It is understandable that the Chinese child-raising style of Chinese-American “tiger mom” Amy Chua has ignited controversy in the United States. But Americans may find it difficult to understand why the “tiger mom” controversy has blazed across China. Many assume the “tiger mom” child-rearing style portrayed in Chua’s book is the dominant Chinese way. What they may not realize is that in China, especially in the major cities, the “tiger mom” style of discipline and education has faded into the past.
For thousands of years, the Chinese family style was the “tiger mom” style. The will of the parents dominated in all things, and little thought was given to the autonomy of the child. The parents’ will was forced on the child, with the cudgel if necessary. According to modern concepts of child-raising, this is unacceptable. It doesn’t jive with child psychology, and it doesn’t respect the child’s character.
Whatever the shortcomings of this style, however, we have to acknowledge that it didn’t fail to produce stand-outs. Most of China’s strong personalities in the last century were products of this child-raising style — the poet Hu Shi (胡适), the writer Lu Xun (鲁迅) and the novelist Lao She (老舍). By contrast, the children of these more modern fathers failed to distinguish themselves through their actions.
Actually, the Chinese family is now in trouble. For families that can have only one child, raising them well is a real challenge. The old paternal style of raising children with a heavy hand has been shoved aside in favor of indulgence on the one hand and hand-slapping on the other.
While parents are anxious to instill their child with every ability in the world, they are often helpless in the face of the child’s resistance to normal studies. The family dynamic is all about encouraging the child to study, and so long as they study they can do whatever else they please. Everything else is handled by the parents, even routine cleaning at the child’s school.
Children spend money as they please, without restrictions, so long as it is falls within their parents’ means. If children resist anyhow, refusing all boundaries, parents are basically powerless to do anything. Many parents in China today don’t have an iota of authority with their own child. Parents, in fact, have become more like play companions.
Clearly, our our traditional parenting style has already undergone fundamental change. No one dares parent with the cudgel anymore, moulding kids into dutiful children. When discipline is used, it comes hand in hand with reward. So long as a child takes on heaps of knowledge at the parents’ bidding, they earn exemption from household chores and are showered with all the comforts money can buy. Even if the child ultimately digs in its heels and does nothing, becoming completely indolent, unable to hold down a job, living at home, there is nothing the parents can do.
Of course, even this parenting style has its examples of success. Some children, even without the most basic self-reliance, find their strengths in the course of their studies and achieve excellent results at school. Some even test into foreign universities, becoming Harvard graduates and otherwise distinguishing themselves.
We must confess to ourselves, however, that we face a parenting vacuum in China. We have left the old style behind, and in its place we have nothing. This presents us with hidden perils on a scale overseas Chinese “tiger moms” like Amy Chua probably cannot even fathom. In America, versions of the tiger mom’s strict parenting style are reproduced in various forms in schools and in society. Not so in China. Not only that, but our schools and our society at large are just as shaky as our families on the question of education and character building.
In the midst of this ailing education environment, our children don’t know the meaning of gratitude, responsibility or self-reliance. And the full effects of this may not be felt until these children have become adults and entered society.
This editorial originally appeared in Shanghai Morning Post, a commercial spin-off of Shanghai’s Liberation Daily.
[Frontpage photo by “whisperwolf” available at under Creative Commons license.]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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