Tiger Mother and Chinese Parenting Values

Posted by: Hailing Huang on June 15, 2012 1:33 pm

In 2011, Amy Chua, a Yale University professor published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, a memoir that describes her parenting journey.  Her claim that her Chinese parenting is superior to Western ways stirred up disputes in Mainland China, America, Australia, England and Canada. Many news channel such as TODAY, Channel4News, ABCNews, CNN, 60 Mintues and The Agenda with Steve Paikin all discussed Amy Chua’s parenting approach. She pointed out that childhood is not merely for the experience of happiness, it is a process of training to prepare for the future marketing demands.  After the book was published, the reactions from the audiences were mixed. However, most of the response  from Americans  were negative, they regarded Amy Chua’s parenting style is overly rigid,  lacking respect for  children’s human rights  and neglecting children’s emotional needs.

While when I finished Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” for the first time, I was furious. My initial reaction was this is typical emotional abuse, isn’t it? Her rigid approach violates basic human rights: in a democratic society everyone, including children, has the right to express their opinions; parents should be considering child’s nature, capacity when assigning appropriate tasks. However, Amy Chua’s demanding that her daughter spend three hours practicing her piano per day, no play dates, no sleep over, and A grades in all subjects, these extremely rigid rules certainly categorizes her approach as an autocratic parenting style: THE DICTATOR. According to Michael Popkin’s definition, the dictator exerts absolute control, all powerful in dictating the lives of her children. There is little or no room for children to question, challenge or disagree.

However, my furious feelings towards her subsided gradually after I read her book for the second and third time.  Since, being a Chinese mother myself,  deep down on many perspectives, my thoughts are in line with Amy Chua’s approach, such as prioritizing the learning, valuing discipline, following routine, respect for the elderly etc.  In order to further understand Amy Chua’s parenting approach, and the traditional Chinese way of child rearing, I would like find out what the core values are behind all of those actions. Since her approach does represent the parenting style for the majority of people of Chinese descent.

Chinese parenting concepts and practices are influenced by Chinese culture norms such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and guide behaviors and social interactions. Many scholars had attempted to explore those values (Chao R. K. & Aque C. 2009; Xu Y. Farver  A. M J., Zhang Z., Zeng Q., Yu L. & Cai B. 2005 ; Gorman  C. J. 1998; Shek D. 2007; Sim T., Hu C., 2009 ; Tews L., Merali N., 2008; Chao K. R., 1994; Bond M. 1998; Chan S.M., Bowes J., & Wyver S., 2009.) From their writings, five core fundamental Chinese parenting virtues are evident.

                  First, Begin with the end in mind, education is the first priority. The Western concept of childhood is that it is the time for enjoying being a child; exploring, playing, and being happy are their main tasks.  However, for Chinese parents, childhood is the preparation for the adulthood. Skills training should start as early as possible. The urge to prepare for the future is always the most important concern.  The underlying message is that the world is a place full of competition; you have to prepare yourself in order to enter and sustain your position in the future.

            Second, Given that education is the top priority, discipline becomes the key to bringing out the best results in education.  No play dates, no sleepovers, extra homework, A grades etc. become customary practices.  

            Third, the relationship between child and parent is   “filial Piety”, which indicates that children have the obligation to listen, to obey, and parents have the right to teach, guide, and care. This traditional relationship easily leads to a dictator type of parenting style: parents have the authority to make decisions; there is no room for the children’s opinion or disagreement in decisions that affect their lives.

                  Fourth, the type of  boundaryless relationship between parent and child is one of the fundamental differences between the Eastern and the Western. In the East, the boundary between the child and parent is blurry. The Chinese parent regards the child as their extension; child’s issues are taken as their issues, and the child’s future as their future. Children are seen as an extension of their parents. The Westerner approach emphasizes individualism: the Easterner, the collectivism. It is upon this prerequisite that the Chinese base their collective identity and Chinese parents devote themselves unconditionally in time, energy and money to cultivate their children’s strengths.  We can see this in Amy Chua’s case, she literally walked every step with her children, and she participated at every turn in her children’s training, even when they were practicing either piano or violin; she wrote out instructional notes for them. We see that she had played many roles in her daughter’s life:   coach, caregiver, mother, and teacher.    She experienced every step of struggle, triumph, up and down emotionally with her daughters. There is no distinction between what is her dream, or her effort and her children’s dream or effort.  She does devote herself unconditionally, and the boundary between the daughters and the mother’s responsibility and rights are blurry.

                  Fifth, strong emphasis was laid on valuing family ties, and the relationship within the family circle. As per Chinese traditional teaching, it is each member’s duty to maintain the harmony among family members.  In Eastern culture, it is a virtue to restrain one’s own desire for the sake of honoring the duty.  The ability to tolerate the resulting resentment and carry out the social duty is regarded as the ‘etiquette’ – “LI”   the highest virtue. For example, Amy Chua did not get along with her mother in-law, and her Jewish, American husband didn’t suggest taking in his mother to live with them, but Amy Chua insisted on it when her mother in-law was in need.  This is the example of her concept of duty, that fulfilling her duty was more important than how she felt towards her mother in-law.

It seems that Chinese parenting culture is future oriented. Preparing and anticipating for the future’s demand is one of its tenants.  The traditional ‘filial Piety ‘relationship may lead to a Dictator Type of parenting style. The boundaryless relationship between the child and parent may also violate the Western concepts about individual rights. Being Chinese, I see the value in emphasizing learning and education, respect for elders, and the fulfillment of social duty. Figuring out the core Chinese traditional parenting values could help us to understand Amy Chua’s parenting approach more compassionately.

Certainly, we do see from the reading that Amy Chua had lost her temper many times, misunderstood the situation or her children, judged before understanding, didn’t listen, and acted unwisely. But one vital aspect of her approach is that she is constant in learning from her mistakes.  As Stephen Covey says, good families – even great families are off track 90 percent of the time.  The key is they learn from the mistakes and keep coming back to it again and again. So it was not surprising  to see that with all her “harsh” parenting, Amy Chua’s  daughter  turned out to be mentally, emotionally, physically healthy and happy.

Amy Chua’s parenting case does raise a question for the counsellor: how do we – the Westernized counsellor/therapist assess Amy Chua’s parenting style?  Are the terms “Authoritarian”, “Dictator”, or “Brick wall”   able to describe it?  It seems Amy Chua’s parenting concept and style is based upon collectivism. So can we apply Westernized parenting style to justify her approach?           Since most  of the Western parenting styles or approaches are based on the individual identity  in the context of  democratic society ( Baumrind  1971,  Coloroso 2001 ,  Popkin 1993),  then what will be the  best  parenting approach  in the  collectivist  parenting context?

As parents who live in the West and still maintain the Eastern mentality, how well do we adjust ourselves, what strategies do we apply in parenting? As a counsellor, the pertinent questions to ask or ponder are: what kind of social or culture values and parenting system that could we rely upon? 

Hailing Huang MTS  CCC,   Mandarin & English,  www.kwfellowtraveler.com 

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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