The Agony of Parenting

Reflections on “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”

Much has been said about Amy Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,” and her related article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” If her goal was to provoke meaningful discussion about cultural differences in parenting, then she has certainly accomplished that.  She unapologetically promotes the results-oriented, top-down, I-know-what’s-best-for-you parenting style that is often favored (sometimes unknowingly) by Chinese parents and parents from many other cultures, although for most people the issue of parenting is quite complicated when two cultures and generations are involved.

As a Chinese immigrant and mother of a college freshman born and raised in the U.S., I find this subject fascinating on a very personal level.  While Amy Chua is an American-born, Harvard-educated Yale Law professor, she is in many ways much more “Chinese” than I as a mother, even though I came to this country already grown up and married (to a Chinese native). 

For example, my son was allowed and in some cases even encouraged to:

  • have sleepovers both at his friends’ houses and our house throughout his childhood
  • watch TV and play video games when he’s done with what he’s supposed to do
  • do crafts like folding origami, a hobby that he outgrew after a few years
  • play a role in a school play during his senior year in high school, even though the long hours of daily rehearsal took a toll on his sleep and ultimately his grades because I consider a school play an experience worthy of such sacrifice.  
  • choose his own college (Tufts University) as early decision, rather than making him apply for a bunch of better-known but not necessarily better or more suitable colleges for him.
  • figure out what he’s truly passionate about and gifted for without dictating what he should study in college, as long as he can lead a self-sufficient and productive life.

Finally, I believe he owes me nothing. I don’t expect any payback for my parental sacrifices, which are too many to list. Whatever he pursues should be for his own good and happiness rather than to appease us, his parents. He should live HIS dreams, not mine.

So I guess I qualify as a “Western” parent, more so than a “Chinese” parent. But the truth is, like every immigrant who is also a parent, I agonized over how “American” I want to be in my outlook, lifestyle, and parenting style. I agonized over where the right balance should be. Of course, like many things in life, there is no right answer and everyone in my circle of immigrant friends probably struggled just as much as I did, whether they are married to American-born spouses or not. 

In some ways, though, I am also very “Chinese.” I adhered to what I call the “Asian trilogy” of child-rearing in America—piano or violin, weekend language school, and martial arts. Like many parents who ushered their children through these popular routines, I saw them as the basic building blocks of discipline and skills development that could also help refine one’s cultural upbringing and strengthen one’s spirit. I signed my son up for summer academic programs that essentially made his summer time an extension of a regular school year rather than a play time. And I helped him apply for the International Baccalaureate program, which turned out to be a very rigorous academic experience, as it should be.

The result is a young man who is socially well-adjusted, perceptive and analytical, and who also has the intellectual capability to handle demanding courses at school. But he never made it to the Carnegie Hall or martial arts championship, or anything close to it, nor did we ever expect him to in spite of several wins from local contests. Like many American parents of all cultural backgrounds, we emphasized exposure and experience over results.

While there is a certain degree of fascination with “Asian” parenting style, if I may call it, which seems to have yielded a large number of “whiz kids,” there is really no secret to Asian parenting.  Asian parents simply emphasize academic achievement more, sometimes at the expense of other things that our kids and our non-Asian counterparts would consider just as important, if not more. Asian parents are more willing to sacrifice their time and wealth for their children’s education and overall well-being, as past studies have shown.

In spite of my differences with Amy Chua and some Asian parents, we as a society are fortunate when parents take parental responsibilities seriously and are willing to be the “bad cop” and do the unpopular things such as disciplining their own kids. We are fortunate when parents instill in their kids a strong sense of work ethics so the society doesn’t have to step in and pay for the bad choices they make later in life because somewhere along the line some adults were absent from their lives to properly guide and nurture them. We are fortunate when parents motivate their children to set and accomplish high goals through perseverance and the delay of gratification.

No parenting style is perfect just like no parent is perfect. Whenever we have a debate about cultural and value differences, it is important to seek to understand the complexities and nuances before passing judgments. Parenting is among the most demanding of all responsibilities. Each of us as a parent has to find our happy mean that works with our own peace of mind and takes into consideration each child’s unique traits as a human being.


I chose “Welcome” as the title of my first post, but really, there are many titles that would have worked just as well: 欢迎, ترحيب, Bienvenidos, स्वागत. This is, after all, a blog about connecting across cultures and communities. I will be posting some of my musings on culture, including my monthly columns on Asian Fortune magazine, as well as on happenings in my community. I will also do my best to post stories and findings about integration at both the individual and community levels. Hopefully, this website will contribute to more welcoming attitudes towards our differences.