Why "Good" Mothers are Superior

The parenting world was in shock last week, as Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” appeared in the Wall Street Journal and immediately went viral. The backlash has been constant and steady since. It’s not difficult to see why many would be upset reading the essay, an excerpt from her latest book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

In it, she wrote that her children were never allowed playdates, sleepovers, TV or computer games. They were not permitted less than a B in school (and that with much scolding) or to do any activities other than play piano or violin. She talked of hours spent on homework and the insults she would fling at her children if they didn’t conform to her expectations. Most shocking was her tale of spending 5 hours forcing her seven-year-old daughter to practice a piano piece she couldn’t get right. The young girl was denied food or bathroom breaks, was yelled at, scolded, and threatened until finally she got it right.

Chua related the entire story with smug self-pride showing it as proof of how she is a better mother than most Western mothers. She cares about her daughter’s success and will not allow her to fail. After the torturous piano practice, her daughter cuddled with her and told jokes. Therefore it was obvious that her daughter thrived under this guidance.

My immediate gut reaction was “well, yes, but even the child victim of a pedophile will look for approval from their tormentor.” Really, she did a poor job proving to most readers how it was that her method of parenting was superior. Defenders pulled out the statistics on Chinese education and high scores in International tests, but I’ve discussed the culture that leads to those scores before. It goes beyond parenting choice and is part of a national system.

Most people, however, were not defending her. Most were astounded and shocked by her claims. At first, I too, was among them. But as I read the rebuttals I began to feel the same unease I felt reading her own column.

Parents argued that “as long as my child is happy, I’m doing a good job.” Others claimed that spending five hours a night on homework and piano practice would mean more self-sacrifice than they were willing to give. Yet others brought out the old “good enough” argument.

The polar opposite of Chua’s method of parenting, “good enough” parenting basically states that if a child is fed, clothed, housed and given some opportunity for play and some nagging to do homework, they will raise themselves up while the parents tend to household chores, work, and their facebook accounts and TV schedule. (Please note, I am not talking about Good Enough Parenting - as coined by David Winnicott - but the self-indulgent kind of parenting that says "I don't have time to do this; I don't think pushing her will help; etc. etc)

There are a lot of parents who swear by this method. It is a backlash against all the natural parenting and perfect parenting gurus who urge us to monitor every moment of our child’s life to insure they become successful, happy adults. And, of course, to theories like Chua’s - that you can beat and insult your child into submitting to your desires.

But, let’s face it, “good enough” parenting isn’t really good enough. What it is, is an excuse to ignore the tough parts of parenting. Yes, keeping your children alive is good. But a zookeeper could do that.

As parents it is our duty to motivate our children and to draw out their talents. Not that I’d advocate Chua’s response, but letting our children skate by or do whatever they want – which would obviously be the thing requiring least effort – serves no one well.

Tonight I erased all of my son’s homework once he had completed it. Yes it was done right, for the most part, but it was not done “good enough.” I could see that he had raced through it in an attempt to get back to the computer and when I corrected him he didn’t listen and made the same mistakes again. So I made him start all over.

“Don’t be a tiger mother,” my husband whispered as I raised my voice and informed my son that I wouldn’t allow him to get away with mediocre effort.

That is the fear, of course: that we’ll become harridans that our children hate or that our frustration will lead us to say or do things that are abusive and unsupportive.

In the grand scheme of things, one night’s homework is pretty meaningless. It’s easy to just let it go and let everyone stay happy. But having a child who is happy doesn’t mean having a child who is self-satisfied or will grow into an adult confident of his place in the world. The “good enough” theory somehow believes that children will gain self-esteem, confidence and ability intrinsically.

Loathe as I am to admit it, I have to agree with Chua when she states: “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.”

There is a balance in there somewhere. Between “good enough” and Chua’s way there’s just the good mother: the one who allows her child to play and have fun yet willingly sacrifices her free time to drill him in spelling words; the one who provides challenges and activities but helps her child through them rather than badgers him into achievement. These are the mothers who will raise happy, confident, successful children; the one who understands that each child is different and there is no one parenting “method” that will raise them all perfectly. Every child deserves a good mother – not a superior or “good enough” mother.


  1. Hear hear, well said that woman! The article about chinese mothers bothered me a lot and I wanted to write something about it but couldn't find the time to actually sit down and do it. Finland is always up there with china for top education systems around the world, often coming joint 1st place, and yet after reading that article I realised they were worlds apart. I may blog about it yet.

    But yes I agree, there has to be a middle ground, where the good parents dwell. I just hope I fall within it.

  2. I was also surprised to find myself agreeing with some of what Chua believes, just not how she went about putting it into practice. And the whole idea of of being cruel to those you love really bothers me. If that is okay, how nasty are you likely to be to other people in general? There's an acceptance of violence there that I find very worrying.

  3. There is a world of difference between gently pushing our children to perform to the best of their abilities and hounding them.

    We should as parents, notice the skills our children possess and it's our duty to bring out and hone those skills, but it's not for us to choose what those skills should be. We need to take our children's lead and encourage them to be the best that they can be.

  4. As with all things in life it's all about balance and I suspect there is no broad spectrum that applies to all kids. Each kid is individual and the parents approach must be tailored a little. I'm well aware that an approach that works on my youngest will not work on my oldest and that is down to personality not age. Kids of course don't want to work. They want to be good at stuff without having to work at it. Getting them to understand that the work is necessary is a key part of raising them. And hopefully that a job well done is in itself something to be proud of. But going too far the other way - all work and no play - is damaging in the worst way. To beat and scold a child to work means there is no pride in the work. Only misery and a desire to rebel and escape.

  5. Yep.

    I too have erased homework and made my children do it again. And despite the fact that they all wept yesterday morning because they don't like doing karate (it makes us all sweaty and tired, mummy, and we just want to come home and watch television on a Friday night) they were told they were going, no arguments. And my nearly 11 year old, who said she didn't want to go to swimming club because it's really hard work was told 'yep, life's like that sometimes, deal with it'.

    We do our fair share of 'good enough' parenting, but we don't take any nonsense at the same time. I want my children to know that it's worth making an effort and working hard. Hopefully we're finding a balance.

  6. Brava!

    I am surrounded by good enough parents and it drives me mad and I get really angry! My parents were good enough parents and my OH's brother has six kids all being raised in the good enough mode. I work hard at raising my kids and if I had the time, money and if my eldest wasn't disabled, I would be nearer the tiger type.

    Luckily I am neither extreme and somewhere in the middle too, constantly self-assessing the job that I am doing. I have written a post about good enough parenting which is very scathing about my own upbringing so I couldn't post it. I felt a sense of relief reading your post so thank you for giving us an honest and inspiring read.

  7. Heather-would be intersting to read that article.

    Oh Mammy-you can post on blogonymous.

    Dara-Glad you are back. I wonder what type of parenting I would be classified as. I know I have been a different type of parent to my older ones than younger ones.

    I do honestly think that for me the most important thing for my kids to take out of childhood is being a good, kind and helping person. I would rather my kid spend time volunteering than doing homework.

    I also think that the way schools are structured these days does not make sense for so many kids , especially those with ADHD. I therefore often have a problem pushing my kids at certain things when I know they have absolutely no meaning. Kind of trying to get all the kids to fit into the same mold.

    I used to be the parent (with my two older) that was relentless and sat on my kids about homework to an obsessive point and I made them go to extracurricular activities.

    Now, I don't. My younger ones do their homework on their own, infrequently asking for help if any.

    One goes to baseball, the other doesn't take any classes. It is not worth the arguing. The one that goes to baseball used to go to chess and was quite gifted but did not enjoy it. We tried all kinds of incentives to get him to continue, but we gave up in the end. Guess what, next year he made the choice to go to a tough science oriented junior high without any other friends with him.

    I think it is a very thin line between pushing too much and doing what is right for the kids.

    And to end this long winded comment-I think the most important thing is to live our lives as an example. Talk out loud to your kids about what you do and don't do. Discuss your choices and decisions with them (about your own life). Show them by examples where you have done things you have to do that you might not want to do. talk about your values.

    That to me, the open and honest communication is more important in their formation than anything else.

  8. And since my comment was not long enough lol.

    I came across this article from a psychology newsletter I get:


  9. Very good post. An analogy is where parents allow their child to always win at games, and then wonder why they throw tantrums if the result is otherwise.
    That's life, matey, get used to it early.

    LCM x

  10. This parenting caper is tricky and hard work, but I know I'll never get better at it without practising, reading and learning what works best for me and my children. The hard part is learning when to push and when to back off.

  11. oh, terrific perspective. i completely agree.

  12. Gosh, I'm not sure where I sit on this one. I can remember telling my older two that they would probably enjoy the violin more if they could play the pieces a bit better (through practice). It's true, you don't really enjoy something until you can do it well, but a 5 hour yelling session is a bit much.
    The main problem in many schools is that learning isn't fun. If perhaps the lesson subjects, and the way they were taught in some cases, were made more interesting, then kids would be more motivated to learn.
    My kids'school does a fab job of getting them really involved in the things they are learning. Yes, they complain about homework (they're teens) but never that it's stupid or pointless.

  13. recently my son has been on at me tolet him give up his saxophone lessons. No way. I'm off to phone Ms Chua for advice here.

    Kids get bored easily and give up too easily. I see the resultant beasts sat on front of me in college as a lecturer. too often they've been told they are wonderful and mollycoddled by their parents. they try hard at nothing yet they expect success. OK Chua is clearly a hardline but there is some wisdom in what she says. Parents are too afraid to upset their kids. By doing that they don't prepare them for life.

  14. I hope to god I find that medium when I have kids, I couldn't bear to be at either end of the spectrum!

  15. Amen, Dara. Well said. And I think that it is irritating the way these magazines are pitting mothers against each other lately by picking out the most controversial essay or piece of a book and posting it in order to get everyone riled up. Amy Chua herself said that this section was taken out of context from her book. On the other hand, I enjoy talking about parenting and learning from what other parents have to say. I just don't think it has to be so much "me against you." I'm not sure if I want to be pigeon holed into any parenting philosophy or theory, because no theory can ever fully describe what trying to raise, nurture, discipline and love another human being is like. Sometimes I feel like a child still myself and I am in awe that I am allowed to be anyone's mother. I just hope that whatever choices I make, I am good enough to qualify as good. And that my children and I have close loving relationships for the entirety of our life together.


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