If Chinese Mothers are supposed to be superior….

then why don’t I feel like I’m the best mother in the World?

A recent article Why Chinese Mothers are Superior in the Wall Street Journal has caused a lot of controversy and raised a lot of emotion amongst it readers and it’s certainly worth a read. Being an immigrant (Malaysian Chinese) to a Western culture (we now live in the UK), this article has certainly struck a chord for many reasons….not least because I too am, to a certain extent, trying to instill my child with ‘Asian values’ while being surrounded by Western Culture (I wrote about this when Georgia was little more than 1 here);

 it also resonated with my thoughts on the responses of the UK’s Department of Education (supported by the PM and DPM) on the drop in the UK placing for the OECD, PISA rankings (but that’s probably for another blog!).

So as another Chinese mother, even with the same Hokkien heritage…do I agree with Prof Chua?

I must admit, that her methods were not a shock to me. While my mother was not quite as brutal, the expectation to achieve and over-achieve while never spoken were always implied and results were always demanded. I remember telling her the results to an English test one day, saying “I got 100%” and her response was “Is that all?”. I promptly burst in to tears.

This however was the norm amongst my peers. Everyone strove to achieve, success was measured by how many As you got; praise was something that was refuted by your parents when their friends commented one your achievements. Top students were exalted and god-forbid you failed any tests. Somehow though, the need to achieve became internalised, and certainly for me, I always felt the need to achieve…rightly or wrongly…to the extent that if I could not do something well, I would give it up!

 Without a doubt, it has in very clear ways made me the person I am today (I have a PhD, play 3 instruments, swum competitively and was a competitve archer; I also learnt, Japanese, Mandarin and French (languanges are not my forte though!). I definitely attribute much of my success to my mothers mothering abilities.

However as a mother myself today, would I do the same? In one word No, BUT neither would I wholly subscribe to the ‘Western-style’ of raising children.

Being somewhat ‘in-between’, I have come to realise (as many in similar situations have) that the true value of being a happy, successful person lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

Happy being the key word here.

Our Asian heritage teaches us many wonderful traits, among them, hard work (which Prof, Chua very clearly instills in her daughters), respect (especially for parents and elders), humility, compassion for others but the bottom line in the Asian culture is always how successful you are, never how happy you are. Often success may be achieved at the cost personal happiness, as long as “my Parents are happy”.

My life experiences however have taught me that the most important thing in life is to be happy and at peace with yourself.

Perhaps here in the West, happiness and satisfaction are severely over-rated and we often tip-toe around people for fear of hurting their feelings. However, the freedom of children (to be children), the ability to ask questions and learn from asking questions, the immense value placed on creativity and individuality are all wonderful hallmarks of a Western upbringing. Unfortunately this is also often at the cost of striving to achieve more where academic success is not valued, over-achievers are taunted and successful people are football heros or pop idols.

So where does that leave us?

My personal philosophy to raising Georgia has been to instill the value and the pleasure of good, hard work; to know that it is important to respect people for who they are, to be humble and compassionate and yet equally we encourage her creativity and constantly praise her efforts in everything that she does; answer all her questions as honestly and as truthfully as we can.

Only time will tell if this is the right way…but for now, that and all our love will have to suffice.

Were you raised in the Asian or Western way? and if you have kids, what are your parenting philosophies?

© 2011, Li-ling. All rights reserved.


  • I’ve often thought about the drive that I have seen in children of Asian decent (I was a teacher for many years). My take, based on science and observation, is that there are aspects of traditional Asian parenting such as bed-sharing and baby-wearing, which establish a sense of connection and maturity that comes before the competitive drive. When these, highly nurturing, aspects of parenting have been incorporated, the resultant child is both able to relate to others successfully and achieve highly academically. I think more problems arise when children have all of their sense of self caught up in test scores or material wealth: then we see eating disorders, suicides, failed relationships etc. The other interesting aspect is that competition is most prevelant (sp?) in societies where resources are scarce. Where there is plenty, often people are more relaxed. There you go: my 2 pennies worth!

    • Hi Kloppenmum
      What a fascinating insight….interestingly much of Asian parenting as you describe bed-sharing and baby-wearing are now being replaced by more Western approaches. Your observation on the society’s resources and it’s influence and impact on behaviour are probably very true.

      The reliance on farming, in China, probably informed much of the core ‘hard work’ ethic we see so much off, whereas, the very early industrialisation of the West probably also like you say provide better means and subsequently an ‘easier’ life.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Meh, if the system works, how come less than 10 percent of chinese students to go college in China? Wouldn’t the country be entirely made up of super PhD’s by now if the system worked?

    The reality is that most Chinese are blue collar working stiffs like the rest of us. Actually America produces a larger percentage of college grads than China, per capita.

    Also, none of this addresses the massive need in western society for soft skills and social networks to be successful in the working world. I’ve met plenty of the young men and women who achieve high grades but are clueless in social situations. God help them.

    No one tells Chinese mothers this, but I’m here to let you in on a little secret….sometimes the degree matters, but the grades don’t. No one, and I mean no one, cares about the grades once your kid enters the working world. They certainly don’t care about the stupid trophy (made in China by blue collar stiffs) he/she won in a violin competition.

    Connections are everything in the modern world, not the “good old boy’s network”, but the friends made in high school and university lead to the jobs in the real world, and the ability to work in teams at the office, and “connect” emotionally with others.

    Anyway, what happens to the parent-child relationship after the kid grows up? Does the parent still want to “manage” the kid’s career? Choice of spouse? How the grandkids are raised? In my experience (I live on the West Coast of the US with millions of Asian immigrants), this is a problem. There are a lot of kids who grow up to have emotional breakdowns. There is even a word for it at the universities – the “teacup” kids, who crack under the pressure.

    • Jayne, how true your observations are! Interestingly in Malaysia (where I grew up) the disparity in social skills is very pronounced and easily observed as there are in essence 3 different cultural/race based education systems – the national (in Malay), National-type (Chinese and Indian).

      The question you raise about why so few people get in to higher education in China however, I think is perhaps one of very stringent and very hard entrance exams and the limited number of places.

      When I was a lecturer, in the UK, I noticed that tertiary education here, is often (if not always) seen as a right, whereas in China and many parts of Asia, it is still very much a privilege and subsequently very few of the overall population ‘get in’.

      Having been in the education as much as I have, I completely agree with you wrt the overall degree and never the grade and the importance of ‘soft skills’.

      I feel that much of this disconnect or misunderstanding between what in essence has become an East vs West parenting question is really based on the culture of each society. Asian parents, practically ‘live for’ their children, every success and achievement is a personal ‘gain’ for the parent – mainly as a reflection of their own successful parenting, so a child’s success be it Academic or otherwise is (rightly or wrongly) often taken as a direct reflection of the parent. Whereas, increasingly in the Western society, a reflection of successful parenting is how well-adjusted or how happy or satisfied a child has grown up to be.

      What I feel the real shame here, is for Asian parents to be so engrossed in their chase for success that it is often at the expense of happiness or self satisfaction, while in the West, happiness or satisfaction is so highly prized it becomes detrimental to personal development.

      Thanks very much for stopping by and would love to hear more of your thoughts…

    • @Jayne – it’s not so very long ago that in the UK only 10-15% of the population went to university!

  • Thanks for such an interesting post.
    I muddle through parenthood and hope that my deep love for my children and the security I provide will stand them in good stead.
    I encourage them to reach for their potential and to pursue their dreams. I also remind them that many are less fortunate than they are so they already have quite strong views about giving to charity, giving their time to others etc.
    Will return to your blog as like that you really look deeply into issues

    • Hi Kate,

      Thank you very much for stopping by…I think at the end of the day, we can only do the very best that we can with the skills that we have, within our own circumstances and hope it all turns out for the best.

      That said, sharing thoughts, opinions and strategies with fellow parents have often left me with a thankful .. ‘I’m glad I’m not the only one’.

      We have so much to learn from each other, it so important not to pass judgement without learning the background/history.

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