent crack the whip or molly coddle to produce a successful, happy child?

An extract in the Wall Street Journal lists the things Amy Chua's daughters Sophia and Louisa were not allowed to do, including attending a sleepover; having a play-date; being in a school play; watching TV or playing a computer game; choosing their own extracurricular activities; getting any grade less than an A; not being the number one student in every subject except gym and drama; playing any instrument except piano and violin; not playing the piano or violin.

She says this is a typical reason why Chinese parents like herself raise such stereotypically successful children. What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it.

In defence of Western parenting, Mike Vilensky says in New York magazine that the cost of a rigid timetable of activities decided by parents is a loss of creativity. And creativity is what is behind the big entrepreneurial successes such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Psychologist Oliver James says in the Guardian that lack of creativity is a major problem in Asian schooling. His tests, based on imagining doubling your salary, always came a cropper in Asian schools.

"They were simply incapable of picturing an abstract situation and of entering into a game," noted James. "I am sure this was because their creativity had been systematically destroyed and in its place, a survival pragmatism installed."

Chua gives multiple examples of making her children practice their musical instruments, for over three hours and even on holiday.

The problem, says New York Times columnist David Brooks, is that she fundamentally misunderstands which activities are cognitively difficult. He says that while practising a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, a sleepover with a group of 14-year-old girls is far more intellectually demanding.

"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."

Out-of-date stereotype

While no-one seems to dispute that children of Chinese heritage do consistently better than their peers, there are suggestions from the Chinese community that the stereotype of the strict Chinese parent is outdated.

Columnist for China Daily Huang Hung says in the Daily Beast the context of this strict form of parenting is based on parts of Chinese culture which glorify suffering, and tells mothers they are only as good as their children.

However, she says that the overwhelming feeling is that Chinese parents in China do not act like this anymore. "It is ironic that as young Chinese mothers in Beijing and Shanghai are embracing more enlightened Western ideas about child raising, mothers from Connecticut are sinking deeper into China's darker past in child rearing."

Jen Wang from the website Disgrasian adds in the Huffington Post that as a second generation Chinese immigrant she finds it difficult to justify a strict upbringing. She argues that the parenting style is now irrelevant as the consequences of failure in a middle class family aren't as dire as it would be for their parents. This, she wonders, might make it harder for her daughters to understand why Amy Chua is so strict.

Happy children

What Wang is perturbed by is the effect Chua's methods would have on a child's self esteem.

Chua's argument goes that Western parents assume children are more fragile than they really are. In this view Western beliefs are motivated by the idea children will be permanently damaged if they are pushed too hard.

Image caption Psychologist Oliver James argues Chinese families show 'a great deal of love'

Chinese mothers, by contrast, will excoriate, punish and shame their children if they don't get perfect grades in Chua's viewpoint. Chua insists that Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese ones.

"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."

Wang says Chua's argument can be proved wrong by research conducted by University of Washington showing that US-born women of east Asian origin are more likely to commit suicide.

Toby Young, a London journalist who is attempting to set up a free school, comes to Chua's defence, saying a strict upbringing might actually bring more self esteem. He points out in the Telegraph that Chua claims that Chinese children make for more robust adults, having been galvanised in the hot-house of the Chinese parenting academy.

He goes on to argue that constantly boosting children's self-esteem is setting them up for a fall. "We send them out into the world with an inflated idea of their own abilities and the moment they come face-to-face with a tough competitor - one of Ms Chua's daughters, for instance - they collapse like a house of cards. Bye-bye, self-esteem. Hello, depression."

'Our evil mother'

On the relatively low rate of Chinese depression Toby Young and Oliver James agree. However, James thinks it is because, like Hung, that this is because Chinese parents do not actually act as Chua claims.

Yes, he says, the child is excoriated for failing the family and its clan, if it does badly. But the parents and grandparents still show a great deal of love and warmth, even if it has failed or done wrong.

The last word should be given to Amy Chua's daughter, who responded to all the criticism in the New York Post. Sophia Chua Rubenfeld, 18, says people need to lighten up.

"One problem is that some people don't get your humour. They think you're serious about all this, and they assume Lulu and I are oppressed by our evil mother. That is so not true. Every other Thursday, you take off our chains and let us play math games in the basement."