I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal in which writer Amy Chua argues that a stereotypically Chinese parenting style is best for children. Chua argues that traditions of honour and respect allow Chinese parents to instill discipline and obedience in their children in ways that western parents are unable to do. While I agree that the discipline for which Chua advocates is important, and perhaps marginalized in what she describes as the typically western emphasis on self-esteem, the use of coercion and shame that she describes as the means of developing discipline is disturbing.
Concerns about the approach to parenting that Chua describes are evident, with varying degrees of outrage, in the responses to the article that have been posted online (over 1500 at the time of writing). What concerns me most however, is the sense of polarity in so many of the comments. The article’s title, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, as well as the tone of the article, certainly invite defensive, one-sided comments, making the dialogue neither informative nor productive.
One of the great advantages of the diversity that we enjoy in so many parts of the world today is the extent to which it allows us to see strengths and weaknesses in our own culture and to learn from other cultures. The parenting style for which Chua advocates cannot be universally applied, if only for the fact that it is impossible for all children to be at the top of every class except drama and PE. Music would be very dull indeed if children never learned anything but piano and violin, and culture would flounder if children were prevented from participation in extra-curricular arts and sports. Similarly, what Chua describes as the western approach cannot be universally applied either. A sense of self-esteem looses its value if it is not based on some objective standards of discipline, respect, achievement and principle. Clearly a middle ground is necessary.
Chinese and Western parents (to use Chua’s designation) can learn from each other that there is value in both discipline and self-esteem; obedience and free choice; academic achievement and the pursuit of one’s own interests. A great parent is the one who, recognizing that no two children are the same, balances these extremes in order to help each child thrive. Moreover, the superior parent is the one who, recognizing that no approach is perfect, is thoughtful in their approach and willing to adapt their style to fit the needs of their child.