Dominic Lawson: 'Chinese' mothers... a lesson to us all

Amy Chua's theories seem to bear fruit. But they run counter to the doctrine of modern Western parenting

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Mother knows best; but which mothers know best of all? According to Amy Chua, a professor at Yale University, the answer is obvious and irrefutable: Chinese mums. Professor Chua has produced a book which seeks to prove her point, entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and last week she trailed it with an essay in The Wall Street Journal, provocatively headlined: "Why Chinese mothers are superior".

American parents were duly provoked by Chua's contention that they were hopelessly lacking in the effort they put into educating their children out of school hours, and in instilling discipline: well over a thousand comments hurtled in, many accusing her of racism, and some pointing out that if the American way was so deficient, why didn't she take herself and her high-achieving family back to China?

To be fair to Chua, she admitted to using the term "Chinese mother" loosely: "I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify. Conversely, I know of some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers." But then she went on: "All the same, even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practise their [musical] instruments 30 minutes a day. At the most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough."

That the Chinese style of parenting helps produce the most extraordinary results can't be doubted. Last month the OECD produced its annual assessment of global academic performance, based on its own independent testing of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. China came top. British children, by the way, came 25th in reading, 28th in maths, and 16th in science. Ten years ago Britain came seventh, eighth and fourth in those categories. These results throw a very cold shower of water over the claims by the New Labour government that the vast extra sums of public expenditure they devoted to the infrastructure of the state education system had improved our international competitiveness.

Last week I discussed these figures on BBC Radio 4's World Tonight programme with Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College; he is convinced that British exams have become "dumbed down", compared to those of countries such as India and China, and that as a result we were living in some sort of fool's paradise.

I also interviewed some pupils from Westminster School, who had been on an exchange trip to China. Although Westminster is one of the highest-performing schools in the UK, these pupils were stunned by the dedication and sheer hard work they had witnessed on their exchange. "It's a completely different culture and attitude towards work," one of them told me. The word "culture" was well chosen: that is where family life plays a dominant role, and where what goes on in schools flows naturally from the home environment.

This is also where Amy Chua's theories seem to bear fruit; and their validity can be seen in some remarkable statistics produced last year by our very own Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The Commission had sought to discover the extent to which educational outcomes in this country were a function of economic circumstances, and of race. Accordingly it divided up results under ethnic categories, but also by whether pupils were eligible for free school meals.

Among both white and black children, there was a dramatic difference in outcomes: for example, only 15 per cent of white boys eligible for free school meals gained five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 51 per cent among those not eligible. However, among Chinese boys and girls, those eligible for free school meals did every bit as well as those not so poor; equally perplexing for those who believe that relative poverty is the biggest determinant of educational attainment, Chinese pupils on free school meals, both boys and girls, had far better results overall than white pupils who were not eligible.

Game, set and match to Professor Chua? I imagine that many British parents who read the extracts from her book in last weekend's Sunday Times might well say they would rather have lower-achieving children than follow the recipe set out in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. For Chua began by stating: "Here are some of the things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleep-over; watch TV or play computer games; get any grade less than A; not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama; not play the piano or the violin."

Such a regime runs completely counter to the presiding doctrine of modern Western parenting, at least among the middle classes, which is to do nothing that might damage their children's sense of self-esteem; and given that it's not possible for every child to be "the number one student in every subject", aren't Chua's methods setting children up for potentially crushing loss of self-esteem when another child comes top?

She, of course, denies it: "Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem ... For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly."

That seems a bit harsh – no parents, except for the most derelict, are content to see their child turn out "badly". Yet Chua is pressing her finger on a very sensitive point: could it be that much of the laissez-faire parenting of the modern West uses the idea of enlightened liberality to give an intellectual justification for what is actually a form of laziness?

After all, the kind of discipline and perseverance which Amy Chua practised with her own daughters required an extraordinary amount of effort on her part – and also a certain amount of conflict with her husband, a non-Chinese, who might well have thought that she should have been spending more time with him, and less standing over their daughters while they practised the violin for three hours in the evening.

Most Western parents would say that all they want is for their children to "be happy": and if the little darlings are browbeaten in this way, they surely can't be enjoying themselves – and might grow up to hate their parents for forcing them to play the violin. Who knows? Happiness is the most ephemeral of phenomena and certainly not something which can be achieved at will. Besides, as Freud observed, neurosis is the mother of creativity.

As for the "Chinese mother", I can't pretend that I am sorry not to have had one myself. My own mother was extremely indulgent, and sublimely indifferent to whatever exam results I achieved; my father was more "Chinese", which was probably necessary for the balance between unconditional affection and discipline.

Perhaps Amy Chua's children are grateful, too, that one of their parents is not "Chinese": at least they had someone to run to for sympathy, when mother's strictures became intolerable. On the other hand, if it's results you want, then the Chinese mother does indeed know best.



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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