February 21, 2011
Book Club: Chinese Parenting, Western Intensive Parenting and Legal Enforcement of Over-Parenting
Posted by Gaia Bernstein

My immediate reaction to Amy Chua's fascinating and brave book and the media storm that followed it was surprise. My surprised reaction was not to Chua's story but to the distinction between Western parenting and Chinese parenting on which it was based and that was particularly highlighted by the media.  Strict ambitious Chinese parenting described by Chua was consistently compared to permissive Western parenting. Having spent a lot of time in the last two years thinking and writing about the transformation of American parenting norms - I believe the differences are not as stark.

Chua describes Chinese parenting as extremely intense, demanding children to excel at all costs and investing family resources (time, money  and energy) to ensure these goals are met. In our article titled Over-Parenting, Zvi Triger and I describe the ways in which parenting in the United States has changed over the last two decades and has become what we call "intensive parenting." Intensive Parenting is prevalent in middle and upper-middle class families. Intensive parenting is first of all cultivating. Parents spend time and resources identifying their children's strengths and scheduling their days to cultivate these strengths. Children's lives are chock-full with activities designed to make sure they develop to their full potential. Intensive parenting is also informed - parents spend significant amounts of time making sure that they are abreast of all the information necessary to excel at child-rearing. This may mean reading volumes of child development literature or spending hours researching the best after-school French class. Finally, intensive parents consistently monitor their children to assure these goals are met, whether through constant cell phone communication or regular involvement in schools. So really Western intensive parenting and Chinese  parenting share a lot in common. Both have high expectations and ambitions for children and parents alike. 

Since both parenting styles have high expectations from parents, they both exert an enormous toll on parents. Chua in her book describes in many words the cost of her parenting style to her relationship with her youngest daughter - the daughter who resisted. But neither Chua nor Western intensive parents discuss the toll of these parenting styles on themselves. Both Western intensive parenting and Chinese parenting are extremely intense for parents. They require a massive investment of time. whether it is to accompany your child to piano lessons and oversee hours of practice as Chua describes or whether it is to take children from one after-school activity to another and continually negotiate that each institution caters to your child's need as many Western intensive parents do.  These parenting style have costs for adult careers, time spent with spouses and just general adult free time. Unlike our parents, parents today have far less free time that is real adult-time -- not catered to children activities. Yet, this is a topic rarely discussed by Chua or by Western parents.

Having said all of that, I should acknowledge that there are obviously differences between the two parenting styles. These differences become stark particularly when things go wrong. When things go wrong and the child fails, the Chinese parent, according to Chua, blames the child and demands more work to achieve the goal. The Western intensive parent instead blames the institution or the teacher, arguing that the child would have excelled, absent a problem with the institutional arrangement.

Finally, I have to say that I am very glad that Chua wrote her book. Glad not just because it was an honest book and a fascinating read. I am glad because I believe it underscores the message of our Over-Parenting article. In the article we show that the law in many ways is already endorsing Western intensive parenting norms and we caution against further incorporation of intensive parenting norms into the law. We argue that Western intensive parenting is class and culture dependent and not shared by all cultures and classes. In the article we highlight other cultures' parenting practices, which endorse less parental involvement and more free play. Chua's parenting style is a different variation, endorsing intense involvement but using methods that are foreign to Western intensive parenting. The storm that followed the publication of Chua's book showed how strongly people feel about their parenting styles and the danger of enforcing one parenting style through legal standards on all.


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