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Which Mother Knows Best: American or Chinese?

The world of parenting was presented with a gentle and nudging article in the New York Times last week on the importance of maintaining an imaginative and fun environment for children.The article captured the “growing movement to restore the sometimes-untidy business of play to the lives of children,” in the name of making them creative and able to explore their own interests and potential. You might think spending $20,000 per year to send your child to a school where they play the whole day is crazy, but in fact schools that subscribe to this method (such as the Blue School) are structured and thoughtful in their approach. One mother who has “learned to embrace the disorder” mused, “I think a big part of free play is having space … that isn’t ruled over by adults.”

In this happy garden of flowers, with chirping birds and children skipping to their own tune, came the thunderclap and downpour of a Chinese mother’s dark disapproval. Two days ago, Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua wrote a highly contentious article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior“. It’s no secret that Chinese children excel at almost everything they put their mind to – be it mathematics, chess, figure skating or playing the piano. They sit high on top of class rankings taking them straight to Ivy League schools, making one less spot available for your child (present or future). In case you’re wondering how they succeed, Chua has the answer: their mothers give them no choice but to excel. In an article whose essential theme was “mother knows best and you’ll do what she says,” Chua asserts that Western parents who give children the choice to do what they want are condemning their progeny to life of failure. “Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do”, says Chua:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano

Chua’s article immediately went viral with hundreds of thousands of people reading it in a short 24 hours, launching her book on the topic (Battle Hym of the Tiger Mother) straight to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Lest anyone think her girls are automatons, a reading of the book shows that they are very bright, highly independent young women who are not afraid to challenge their mother. Yet both girls have also clearly benefited from the keen interest Chua has taken in their education and activities, albeit with methods that are sometimes border on horrifying. But as she notes dryly, “Western children are definitely no happier than Chinese children.”

So which method is right – the liberal American one or the disciplinarian Chinese one? The answer is unfortunately quite boring: it’s a little of both. Exciting as extremes feel in theory, they often result in unhappy and unfulfilled individuals. More importantly, given a future in which technology will repeatedly disrupt how we live and earn money, we need to prepare children with a tool kit of relevant skills and a mind that is innovative and quick to adapt. This means that math, computer science, and the ability to process and filter large amounts of information must be taught and stressed (Check: Chinese mother), but at the same time entrepreneurship and experimentation must be encouraged in order to adapt to a globalized fast changing economy (check: Play-based learning). How exactly one can achieve this is something that parents must try to figure out on their own (at least till someone writes a book on it). 

One happy medium we recommend is that you give children the ability to choose activities they like, but then push them to work hard and excel at it. As they grow into their early teens, they must pursue their chosen studies and activities for at least a year. For one thing Chua is definitely right about: it’s difficult for children to remain self-motivated all the time.  Parents must help them power through moments of laziness and self-doubt, and keep trying to achieve their potential. Those who are not used to pushing  the limits of their potential will be at a distinct disadvantage in the future.


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