Amy Chua's essay for The Wall Street Journal, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," sprinted across media outlets and the blogosphere, prompting responses at Motherlode, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Slate, among many others.
The essay spawned an interview on the Diane Rehm Show, not to mention nearly 5,500 reader comments on The Wall Street Journal's website and over 100,000 comments on Facebook. Many of the comments—from Caucasian and Asian American readers alike—express criticism or dismay. Why the uproar?
Chua makes extreme statements about her parenting style throughout the essay (an excerpt from her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). She begins with a list of things her two daughters were "never allowed to do," including "have a playdate," "watch TV or play computer games," and "get any grade less than an A." She describes calling her daughter "garbage … when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me." Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, explains, "the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child."
Chua's statements and the anecdotes from her parenting experience come across as harsh and extreme. She couches her approach in the language of love and belief in her children's abilities. But she includes stories such as losing her voice from shouting at her 7-year-old daughter until she can play a piano piece correctly.
Chua's approach comes across as demeaning and unhelpful at best. In a follow-up interview for The Wall Street Journal, Chua tempers some of her statements. She discusses the value of a parenting environment that includes both love and structure. She admits that she backed off from the more extreme version of "Chinese parenting" as her kids got older. She expresses her gratitude for her close relationship with her daughters now. But, at the end of the day, she remarks, "If I had to do it all over, I would do basically the same thing, with some adjustments."
A separate article from The New York Times offers an example of a more typically "Western" parenting approach. As Hilary Stout reports in "Effort to Restore Children's Play Gains Momentum," "the scientists, psychologists, educators and others who are part of the play movement say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play." She describes parents trying to relinquish control over their children's schedules, allowing free play instead of simply signing them up for sports teams and lessons every day after school. Parents in this article have increased their "tolerance for chaos," and have "learned to live with disarray," in an attempt to provide their children skill sets in problem-solving, negotiation, team-building, and creative thinking.
It's easy to read these two pieces and posit "Eastern" values against "Western" ones, or to list anecdotes proving the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of either one of these divergent parenting styles. Yet the styles bear comparison for their similarities, too, and, ultimately, for the ways in which they will disappoint parent and child alike.
Chua writes about raising "stereotypically successful kids" through strict discipline, limited social interaction, and regimented academic and musical practice. Stout describes play as a means to develop "the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work." In other words, both approaches focus upon the idea of success. But what does it mean for an individual to succeed? Should success be measured by academic achievement, sociability, job prospects, or something else? And should parents be held responsible for the success of their children, whatever that "success" may be?
From a Christian perspective, parenting ought to point children to the character of God as both the one who cares about the way in which we live and the one who graciously receives us when we fall short of that standard. The "Chinese" model of parenting reflects some Christian ideals in that the parent (at least the mother—Chua's essay doesn't describe a clear role for the father) is deeply engaged in her children's lives and the parent articulates and enforces clear expectations for a good life.
Various biblical writers admonish believers to discipline their children. The writer of Proverbs, for instance, says, "A fool spurns his father's discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence" (see Prov. 10:17, 12:1, 13:1, 22:6 for other examples). The New Testament epistles pick up the theme: "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord" (Col. 3:20). Christian parents ought to discipline their children, and yet this discipline is not done to ensure success, or even obedience. Rather, discipline ought to point to the character of God as one who wants to teach us how to live a good life.
By Christian standards, the "playful American" model of parenting also offers some benefits. Encouraging creativity can serve as a reflection of God's character as creator. Allowing children freedom—even the simple freedom to make a fort instead of going to soccer practice—can mirror God's desire for us to know freedom, especially when this freedom comes in the context of a loving and supportive environment. Similarly, encouraging children to play together mirrors the relational aspect of God's being.
Both of these parenting styles have something to offer to the degree that they reflect who we are as human beings—creatures who need instruction in the context of love and acceptance, individuals who need discipline in order to achieve our telos, our God-given purpose, and individuals who need grace when we just don't meet the expectations placed upon us by others. But both Eastern and Western parenting styles fail if they uphold "success" as their goal. The gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us, parents and children alike, that our worth comes not from getting straight As, not from general happiness, not from imagination or creativity—but simply from the value bestowed upon us as children of God.