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Are the Chinese 'better' parents?

Last updated on: April 05, 2011 12:14 IST

'Are we losing this race too? Will the Chinese outstrive us, even if they don't outsmart us?' asks B S Prakash.

Comparisons between the Chinese and us are a fact of our life today and seem inescapable. We all know and fret about their racing ahead of us in GDP, growth rates, foreign reserves, Olympics, bullet trains, and many other material things. but in parenting, family values, traditions?

If there is one thing that the Indian middle class -- broadly defined here as the kind who would read Rediff on a computer screen -- is confident about, it is the interest that we take in our children, the value that we put on their education, the discipline that they are subjected to.

But are we losing this race too? Will the Chinese outstrive us, even if they don't outsmart us? These questions arise in my mind as I follow the saga of Amy Chua, now a famous Chinese mother and a near cult figure in the Western media.

It is a fascinating story in cross-cultural conflicts and confusions, but set in America where she is a professor in the Yale Law School, no less. As the case of the formidable Ms Chua is to be told in an Chinese-American context, some words about our attitudes in the Indian-American context may be in order.

Living in the US for a few years, my heart always swelled with pride each week as I opened India Abroad, the sister publication of Rediff. Here, a picture of a ten-year-old Indian girl topping the Spelling Bee once again after spelling SEPULCHRAL, a word that I had never heard of. And the girl was only continuing the glorious tradition in which Indian kids had taken three of the first five places for the last five years in the national spelling competition, the story read.

Elsewhere, another feature about this mathematical genius who was getting a Princeton PhD at the age of 19. He combined it with mastery over playing the mridangam apart from being a junior chess champion. All true stories, all making us immensely happy as Indians, rejoicing in the prowess of our genius-children, our love and dedication for them, our unique family-values, our faith in education as the passport to success etc. Familiar feelings, I am sure, for the Indian middle class.

But never once did I read a story about either of the parents -- normally in such cases doctors or professors -- about how they had managed to rear these child geniuses. They remained in the background, and at best made modest statements about how it was all the perseverance of the kid even as they beamed with pride about their off spring. We did not get a thesis about the Indian style of parenting as compared to the American, though in private many of us did gloat about our superior traditions and virtues.

But as befitting a 'rising China' image and not necessarily 'rising peacefully', Amy Chua, the Chinese mother has not been content with her supreme faith in her parenting qualities which she sees as quintessentially Chinese. On the contrary, she has written a combative and condescending answer to the West kind of book about the Chinese style of parenting and how it is far superior to the American.

In the process, she has also succeeded in that American dream, to become a celebrity, featuring in every magazine, subject of a million blogs and twitterers, author of a mega bestseller and to stir a huge controversy.

So what is Amy Chua's thesis in her book Hymn Song of the Tiger Mother? Surprisingly, it is familiar to those of us who belong to the traditional Indian parenting model, though our mental image of a mother might be more bovine than a tiger or a dragon!

Amy Chua's mantra for success is simple and straight forward. Hard work is the key to success and enforced discipline is the key to making a child work hard. Haven't millions of us in the Indian middle class grown up with this belief imprinted in us both as children and now parents?

That this prescription should create a huge controversy should tell us something about the soft and confused state of modern parenting in parts of the Western and even Indian society. As she points out, modern parents have been told that the psychological state of 'happiness' and fuzzier concepts such as 'self-esteem' and 'security' in a child are being regarded as more valuable than the pain and misery that hard work normally entails.

But more than the thesis, the provocative way in which she presents her arguments has made her a 'dragon', propelling towards stardom. In a much quoted passage in her article in the Wall Street Journal she said:

'A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful children. Well, I can tell them because I have done it. Here are some things that my daughters were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; watch TV or computer games; chose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than A...'

Like bullets, her bullet points puncture the cherished and universally practiced rituals of American school children. She seems to exaggerate and make a caricature of her own practices of child rearing: her daughter at age seven had to work at her mathematics or practice her piano piece till the child collapsed with sheer exhaustion; any report card not showing an 'A' or the top of the class was ridiculed and rejected; anything short of super-excellence was treated as rubbish by the mother.

The results: The children learnt that work is worship, that sweat and tears are the prelude to achievement, that 'no gain without pain' even if this is an American rather than a Confucian edict.

The outrage caused by her belief in the superior wisdom of the Chinese style of parenting and also the disdain towards the simple American model of 'happiness and indulgence' first and 'freedom to choose' second is an interesting commentary on cross-cultural confusions in the age of Globalisation.

For us, as Indians, much of what Amy Chua says is familiar and acceptable, but perhaps we would not say it or practice it in such stark terms. Many of us as modern parents are a little confused between the two sets of beliefs: The modernist notion that 'let your child choose and excel in what he chooses' and the classical (at least for my generation and perhaps more in South India) 'let the child do well in Maths, Science and English and the rest will take care of itself.'

On reflection, typically we chose the Madhyama marga, the middle path, again an Indian trait, though Aristotle too propagated it. I find support for this approach in modern psychology. At one extreme is the need for 'instant gratification': I just want to be happy now and today, and so leave me alone with my iPod and my music.

At the other end is Amy Chua saying, 'Don't ever listen to pop music, but only to Bach and Beethoven to strengthen your mind.' And the madhyama marga: 'First finish your maths home work and then you can switch on the TV; if you get into the IIT, we promise not to tell you, what to do thereafter.'

My only regret in all this is why didn't an Indian mother beat Amy Chua with a book in America about how we don't allow our kids to go for sleepovers or on 'dates'? Are we too shy to admit it?

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

B S Prakash