Eugene Cho

why asian parents are the best and worst

It’s amazing what one article can do but one thing that’s clear is that Amy Chua is going to sell some books. Cha-ching.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a very long excerpt from Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. WSJ entitled the piece, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

  • Have you read the article?
  • What did you think?
  • Agree? Disagree?

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt that was supposedly a bunch of cut and paste for the sake of piecing together the juiciest parts. And it is juicy indeed:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

    • 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 or violin
    • not play the piano or violin.

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

You should read the entire piece. It’s quite interesting and provocative.

The question is simple:

  • Are Asian parents indeed superior than other parents?
  • Or rather, is there a “superior” way to reframe that question?

Some random thoughts:

1. Stereotypes are always bad.

Even if there might be an element of truth, in the long run, it suffocates personal identity and freedom.

Please.try.to.resist.

2. Yes, they are “superior.”

Of course this is true.

Parents that invest, love, encourage, push, empower…are simply better parents. No?

Kids need to be pushed, motivated, encouraged, and pushed even more and that’s what Asian parents are often prone to do. They understand the privilege of education and not the entitlement of education.  There might be some parents that are so lax with their kids that they need to read this article. There are some parents that are so consumed by the fragility of their children’s emotional stability that they’re unwilling to push:

I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Superior parents have high hopes and expectations for their children. They never relinquish the desire for a “better life” for their children.

3. No, they are not superior.

How does one define superiority? How does one define success for a child or person?

Clearly, we can acknowledge that good grades or test scores in themselves don’t guarantee “success.”

The lack of balance and a wholistic vision for life and success.

Education and success grows to be the pervasive idolatry by which all things are measured.

4. My personal experience

Ugh. I can imagine Asian-Americans all around the country being poked, analyzed, and asked if they can speak on behalf of all Asians in the world:

Is this true?

While I believe there are many Asians and Asian-Americans that can understand the premise of the article, one ought to also acknowledge shifts in learning, education, and a higher inclination towards creativity and critical thought in the learning process – both in the West and in the East.

As for my experience: It was intense. I resonated with much of the article.

The academic pressure was pretty brutal in the Cho Household growing up.  Sort of a common story especially amongst Asian immigrants – at least the Asian-American friends I hung out with.  Ask most 1st or 2nd generation Asian-Americans and they’ll likely understand what I’m talking about.  Immigration does some intense things to people.  I was 6 when we moved to the States and technically, I had the most time to acclimate and should have been the one to excel amongst my brothers.

My parents were obsessed with our education and “success.” While I did not understand why, I later understood that they sought for us what no one was willing to pursue for them. Because of my parents’ high expectations and their commitment to our education, we all did “well.”  I managed to graduate tops in middle school but it was pretty much down from there.   Now, I still did very well – but just not tops.  I was in the honor society in high school; graduated college in three years…but just not tops which translated to “not good enough.”

Here’s a classic story: During my fourth grade summer vacation, my mother gave me “homework” which was the case for every summer.  That summer’s homework was the most memorable…

My homework was to copy the entire set of World Book Encyclopedia – by hand.

I didn’t finish but managed to get to the “S” volume.  I ripped out pages when she wasn’t looking and pretty much hated life.

But it was tough not meeting their expectations and not getting my Ph.D. like my oldest brother.  That guy is one smart dude.  And my middle brother is sharp as well.  I simply couldn’t keep up with them.

My decision and conviction to enter seminary and go into ministry brought much pain and anxiety to my parents.  I was “ordained” to be a medical doctor.  Those were some painful years.  But through it all and while not necessarily meeting my parents perfect expectations, it feels so good to know that my parents are now our biggest supporters and advocates.  While I ultimately seek to bring glory to my Heavenly Father, it feels good to bring joy and honor to my parents as well.

So, are my parents the best or worst?

They are neither.

They are my parents & I now understand
how much they loved and sacrificed…

But this I know, I’d rather have parents that would have pushed me rather than those that chose not to invest at all which leads me to my final random thought:

5. Don’t make them our idolatries.

The point is simple. We have been given the humble, amazing, and hard task of raising our children so that one day, they continue onward.

Love and invest in your children – contextually and holistically. But simultaneously, let’s not make them or their success the source of our idolatries.

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15 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    You know Eugene I think one thing that many critics miss about this so-called “Chinese mother” method of parenting is that discipline in the beginning is never easy but it sets a pattern for their future. Amy says in her book that the one of reason for the high demand of discipline is because many things in this world are not truly enjoyable to do until they are done well. It was never demanded of me to be an “A” student or to consistently practice at a sport or music and as an adult, I think learning new things is more difficult for me. I had a wonderful upbringing by loving parents but they never challenged me to be disciplined.

  2. chris says:

    This has been going around my circle of friends and every other forum online. I think whoever chose the WSJ article title and used the word “superior” was irresponsible. that excerpt is too well-argued and makes too much sense to have an inflammatory title slapped on it and hawked to the general xenophobic community.

    so with all due respect, eugene, I think, “Are Asian parents indeed superior than other parents?” is the wrong question to ask.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      chris,

      that’s my point. clearly, not well made but we’re framing the question in completely wrong ways.

      it’s hard to quantify parenting, children, and people in general.

      but oh, the importance of holistic parenting.

  3. Ian Ebright says:

    Thanks for this, Eugene.

    Maybe she’s right about parents in the west. I wonder if I overcompensate with E when it comes to encouragement, because I really disliked the parts of my upbringing where I was expected (mostly by my dad) to be great at sports when I wasn’t interested, and generally never felt I was doing well enough in other areas (this became worse as high school started). There was always a suggestion on ways to do it better instead of a “nice job.” I hated that and probably still do. Coincidentally (wink wink) i can be really demanding now. Funny how much our parents rub off on us, even the stuff we don’t want to carry on.

    That’s a tough line for me- the line between pushing kids too hard (when the consequences can be burn-out or rebellion) vs. encouraging mediocrity and comfort (when the consequences can be spoiled, selfish, unrealistic kids). The learning continues…thank God for God.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      We tend to function as pendulums in response to our parents or our personal experiences.

      My parents weren’t very affection so I’m constantly hugging and kiss my children. My parents drove me to perfection so I’m trying – even if my personal life doesn’t communicate as such – to speak grace into my kids.

      What I’m learning is that “pendulum parenting” can be somewhat harmful. So, I’m trying to constantly look for that balance or a growing commitment to holistic parenting.

  4. Laurel says:

    I read it. I felt appalled. Then I wondered if I just felt appalled because I’m white? But maybe also because of some similar experiences I had before I convinced my mom that I did not want to learn to play the piano.

    Now I’m wondering… surely there’s a way to encourage excellence without being mean? To push but not push too hard? To help them believe they can do amazing things, without creating a perfectionist or someone who feels that they “fail to measure up”?

  5. […] Eugene Cho takes on the question posed by Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in his latest post:  are Asian mothers superior to other mothers?  His answer:  yes and no. […]

  6. Kyoung says:

    I just wanted to point out that I think parents are sometimes misled on the amount of influence they have on their kids. I think Amy Chua thinks that she “made” her kids the way they are now, but I’m not sure if she mentions in her book that the parent is not the sole influence children get in their lifetime. I think for me, a lot of me is what I was just born with. Parents influenced me, but also what I experience outside the home had a tremendous influence on me too, and then I processed those experiences the way I was born to process them (my personality, nature). I think from parents, you get the sense of security (being loved), and a lot of the nonverbal things that they never mean to teach you, such as their actions, how they deal with situations in life, how they live out their faith. Of course, it’s probably more complicated than this, I’m sure. But I wonder if even if she wasn’t so severe on her kids, her kids would’ve turned out similar, just because of their parents’ values and attitudes in life. Just my thought.

  7. gar says:

    Lac Su’s response:

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/01/20/lac.su.tiger.mother.scars/

    If you haven’t read his personal memoir, “I Love Yous Are For White People”, I definitely recommend it, Pastor E!

  8. Joseph says:

    So in reading all the hubbub that’s been going on. I think context plays a huge role in all of this, what’s been said by Amy seems to have been largely taken out of context. She wrote a memoir, not a guide to parenting, the excerpt from the WSJ is from her earlier stance as a mother, not later when’s she grown and learn more. There’s also a fair bit of tongue in cheek in her writing, but that’s hard to get in the piece, also the inflammatory title wasn’t even chosen by her, but it definitely got quite a bit of readership.

    The story was framed in a very confrontational way, KUOW just did a much more fair and nuanced interview with her: http://kuow.org/conversation/index.php?id=22405

    I suppose it’s not just politics where discourse becomes rather partisan, a call for civility seems to come to mind, maybe we can learn from both sides of the table too.

  9. Tony Dawson says:

    Yes – i think it is a provocative title (chosen by the publisher???) and she doesn’t want to be the proverbial “Dragon Lady”.
    As an Anglo parent (father), my first impression is “WHERE DOES SHE GET THE ENERGY?” (and wondering if she is a Party member).
    As a teacher, i have seen how hard-working and high-achieving Asian students are (along with other ethnic groups). But i have two concerns with ethnic hothousing – how are their people skills and their ’emotional intelligence’?
    And also – is this building the self-reliance and creativity they will need in later life when Mummy is not around?

  10. abc123 says:

    This is a really interesting article. Pretty unbiased too and very open ended. Personally, there is a cultural misunderstanding between Asian and American (white, black, yellow, etc.) parents. It’s not that American/Western parents praise for mediocrity. Instead, it’s encouragement to do better in the future, plus an underlying message that it’s perfectly alright to fail. Sure, you would be ostracized a lot in real life, but western parents produce kids who are comfortable taking chances and are willing to fail and be open about it. Asian parents on the other hand tend to be fearful of failure, so that gives kids the idea that life is all about succeeding and getting that A or that 1600 on the SAT or that 800 on the subject test or that 36 on the ACT. Sure, they may grow up to be very successful, but they won’t know how to live life for what it truly is.

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Window seat. For the win. As leaders, we must not see ministry and family as competing commitments.  We must not sacrifice our marriage and kids for the sake of "ministry." How can we? Loving our families IS ministry & good leadership.

And on a side note, we took this goofy photo for Mother's Day last Sunday at @seattlequest. I was shocked! What in the world happened to our kids? Our 13 year old son blocked four of my shots on the basketball court yesterday. He's since been grounded... I fear that we ask God to move mountains, forgetting that God also wants to move us.

In fact, it's possible that we are that mountain. Time flies. The eldest is wrapping up her 1st year in college and the college tours have begun for the 2nd child. The youngest enters high school in the Fall. Can't say enough about how proud Minhee and I are of the kids - not just of their accomplishments but the people they are and are becoming.

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