This is a response to the article Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior (hence my otherwise offensive title), an excerpt from a book. You’ll have to read the article to understand my response; I don’t feel like summing it up.

Right off the bat, I’ll make it clear that the phrase “Chinese mother” does not mean “all Chinese mothers” — like in the original article, the phrase refers to that particular Chinese mother’s specific strict parenting style. A mother could be a “Chinese mother” without necessarily being Chinese. (If you want to argue about the political correctness of such a phrase, go ahead. I’m an Irish blogger.)

By the way, this article is obviously quite controversial and has inspired responses from a multitude of writers and bloggers, so I don’t think my response here is necessarily anything new. This is an issue of parenting and education, which might as well be religion and politics considering the fervor with which people hold their vindications. I have problems with many of the other responses as well, but for this post I’m only responding to the original article.

What is success? How much is it worth?

My biggest problem with this article is not the Chinese mother’s strict unwavering parenting tactics, but her deep-down not-directly-stated beliefs about what life is about, and what one should do with it.

How does this Chinese mother define success? Her definition seems very limited. She doesn’t directly define it, so I can only guess at what it is based on what she says in the article. She seems to think that success comes from accomplishing something that not many other people do, but that other people would consider to be good. For instance, being a virtuoso on the piano or violin. They can be challenging instruments, and overall not very many humans become masters at playing them; that takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Another example is grades; the highest grade you can get is a 100 percent, an A+. Therefore, getting this grade means you are successful.

Does she ever think about a grander purpose? Why is learning the violin or piano that important? Why not a different instrument? Why not a different skill? Why are grades that important? Why are the school subjects that other people have to decided to grade your child on ultimately that important? (That’s not just a question to the Chinese mother, but to society in general. What is with so many parents’ blind support of good grades, regardless of the particular subject material?) Why is “success” important?

My guess at the Chinese mother’s answer (from reading the article): The difficult practice is only a necessary evil; of course it will be tough in the beginning. But it’s worth it. By the end, the child has a wonderful skill that will bring her joy and happiness, she has confidence and high self-esteem, and her skill makes her popular.

The real answer I feel from reading the article: the Chinese mother is just kind of stupid and never thought about these issues very deeply. She defines success through what she thinks other people want to see and doesn’t really think about what it means on a personal level. (I’m not saying that’s exactly true; that’s just what the article makes me think.)

(How I define success: You have a goal and you achieve it. Simple as that. The general definitions of success involving good grades, popularity, boat loads of money, etc., are, I think, ultimately empty, born of people comparing themselves to others, as if the value of a person’s life and achievements are somehow based on everyone else’s. They’re not. They’re completely intrinsic.)

The Chinese mother recounts a story in which she forces her daughter to practice the piano, a specific piece with a particularly challenging rhythm to it. At the end, the daughter learns to play it, and there is much merriment and joy. To me, it seems like the author is saying: “See? The end justifies the means!”

If you want to instill confidence in your children, if you want them to realize that they are capable of things they didn’t think they were, don’t you think there are ways that would be less painful for both of you? I’m not going to go into what those ways might be; I’m only wondering if the Chinese mother would even think about that question in the first place.

The value of choice

I also wonder what the children really feel. Not what they say they feel after a successful recital after there has been much applause, but what they truly feel. There may be love between the mother and daughters, but that doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t abusive. The mother may have good intentions, but that doesn’t make her innocent.

As people, I don’t think we can truly sum up our feelings. Our feelings and moods are fleeting; they’re here one moment, gone the next. This creates a problem. The only reason pain would be worth anything now is if it leads to joy later on (or the prevention of even worse pain). For example, you bear cold weather to chop wood and buy food to prevent the pain of freezing and starving to death. You drive through horrible traffic to get to a movie you really want to see. You practice drawing to draw well.

The problem is: how do you know your suffering now is worth it? Well, you can’t know. You’ll just have to decide.

Or your parents decide for you.

Obviously most parents might force their children to do things they don’t like: clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, don’t stay up all night, don’t hit your brother, etc. Though there can be grey areas, most of these are pretty obviously things children (and people in general) should and shouldn’t do (they apply to children because they apply to adults too, the adult just has more experience and discipline… usually).

But the Chinese mother takes it further with even stricter commandments, and her commandments seem stricter and not worthwhile to most of us.

(Another problem: you can’t decide whether or not it was worth it afterwards, because you can only experience one outcome. Afterwards you can only be happy or disappointed, but you can’t make a judgment on the worth of your past feelings; they’re gone.)

I can say with full honestly that I don’t sit here and regret that I’m not a master on the piano or that I didn’t get perfect grades in school. I suppose the Chinese mother would see me as a failure of a human were I her child. But I have been able to pursue my varied interests: computer programming, writing, music composition, and currently computer animation. And doing what I want in and of itself brings me infinite more satisfaction than making anyone else proud. (To get religious, one might say: “But what about God?! Shouldn’t you do what He wants?” Sure, but it’s more than that; you should want to do what He wants, that’s the entire point of free will. What would your good deeds be worth if you didn’t choose to do them yourself?)

Unfortunately the children of the Chinese mother cannot sing “My Way” with any vindication, though they could probably play it very well on the piano.

Motherhood

The Chinese mother makes a point that she thinks her children owe her pretty much everything, so all her apparent abuse is fine and moral and nothing to feel guilty about. I’d love to know what exactly she bases that belief on. Just tradition? It strikes me as a very selfish and morally wrong view of the parent-child relationship, but we really have to get into philosophy and religion to see why, and that’s opening up a whole new can of worms that I don’t really feel like opening. After all, there are books dedicated to the subject.

Ultimately I believe that all individuals deserve equal amounts of respect. The parent-child relationship is a particularly special one, but it doesn’t grant that much power to the parent.


4 Comments

Luke · January 17, 2011 at 11:20 PM

Strongly agree, Sean. This paragraph —

“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.”

— makes me cringe.

S P Hannifin · January 17, 2011 at 11:52 PM

Thanks! Yes, that paragraph makes me cringe too; I feel so many problems in that one paragraph alone.

Anonymous · January 29, 2011 at 4:45 AM

It is great that you are in a comfortable enough position to criticize parents who are actually looking out for he best interest of their offspring and society. See, it makes me cringe when professionals levy charges against parents that are not harming their children. God created motherhood… And nothing short of fatherhood has beaten it yet………

S P Hannifin · January 29, 2011 at 7:26 PM

The Chinese mother does harm her children, that’s the point. Who’s best interests she is looking out for is insiginificant.

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