China Power

Little Emperor Syndrome

Are Chinese and American parenting approaches really so different? Both leave much to be desired.

There’s no consensus on the best parenting style, but, thanks to Amy Chua, at least we know that Chinese and American parents are different. But is that really the case?   

In her book Factory Girls, with a picture from her family album, Leslie T. Chang illustrates the traditional Chinese model of parenting:  
‘My grandfather returned to China in the summer of 1927 (after seven years in the United States). On his first day home, his father organized a celebration in the village for his favourite son, who had brought honour to the family by going all the way to America. On the second day, the patriarch took out a wooden rod called a jiafa – used in traditional households to discipline children and servants – and beat him with it.  In America, his son had switched from studying literature to mining engineering without parental approval, never mind that his father was 7,000 miles away and understood nothing of the American university system.  In a Chinese family, a father’s word was law. The beating was so severe that my grandfather could not sit down for several days.’

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For Chinese, children are merely an extension of the father, and a child’s main virtue is his obedience. In contrast, American parents will usually nurture their child’s individual ambition and talent. Or at least that’s according to David Halberstam’s book The Amateurs, which profiles the US 1984 Olympic rowing team, and thus offers a snapshot of American aristocratic values and culture. The book’s protagonist is Tiff Wood, a Boston Beacon Hill Brahmin whose striving for individual excellence and distinction is incubated by family privilege and status: 
‘(The 11-year-old Tiff Wood and his father Richard Wood) had gone mountain climbing in New Hampshire, and very high up they had come to a tiny pool of water that was at most 20 feet in diameter. The water was absolutely ice cold. Above it stood a very steep mountain cliff, perhaps 30 feet high. Anyone diving from it to the pool would have to make an almost perfect dive or be splattered on the rocks. Richard Wood had taken one look at the cliff and known exactly what was going to happen. Tiff was going to want to dive in, but the pool was so small that he could easily miss it. “It’d really be something to dive in from there,” Tiff had said. “I think I’ll pass,” Richard Wood had said. He had watched as Tiff had measured the distance and he thought, Do I tell him not to do it?  He had decided, no, he could not forbid him, and Tiff had made one dive and done it cleanly, a dive into water that no one in his right mind would want to swim in in the first place.’
Richard Wood’s parenting could not be more different from Leslie Chang’s great-grandfather’s parenting, and these two examples seem to confirm the Chinese and American parenting stereotypes.  But, in her Atlantic Monthly article ‘How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,’ the therapist and mother Lori Gottlieb implies that Richard Wood’s parenting is now a thing of the past. American parents are obsessed with their kids’ happiness and success, Gottlieb writes, and ‘parental overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.’
Living in a self-reinforcing bubble of constant praise and achievement, Gottlieb argues, upper class American children are unprepared for the real world where they will no longer be the centre of the universe: they can’t deal with those who are negative and demanding (their boss), those who can’t appreciate their uniqueness (their colleagues), and those who don’t share their belief that the world will stop revolving without them (everyone except their parents). They’ll drift from job to job, but it’ll be okay because mommy and daddy will be there to write checks for everything: the Manhattan East Village apartment, yoga classes, car insurance, the independent documentary project, and eventually the therapy sessions.     
Reading Gottlieb’s article, I couldn’t help but take a red pen, underline sentence after sentence, and write in the margins, ‘OMG – these are my students’ parents!’   

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You would think that as director of the Peking University High School International Division in the tiger den of Beijing, I’d be fighting ferociously for my life against Tiger Parents. I wish! The upper class Chinese parents we deal with are like those described in Gottlieb’s article: over-protective, refusing to even consider the possibility of failure or adversity for their child. 
Our students’ marks hover on average around 60 percent, and in response their parents don’t harangue their child to do better but rather call us to complain that our curriculum is too difficult. ‘You need to encourage students by giving higher marks,’ remarked one parent. When we organized a one-week canoeing trip in the United States, one parent complained that canoeing would be too dangerous. And then when he realized that the trip would also involve mosquitoes, sunburn, crappy food, and physical exertion, he anxiously called us everyday. Even those parents who seemed hard and demanding would just melt at the thought of their child in tears over a failed test or a broken fingernail.   
‘Little emperor syndrome’ is a pervasive social phenomenon in China attributed to the one-child policy and the abysmal poverty today’s parents experienced during the Cultural Revolution. But I think Gottlieb’s reason for why American parents spoil their child applies equally to Chinese parents: the spiritual emptiness in society today, and using one’s child to fill this void. Like American parents, Chinese parents hope their child succeeds, but what they really want is for their cute and dependent child to be always so.   
And by seeking meaning in their child, as Lori Gottlieb warns in her article, Chinese and American parents doom their child to a life of meaninglessness.