Can American Parents Learn From Chinese Parents?

I think Amy Chua is brilliant!

She's the Yale Law School professor who wrote a book, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition, about the superiority of Chinese parenting. Among her alleged rules: mandatory violin and piano lessons, no sleepovers, no playdates, no computer games, no grade less than an A. She claims to have called her daughter "garbage" when the child was extremely disrespectful, a comment which she implies was a good motivator.

I don't know Amy Chua, but I am almost certain she is exaggerating. She's pulling our leg about stereotypes about Chinese parenting, and the fact that her two daughters posed with her, playing the violin and piano, says to me that they too have a sense of humor.

Look at the grins on their faces! If Chua had written a careful, nuanced analysis of Chinese and American parenting styles, she wouldn't have received half the publicity. I hope she sells lots of books!

As the wife of a Chinese American and the parent of a now-grown child, I have some experience with this style of parenting. Sometimes it goes badly awry, and the child rebels, majoring in -- gasp! -- art. (Every Chinese American parent's nightmare.) Sometimes it results in a lifelong drive to succeed in a highly challenging field. And sometimes the child takes advantage of the opportunities of a great education and then goes on to pursue personal dreams.

Why do Chinese parents push their kids so hard? For one, look at the population of China. Even if these parents didn't grow up in that land of 1.3 billion people, they understand that only a competitive nature will help you succeed in a crowded world. Second, many Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the last 60 years feel they lost their country and had to compete in a land where they were handicapped by less-than-fluent English. They want to make double-sure their kids have every opportunity and then some.

Third, many of these Chinese Americans came to the U.S. as students, often graduate students, so they come from the better-educated end of Chinese society. Those who came as dishwashers and other laborers are eager for their kids to join these ranks. Most Chinese immigrants believe they sacrificed their own opportunities for their children, so their U.S.-born children have a heavy burden of proving that those sacrifices were worthwhile.

Beyond her humorous exaggeration, Amy Chua makes some points worth pondering. "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it," she says. I can see the logic of that. You have to admit that the American concern for a child's self-esteem has gone overboard. The messages of "You're special" and "You can do anything you want" don't train youngsters for the hard work and discipline it takes to achieve their dreams. As Chua says, "there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

After they finish fulminating, I hope American parents will see past the attention-grabbing examples and adopt what is best from the Chinese style of parenting.