Chinese Parenting and the Good Life

Amy Chau has written a much discussed article claiming that Chinese parents [read: parents who really push their kids] are superior to Western parents [those that allow them to follow their passions]. The reasons for this are not so clear; at least not as clear as the differences between her parenting style and her neighbor’s. By the end of the article she says,

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

I have had some exposure to this since I study alongside a lot of Korean students who feel the academic pressure to perform well. A Korean friend of mine was raised by a single mom in a Korean church and ipso facto was the odd-man out. Since there wasn’t a per-ordained code of family honor and reputation to uphold, she decided to go against the grain and let him do what he wanted. Interestingly enough, he competed with his fellow classmates just fine, and graduated from UCLA, a hallmark of success in his community. However, because he never felt the pressure to fit the mold and felt at liberty to leave his career in engineering and pursue his MDiv. He is now a pastor in a Korean church and almost all of his counseling sessions are filled with high schoolers confessing frustration with their parents. So all that is to say, I think Chau paints a one-side, rosy picture that is hard to take seriously.

But there is something I find admirable about it though. Most Asian parents really do believe their kids are strong while Americans often believe their kids are fragile. I think this is because the West has inherited a Freudian psychology that is preoccupied with wounds inevitably inflicted by caregivers in early childhood development that just isn’t shared by our Asian neighbors. That doesn’t mean Freud was wrong, or that Asian parents could learn a thing or two from our model. Both cultures can learn from one another it seems. One values training for the future and the other values personal liberty. Still, something seems to be lacking in these values

This brings me back to parental ethics and the stewardship model as popularized by Mike Austin. In this view, parents have been entrusted with a child’s upbringing and are under the obligation to invest wisely in the formation of a good and responsible future adult. On the surface, this model does not have anything negative to say about the way Asian parents “do” parenting. It might even seem to be vindicated since it is concerned about the child’s future success, and it seems to produce such good results. But this depends on how we conceive of the “end” in this end-directed model. We might be able to say that fully grown Asian children are productive members of society, but still ask whether they are truly living good lives. This is a more open question if their family relations are strained under the burden of honor/shame codes that often conceive of love in highly conditional terms.

In response to the article I would much rather have a child grow up into a life that exemplifies character qualities like intellectual virtue, faith, hope, love, humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion, and frugality. Such virtues are truly a part of a flourishing life. Getting into a good university with mad math skills on a music scholarship is trite in comparison.Those things don’t matter as much the “first things,” yet they seems to be all-important to many Asian parents according to what my Korean pastor friend tells me. I am thankful he has these virtues instead of the status, and I think he is too.


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