Chinese Mom: American 'Tiger Mother' clueless about real Chinese parenting

Chinese Mom: American 'Tiger Mother' clueless about real Chinese parenting

The "Chinese" parenting style advocated by Asian-American author Amy Chua is no longer popular among Chinese mothers
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Helen He on Amy Chua - Chinese mothersAs a post-1980s mother, I, like many other young moms in China, often seek parenting advice from various channels and never miss reading the latest popular books on parenting.

Recently, a book titled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” written by Yale university professor Amy Chua on the parenting experience of a Chinese mother, stirred up a controversy in the West after an excerpt from the book was printed in the Wall Street Journal.

I’m a born-and-bred Shanghainese mother, not that proficient in English, so I wasn't able to read Amy Chua’s entire work. But I did have friends translate a book excerpt printed in the Wall Street Journal for me.

The author claims that mothers, by being strict and narrowminded and focusing only on results, are able to nurture child geniuses.

This is clearly a utilitarian take on parenting and I was deeply astounded that the Chua lauds this as a forte of Chinese mothers.

I only want to say: Please don’t demonize Chinese mothers.

Amy Chua’s claims are misleading because Chinese-American women cannot be said to represent mothers in mainland China, and thus are unable to objectively elaborate on the parenting attitudes and experiences of Chinese mothers.

Amy Chua does not speak for all of us

Environment has a big influence over a person’s values, and the role of a mother is not something that every woman takes to immediately.

The Chinese parenting method Chua champions has no claims to authenticity.

Every mother gradually devises her own parenting method, which is often shaped by her own experience growing up, as well as the environment around her.

According to reports, Amy Chua is a Filipino of Chinese descent.

Her parents emigrated to America and underwent an intense struggle to set their roots in a foreign land, which inevitably led them to adopt a more utilitarian outlook in raising their children: "We struggled to get you this new citizenship status, the best way to repay us as our children is to succeed in life."

Amy Chua brings up Confucius in her article to explain why Chinese parents feel that their children are indebted to them for life. But, she probably doesn't know that there is another fundamental saying in the Confucian school of thought that “ethics matter more than results, harmony more than competition."

Simply put, one should not be overly aggressive in trying to outdo others nor adopt a mindset that every investment should get due returns.

Confucius also believed that education should be something tailored according to an individual’s talents and capabilities, rather than a force-fed regime.

In other words, the parenting that Amy Chua received while growing up already deviates from Chinese traditions, and despite her attempts to follow in the footsteps of her parents, the Chinese parenting method she champions has no claims to authenticity.

This strict parenting style, if blindly -- or even vengefully -- repeated among successive generations, will only be a prolonged tragedy.

The parenting styles of post-1980s mothers

The bulk of parents in China today comprise children born in the 1970s and 1980s. I will raise two examples to illustrate how Amy Chua’s perception of Chinese parenting methods differs from current practices in modern China.

Kaixin001, China's Facebook that's popular among the post-1980s generation in China, recently held two online polls.

One was titled “If you had a girl, what would you teach her?” while the other was “What would you do if you discovered your teenage son was in love?” Each had a total of 97,470 and 28,915 respondents, respectively.

In the first poll, piano and karate came out on top with 55 percent and 54 percent of the total votes. In third place was the response “How to deal with men," which shows that young parents are also concerned about their child’s interpersonal skills and EQ.

In the second poll, there were more than 15 different response options, but only 366 netizens (less than one percent of respondents) chose the most extreme option of sharply reprimanding the child.

The reason why books such as “Fu Lei’s Letters Home” and “Education of Love,” as well as more recent titles such as “A Good Mother Is Better than a Good Teacher” and “An Average Student at Home,” are so well-received among Chinese parents is because they reflect a parenting mindset premised on mutual respect and communication between parent and child -- an attitude that's fast becoming the norm in China.

The parenting method that Amy Chua encourages, one of forcing a child to discover his talents through disciplined and repeated practice, is contrary to the upbringing that many young Chinese mothers have received.

The parent-child relationship depicted in "Growing Pains," an American television series popular in China in the 1980s, is something that is finding favor with many mothers of my generation.

When I was in university, the way the Seaver family openly communicated with each other was something I could identify with.

This strict parenting style, if blindly -- or even vengefully -- repeated among successive generations, will only produce a prolonged tragedy.

Along with the opening up of China, my parents’ generation had also opened up to other methods of parenting. They no longer held on to a “spare the rod and spoil the child” mindset, but instead saw their children as equals and hoped to build friendships with them.

Nurturing healthy individuals rather than child prodigies who have no fun

The desire for one’s child to be a straight-A student or a musical genius seems simple and naive to most Chinese mothers.

A survey of 1,285 mothers of children up to six years old conducted by Babytree, China’s largest parenting website, found that health, happiness, self-confidence and kindness were the four most important traits that mothers hoped their children would have.

About 77 percent of mothers did not expect their children to have particular talents and 65 percent of mothers said they would encourage children to pursue their hobbies, even if it was not an interest shared by the mother.

The most important wish among mothers was for their children to have a happy, stress-free life.

The point I wish to emphasize is this: a child is a gift, but the right to control him is not a given.

The child that we nurture may subtly be influenced by our thoughts and values while under our care, but this does not mean that we should forcefully deprive them the independence to discover and grasp other opportunities that the world offers.

Taiwanese author Lung Ying-tai wrote in her book “Seeing Off” that the role of a parent is merely to stand by one’s child and watch his back as he gradually ventures afar.

This very appropriately describes the mindset of many young parents in China today.

To raise a child is to give him the freedom to build a life of his own, rather than to force him to become a replica of your own successes or as compensation to make up for your regrets. As such, the right to decide what is good or bad for a child is not entirely up to the parents -- the child should have a say, too.

If life really is a race, instead of encouraging your child to tirelessly try to outdo others and come in first, why not let him run at an enjoyable pace so he can admire the sights along the way?

I dare say that most Chinese mothers, especially those belonging to the post-1980s generation, do silently but lovingly encouraging their children to make the most of life in exactly this manner -- a mindset contrary to that advocated by Amy Chua.

Article translated by Debbie Yong. See the original Chinese version here.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Helen He.
Born and raised in Shanghai, Helen He is a part-time publicist, full-time mother and part-time writer for lifestyle magazine and websites.
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