Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior; In China, Not All Practice Tough Love; China Rises, and Checkmates

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This is a great article Whitney Tilson wrote up. Tilson besides for being famous in the investment world is also very involved in education. Tilson is on the boards of KIPP charter schools and the Council of Urban Professionals in New York and of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, and the co-founder of the Rewarding Achievement (REACH) program.

Although I do not agree with his thesis that because China has a better education system they will surpass the West, he definitely makes a good argument below.

I enjoyed this article by Amy Chua on “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” more than any I’ve read in a LONG time.  It’s hilarious, hyperbolic and provocative, and will surely provoke strong emotions, especially among people (like my wife and me) raising young children – but there are some very powerful lessons here.  This article and Nick Kristof’s op ed in today’s NYT (below) capture why I believe that this will be the China Century and why the first 10 years of this century are a harbinger of what’s to come.

Here’s an excerpt from Chua’s article (her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is at: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother):

First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

For example, if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child “stupid,” “worthless” or “a disgrace.” Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child’s grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher’s credentials.

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

I find what Chua describes (no sleepovers, playdates, or ability to make any decisions at all) to be extreme, but if one were to put parental expectations of/pressure on/control of kids on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being what Chua describes, I think the ideal is much closer to 10 than 0 – maybe an 8.

In a world filled with endless, cheap, mind-rotting entertainment via hundreds of TV channels (heavily weighted toward 24/7 sports, cartoons and other junk), the internet, video games, music and movies, I’m firmly convinced that nearly all children will spend every waking hour messing around with these activities and wasting their lives, unless their parents AND schools (but the former much more importantly) keep a very close eye on them, tightly restrict what they can do, and make them to do many things they don’t want to do, such as study hard, read books, have a reasonable diet, go to bed on time, dress decently, etc.

I know I sound like an old-school-stick-in-the-mud, but isn’t this really, really obvious???  I would argue that this has been true forever, but it’s especially important for parents and schools to have very firm oversight today given the decline of social values/norms and the exponential increase in the availability of mindless entertainment.  For example, even if my parents hadn’t banned me from watching nearly all TV, I probably wouldn’t have watched very much because there were only a handful of channels from which to choose – and there certainly weren’t Xboxes, computers and the internet.  I didn’t have much choice but to read!

Very firm oversight combined with high expectations and a no-excuses attitude is sorely lacking in the United States, both among parents and schools (with many wonderful exceptions of course; among schools, for example, the no-excuses charter schools like KIPP (www.kipp.org) (I’m on the board of KIPP NY) are successful in part because they do that same things that Chinese mothers do).  Lest you think I’m just perpetuating stereotypes about American youth, check out this data about how they spend their time (from page 19 of my school reform presentation, posted at: www.arightdenied.org/presentation-slides):


The data (as opposed to the tyranny of anecdotes) shows how wildly off-base the documentary Race to Nowhere(www.racetonowhere.com) is.  It depicts lots of stressed-out, overworked kids, which is only a problem for a tiny fraction of children in this country.  As a nation, our real problem is EXACTLY the opposite!

For more on how Chinese (and Indian) youth are just HUSTLING a lot more than America youth are, I highly recommend a great documentary, Two Million Minutes (www.2mminutes.com/films/global-examination.asp), by my friend Bob Compton (who also did A Right Denied (www.2mminutes.com/films/a-right-denied.asp), the documentary of me giving my school reform presentation).

2) A related article in the WSJ about how many Chinese parents are deciding that being too extreme does more harm than good:

Parenting advice in China has long stressed discipline and authority. Those lessons are reinforced in best-selling books like “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting,” a how-to manual published in 2000 by the parents of a student who won a coveted spot at the Ivy League school. Among the character-building exercises to which they subjected their daughter was having her hold ice cubes in her hands for long stretches.

In recent years, however, books that encourage parents to nurture their children’s independence and confidence, as opposed to focusing exclusively on high academic achievement, have grown increasingly popular. They reflect a quiet shift in the parenting style of middle-class families, especially in China’s growing cities.

3) Nick Kristof (who speaks Chinese and who has co-authored books with his Chinese wife – see, for example,China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power)) with some very good points:

If there’s a human face on Rising China, it belongs not to some Politburo chief, not to an Internet tycoon, but to a quiet, mild-mannered teenage girl named Hou Yifan.

Ms. Hou (whose name is pronounced Ho Ee-fahn) is an astonishing phenomenon: at 16, she is the new women’s world chess champion, the youngest person, male or female, ever to win a world championship. And she reflects the way China — by investing heavily in education and human capital, particularly in young women — is increasingly having an outsize impact on every aspect of the world.

Napoleon is famously said to have declared, “When China wakes, it will shake the world.” That is becoming true even in spheres that China historically has had little connection with, like chess, basketball, rare earth minerals, cyber warfare, space exploration and nuclear research.

…Cynics sometimes suggest that China’s rise as a world power is largely a matter of government manipulation of currency rates and trade rules, and there’s no doubt that there’s plenty of rigging or cheating going on in every sphere. But China has also done an extraordinarily good job of investing in its people and in spreading opportunity across the country. Moreover, perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku,” or “eating bitterness.”

Ms. Hou dined on plenty of bitterness in working her way up to champion. She grew up in the boondocks, in a county town in Jiangsu Province, and her parents did not play chess. But they lavished attention on her and spoiled her, as parents of only children (“little emperors”) routinely do in China.

China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys.

…It will be many, many decades before China can challenge the United States as the overall “No. 1” in the world, for we have a huge lead and China still must show that it can transition to a more open and democratic society. But already in discrete areas — its automobile market, carbon emissions and now women’s chess — China is emerging as No. 1 here and there, and that process will continue.

There’s a lesson for us as well. China’s national commitment to education, opportunity and eating bitterness — those are qualities that we in the West might emulate as well. As you know after you’ve been checkmated by Hou Yifan.

In summary, why do I say that this will be the China Century?  Obviously a population of 1.33 billion helps (more than 4x our 307 million), but I think the real reason is an extremely powerful culture of capitalism, hard work (for more on this, see the chapter on rice paddies in Malcolm Gladwell’s (Outliers: The Story of Success)) and, especially, a focus on education.  If one studies the success of certain countries and ethnic groups over centuries, when these three factors are present – and the government isn’t in the way – the results are quite extraordinary.

We Americans used to have all three human factors, plus an extremely favorable system/government.  Today, I’d still give us high marks for being capitalists and having a good government (which despite the paralysis in Washington is still FAR superior to China’s repressive system today), but when it comes to hard work and a focus on education, we’ve fallen behind, moving away from China toward Western Europe, which is VERY bad news for our long-term competitiveness.

I’m not particularly optimistic that we’re going to turn things around.  We’re still so rich – and it’s not that we’re getting poorer, it’s just that we’re stagnating.  If I’m wrong, however – and I hope I am – we will, ironically, likely have The Great Recession to thank because it’s made a lot of Americans, especially young ones, realize that they need to step up their game and start hustling a lot more if they want to lead a comfortable life.

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