The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece by Amy Chua entitled, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. Ms Chua is also the author of the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. If you have not read the WSJ article, I highly recommend it. As of today, it has received over 3,800 comments and is currently one of the two most popular articles on WSJ’s website. I will refrain from summarizing the article here, but reiterate her first question or primary goal:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too.
She goes on to address this question in the remainder of her article, sharing insights from her own experience as a “Chinese mother” and child of a “Chinese mother.” She also points out that her reference to Chinese is within a broader geographic or cultural framework that includes Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and others.
Throughout her article she compares and contrasts the parenting styles of typical Western mothers versus Chinese mothers, especially as it relates to the success of their children in academic and non-academic activities. Here is a quote from a study she references that frames her overall approach.
In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”
Her premise is that the overall success of Asian students is a function of their parents’ parenting style, which is not very “permissive.” In contrast, Western students, while not unsuccessful as a group, do not typically have parents drive the agenda. One might say that they are generally more permissive in their parenting style. At least that’s Ms. Chua’s perspective from my read. She also argues that Asian parents can get away with a more strict parenting style because of their culture’s tolerance for directive parenting. She argues that in Western countries, some of the things Asian parents can say or do to their children, all within the context of promoting hard work, would not be tolerated. I was particularly interested in how she framed her thoughts in this quote:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.
No doubt, parents from different cultures and perspectives would disagree with her point-of-view. Check this YouTube clip from a CBS talk show about Ms. Chua’s book:
Is it true that young people “never want to work?” Is it the responsibility of parents to override their child’s preferences? Ms. Chua is certainly pointing out that parents from different cultures have unique approaches to parenting. Equally interesting was her view that in Western cultures parents are more concerned with a child’s self-esteem and psyche, whereas in Asian cultures parents are less motivated by that concern. Here is what she writes:
First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.
She points out that Asian parents believe they know what is best for their children. In contrast, Western parents strive to give their children more choices, listening to what they want from an experience or how much effort they are willing to give to an activity, letting them experience the consequences of their choice.
One fascinating part of the article assembled by the WSJ was the accompanying video interview of two young Asian mothers who were caring for their children. See the link for this video interview (http://tinyurl.com/4kqgu8o).
When I think about the national conversation about linking teacher’s evaluations to student test scores (see a CFT blog post on this topic), I believe it is motivated by the assumption that high-quality teaching is directly correlated with high student test scores. While there is research (article on teacher quality and student achievement in Education Week) that shows a strong correlation between the two, I can’t help but think about this article and draw the following conclusion. It is misguided to primarily evaluate teachers based on how well their students perform on high-stakes tests. There are many variables that impact a student’s ability to learn. Here are just a few:
- The quality of the teacher.
- The number of high-quality teachers a student has in succession.
- The quality of the parenting a student receives at home.
- The economic advantages a student has that provide opportunites and experiences.
- The resources, such as food, books, etc., that are available to a child.
- The alignment of a student’s learning style with the teacher’s teaching style.
- The ability of the teacher to create a “classroom community” devoted to learning.
Therefore, how well a student does on high-stakes tests is not just a function of the quality of the teacher. All of these factors, and probably others impact how well a student performs in class and on summative assessments. Educators must take a broader or more wholestic approach to learning if we are to improve student achievement. Partnerships with parents and parent education must be part of our work. I am not advocting that schools teach parents how to parent, but I am advocating that schools educate parents about how first-rate parenting helps a child reach his or her goals. We also have to share parenting experiences from different cultures. This is why I found Ms. Chua’s article so fascinating. While I am not sure I could parent the way she does, I did get some insights into my parenting through her experiences.
Finally, I believe we need to advocate for the classroom teacher. Jon Saphier writes:
Teaching is one of the most complex human endeavors imaginable.
Because classroom teaching is complex we need to have open minds and thoughtful discourse about how to design quality teacher evaluation systems. Good systems of evaluation will take into account all the variables that impact student learning. It won’t give undue weight to summative test scores because they are one of many variables that indicate the level of student achievement. Good systems of evaluation will be formative, educating the teacher and helping them reach their personal and professional goals.
In closing, Ms. Chua’s article helped me put into perspective how important a child’s parenting is to their receptivity and commitment to learning. One size of parenting doesn’t fit all, but different styles have at least one thing in common; good parents care about their children.
Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
Both types of parents nurture successful and well-adjusted children that help the teacher create a positive and productive learning environment. Therefore, let’s not put the responsibility solely on the backs of teachers. As President Obama says:
And I’ve said this all across the country when I talk to parents about education, government has to fulfill its obligations to fund education, but parents have to do their job too. We’ve got to turn off the TV set, we’ve got to put away the video game, and we have to tell our children that education is not a passive activity, you have to be actively engaged in it. If we encourage that attitude and our community is enforcing it, I have no doubt we can compete with anybody in the world.