Why Chinese Mothers Are Mediocre

February 8, 2011 12:00 am0 comments
Steven Zhang

It’s curious how so-called “tiger mother” Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, begins her much cited Wall Street Journal article: “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.”
Such a seemingly innocuous lead sentence forces you to ask what is the definition of success and who defines it?
According to Chua’s formula, a childhood of no slumber parties added to all A’s on report cards multiplied by the ability to excel in a few musical instruments — preferably violin or piano — equals excellence.
And no doubt, after an adolescence filled with a heavy emphasis on academics, many of the children — “the Tiger cubs,” so to speak — of the Tiger mothers will end up in the Ivy League. They will then proceed to work for Goldman Sachs or attend Harvard Law or Johns Hopkins Medical School. At first glance, the Chinese mother-style of parenting — which is in fact practiced by parents of all ethnicities, religions and cultures — seems to be a proven success: One of Chua’s daughters, a talented pianist, had the honor of performing at Carnegie Hall.
Indeed, her memoir has hit a nerve even among American parents, prompting self-reflection on whether their own parenting is deficient: Should they have adopted the ruthlessness of Chua so their kids could have received impeccable grade reports and gained admission into the top universities?
What is an even scarier realization is that the United States will be unable to compete with China’s population of over one billion, who have been raised under totalitarian households in which the children have the multiplication table memorized before kindergarten. To confirm this fear, a recent education survey by the OECD indicates Shanghai students rank number one in math, science and reading, while the United States ranks no higher than fourteenth in any of these categories.  
But let’s be clear: The Chinese style of parenting may produce math and engineering geniuses, but it does not produce the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. Rather, what this upbringing produces are the best hoop-jumpers in the world, who will be able ace any test, master any musical piece and obtain any degree. If a company needs to solve a complex task requiring patience and discipline, then Tiger cubs are the perfect candidates. They will work tirelessly to solve whatever is needed by scrupulously following the directions you give them and then proceed to measure their success according to a yardstick.
But if you need someone who can think independently and creatively — skills that are most important in today’s age where everything can be outsourced to developing countries or computers — then look elsewhere. Tiger moms have entirely extinguished their children’s self-direction, skepticism of authority and intellectual autonomy by preemptively carving a pathway to adulthood.
What all parents want for their kids is success, but Tiger mothers take this hope to an extreme, erasing their child’s definition of success and substituting in one of their own. Their definition of success — which is ingrained into the minds of Tiger cubs all throughout their childhood — can be succinctly summarized as a life of financial stability. And we see a demonstration of this philosophy by the seemingly disproportionate number of Asian students pursuing high paying careers in law, medicine or business. I have to embarrassingly admit that I too happen to be on this same route.
Certainly, there are unfortunate consequences: We do not have to look far to see the failures of this narrow definition of success. Despite a population of over one billion, China can only boast less than a dozen Nobel laureates — many of whom were educated in the West. Compare this paltry number to that of the United States, which has over 300 winners. The science whizzes raised under a Tiger mother will be able to reproduce any experiment that has already been done, but to courageously formulate his own groundbreaking idea that may oppose the current scientific dogma — that he cannot do.
It is also why, according to a recent New York Times article, Chinese developers have turned to American architecture firms for building designs instead of those in China. Keep in mind China shamelessly promotes investments in its domestic industries as much as possible. As much as these developers would like to invest at home, the Chinese firms simply could not provide designs with the originality and uniqueness of American firms.
It is why we not only see high levels of illegal counterfeit software, designer clothes, movies, music, cars, phones and iPods in China, but also a high incidence of scientific fraud. You would think with the largest population in the world, China would have a Steve Jobs or James Cameron of its own, who is capable of creating his own intellectual property instead of relying on copycats.
And ultimately, it is what will limit China’s potential and why the United States will remain on top. Without the West constantly feeding ideas to China, the awakening giant can only be as good as the United States and no better.
Perhaps this type of parenting is the side effect of the impoverished upbringing of many Chinese mothers, who came to America in search of a better life, and has resulted in their exaggeration of money’s role in a child’s future success. Or perhaps it is an artifact of the Confucian philosophy founded in hierarchy and obedience.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that Tiger mothers do not in fact raise Tiger cubs after all. It appears that they raise sheep.

Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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