On Chua, Chinese Mothers, and Educating Our Daughter in Shanghai

Recently a Yale Law Professor named Amy Chua published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on raising her children, called provocatively “Chinese Mothers are Superior.”  The title is ambiguous.  What are these “Chinese mothers” superior at doing?  Denying their kids the basic rights and freedoms of childhood?  Forcing them to endure grueling hours of practice on their instruments?  Making sure they get “perfect” grades in school and perform at Carnegie Hall, and humiliating and shaming them if they do not?  All of the above it seems.

Naturally her article has generated a lot of negative criticism.  There have been over 4000 comments alone on the WSJ website, not to mention countless blogs that have responded angrily to her provocations about how lazy “Western” parents are compared to their Chinese counterparts.  The funny thing is that Chua herself seems to be an American fundamentally, and I wonder if she has any right to speak on behalf of Chinese mothers (as it turns out, her parents are ethnic Chinese but from the Philippines).  Maybe she would be better positioned to make claims about Chinese American moms, but even then she’d be treading on dangerous ground.  Nevertheless, her provocative piece has generated a lot of interesting discussions and debates and will definitely give the book she is publishing a lot of momentum.

What amazes me most about Chua’s story is that her daughters had 2-3 hours on their hands to practice their instruments every day.  This would be nearly unheard of in Shanghai, where kids get home between 5 and 6 pm (unless they are going to cram school as well, which happens frequently).  They are tired and eat some dinner, but then they have to do a few more hours of homework before they retire to bed.  Kids do practice instruments here in Shanghai.  I hear them through the walls of our apartment and nearly everywhere I go, working on their Mozart and Beethoven, and if more advanced, their Chopin.  But 2-3 hours a day?  Unless they are being trained specifically as music professionals, it just doesn’t happen.

I am an American husband to a Chinese woman and a father of two half-Chinese daughters, one of whom is now in first grade in what is touted as the biggest educational pressure cooker in the world these days, Shanghai. Already my daughter is doing countless exercise in math, Chinese, and English, and she is being given a lot of pressure by her Chinese mother, for us to spend so much time with her day after day when we have our own busy schedules.  We try our best to help her do her homework and sometimes deal with a lot of frustration in the process, though as I relate below, her concentration and learning skills have improved a lot over the past few months, and she is able to do more of the work on her own now.

I've also started her on piano lessons (this was my own decision not her mother's by the way). I can play two instruments pretty well, piano and guitar, and I do it for fun and enjoyment, but I do sometimes wish that I had had more rigorous training in sight-reading and other musical foundational skills, and these do need to be acquired at a young age. I hope my daughters can develop a life-long interest in appreciating and playing music, since I believe strongly that such skills do add great value to the joy of living.

But my goal is not to train them to play in Carnegie Hall. Of course, if they do develop such ambitions, I’ll do my best to nurture them.  But I'd rather see them develop their own tastes in music and learn to play their own music rather than just play music by the “great composers,” as so many kids are trained to do.  The great composers that Ms. Chua encouraged her daughters to play were all great improvisers as well. But of course they had to undergo rigorous training and copy the great Masters of their own time before they were able to attain that level of proficiency.  As much as we want to encourage children to have self-motivation, I do agree with Chua that kids have a tendency to resist hard work and that strong and steady encouragement is important in attaining such training goals. 

The question is, what sort of encouragement?  Do we need to tie them down to their chairs and keep them from eating, drinking, or using the toilet until the work is done?  This seemed to be Chua’s method, judging from her article.  I’m a bit more flexible.  I’d rather have my daughter be comfortable, but maybe that’s just because I’m an overfed Westerner from an overdeveloped society and not an Asian parent who went through the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward.  Come to think of it, neither did Chua, right?  But her own immigrant parents from Fujian living in the Philippines undoubtedly went through great hardship, as she suggests in her article, so that may account for some of her methods and values.

As for her claims about Chinese people and culture, these need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. People here in China do tend to spend more intensive time and labor on children's education, particularly here in Shanghai, but there are many different strategies and methods for doing so, and humiliation is only one of them. Beating and corporal punishment is of course another strategy that seems to be used here in China a lot (but definitely NOT one employed in our family), and it may result in short term improvements in discipline, though what it does for a child's psyche in the long term is another question.

I do notice that my wife has a tendency to use some of the same strategies as Ms. Chua on occasion, and when it comes time for Sarah to do her homework, our household sometimes becomes a battleground of wills between the females.  My own method of encouraging her learning is more about firm persistence than name-calling.  And now and then I let her rest.  But when I try to sympathize with my poor tired daughter, I'm sometimes accused of being a "softy" and not understanding the female mind.  

Believe me, I do get frustrated and disenchanted with the intensity of the system that she is a part of. But I do believe it is important to take an active role in furthering one's child's education, and in that respect I admire Ms. Chua's efforts to be deeply involved in her children’s education, although I do not agree with her educational philosophy or methods.

Actually our daughter is pretty good these days about doing her homework, but over the past few months it has been a struggle by all parties (teachers, parents, grandparents) to get her into that groove.  Also, my wife isn't nearly as demanding on our daughter as the article's author seems to be.  Sarah just completed her “final exams” (can you believe it?  Final exams in first grade???) and did pretty well.  She got an 88 in her Chinese exam (despite the serious disadvantage of not having two Chinese parents unlike most of her classmates) and a 95 in English (where she definitely had the upper hand on her classmates).  As for math, she got an 89.5.  I think most American families would be proud of these grades.  No doubt Chua would scoff at them, and punishments and withholdings would be in order.  Our Chinese mothers grudgingly accepted them, believing she could do better.  And no doubt she will, next time round.