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How Chinese Mothers Are Like Bad Bosses

Everyone is moaning about the Wall Street Journal article/book coming out explaining why calling your kids “garbage” will make your kids better. Let’s share some excerpts:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

I have to say, and obviously a key part of a her argument is, this all sounds hard to disagree with. For my value system, I would say:

  • Academics is good, therefore stressing the value of academics does not sound bad.
  • Learning can be fun or not fun, but it must be done. There are classes and subjects that are hard. It is nice if it is fun. If is more pleasant if you have a good attitude towards it.
  • Academic achievement is related to successful parenting. I think you can’t take all the credit for it, but study after study shows that better parenting situations drive better academic outcomes.

Here is another great quote:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.

That is a good point. Hard work is required to become good at things. Things you are good at are more fun.

But that last area is a critical area where I diverge.

Here is my leap: Teaching your children the value of working hard – and that they must work hard on things they do – is critical. The “Chinese Mother” approach she takes is implying correlation where there is only the tiniest bit.

Before I start down my winding road of parenting tips, allow me to caveat: My wife is Chinese. Her parents are Chinese. My wife turned out great and our kids are working hard to become great (!). My wife and I have a shared value system on this stuff and that is what I am discussing. The concept of “Chinese Mothers” as discussed here is an extremely broad stereotype and we are all reasonable people that understand the context of this discussion.

When I became a parent, I became a connoisseur of the literature, as do many parents. The study I homed in on was a study published in Scientific American that indicated, in short, that teaching your child the value of working hard is critical for success in life. Allow me to quote:

…our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The classic study looked at in this article was so simple that a child could do it. Longer quote:

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far moreoften than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.
This is great stuff. It directly explains that if you tell your child, “You are so smart”, s/he shies away from challenges due to fear of failure and fear of disproving your statement, but if you tell him/her, “You worked so hard on that”, s/he becomes eager to demonstrate further his/her desire to work hard. Your kids want to impress you, so let them know that what impresses you is hard work. If they work hard in life, only good things can possibly happy.
That is an incredibly constructive path forward. Now, a Chinese Mother would clearly imply, according the WSJ article, “you could get the same result by telling your kid he is garbage if he doesn’t take on the harder challenge”, and maybe that is true, but my point is that you can get a similar outcome in a constructive fashion. “Garbage” is simply an ad hominem attack.
Getting your kid to focus and work hard on things is a challenge. Very young children struggle to hold focus. But teaching your child that working hard yields positive outcomes is a leading indicator of long-term success.
Hey, I had a boss that tried to get my best work out of me by yelling. I never respect a yeller. I feel like people that yell at their kids are abusing their built-in authority because the kid can’t quit this job. I did great work from him to stop his yelling, but I didn’t like that guy. He offered me a great job at one point and I passed. The best boss I ever had commanded my respect. Everyone of his direct reports worked incredibly hard because they knew that their boss worked harder and could do their job in a heartbeat if he wasn’t busy being their boss. He was constructively critical of everything we did in a way that made our work better. That is the kind of boss you want to work for. Hence, these lessons are applicable outside of child-rearing: Are you growing your brain? Are you working hard? Are you a Chinese Mother? Is your boss?
I left the links out to let you focus, but here are some linky-links:

One Response to “How Chinese Mothers Are Like Bad Bosses”

  1. Lorne Marr Says:

    I think the style of bringing up children that she promotes in her book is completely wrong because she forgets that there needs to be a certain balance between your aspirations as a parent and the actual capacity of your children to do their best in different areas of their lives. It seems to me that her only goal is to boost the sales of the book and earn a lot of money.