[Chua] "Garbage"

This is part of a series of responses to Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal. Posts on this topic are tagged as [Chua].

(Don’t worry, it just looks long cause there are a lot of quotes.)

I’m going to start this one off with a personal anecdote that’s probably one of the most emotional moments of my childhood, or was. But it’s also going to seem rather silly now. (It does to me, too.)

When we were little, my brother and I had “computer time” limits — how much time we could spend on the computer each day. I really love this system; I appreciated it even while I was still in it. It could serve as both carrot and stick, even though for the most part my relationship with my parents has been good, for most of my life. However, every now and then there’d be a big argument, and shouting, and all that.

Anyway, the reason for all this background is that after one of these arguments, which must have been pretty bad (I can’t remember anything about the argument itself), I was sent to my room and my computer time was taken away. I sat there for a while, stewing and formulating a plan. Then I stomped out of my room down the hall to the living room, where my parents, calmed down (or trying to), were reading books or working on a laptop or something like that. Trying not to cry (cause it would ruin my impact!) I declared something along the lines of:

“You can send me to my room, you can take away my stuff, you can take away my computer time, but you can’t take away me!”

My parents were startled and immediately came over to comfort me. “We don’t want to take away you!” I was confused by this whole turn of events—the whole plan was some other sort of confrontation which I would then win…somehow. Not this. In caring tones, my parents explained that they would never want to “take away me”. That whatever this issue was was not that big of a deal. (That computer time, also, was not that big of a deal.) And that they loved me no matter what.


Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

As an adult, I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early. My friend Susan, the host, tried to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.

I, too, am immediately shocked by this, but I think that maybe this is just how some families interact. I don’t like it, but clearly it’s okay sometimes. It’s like friend groups that are always tossing insults at each other, both to see who’s on top and just for the camaraderie. Or boot camp. Or (a stereotypical) gym class. Again, I don’t approve, but it’s not necessarily psychologically damaging.

For some people, though, all of those things are psychologically damaging. (I would probably be one of them.) So for parenting, something like that is only safe as long as the kid knows “exactly how highly [the parent] thought of [them]”. (In my case, it was understanding that the punishment was about the argument or my behavior, not about me.) I’m not sure that’s the case in every household where this happens.

Similarly, from last time, concerning A-s and Bs:

The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong. […] Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child “stupid,” “worthless” or “a disgrace.”

The conclusion from last time is that for plenty of tests, “what went wrong?” is not an entirely incorrect question to ask. But how do we jump from that to “stupid”, “worthless”, or “a disgrace”? Do kids really need this ridiculous rhetoric to be motivated? I know I was a smart (and immodest) enough kid that I just wouldn’t have believed it, and probably given up on the conversation. But maybe not. And either way there’d probably be this fear of disappointing my parents over my head the next time I took a test. Would that improve my performance? Uh…maybe?

And then you grow out of it, and you think, “oh, that wasn’t that bad?”. Perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think it always does. Why can’t adults just trust kids sometimes to understand why “what went wrong?” is an acceptable question? Why do kids have to do well because otherwise they face insults and ostracism from their parents as well as their peers?

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

I think in some cases Chua’s right, that children can work harder than they do to learn a subject better. Grades or otherwise. I don’t see why that means you have to shame the child. “You can always improve” is a much better mantra, IMHO. (Also, “excoriate”. Interesting word! Uh, I mean…)

Is it true about the praise? Maybe in Chua’s family, but I’m not sure it’s true in general. I am definitely a speculative outsider here, though.

Another quote:

Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.

Again, there’s a difference between being straight and strict with your child, and actually insulting them. Maybe Chua doesn’t think “fatty” is an insult; maybe it’s just supposed to be shorthand for “hey, you’re getting fat, and that’s not a good thing”. But encoding the “that’s not a good thing” as the negative connotations of the word “fatty” is, well, incorrect, because they mean two different things. The former lets the child make the connection, lets them go “ugh! I don’t want to be associated with a bad thing”, and then they’ll self-motivate to fix it. The latter brands the child as a bad thing, and the motivating factor is not to be branded as such by the parent.

In other words, calling someone “fatty” is going to impact self-esteem without establishing self-motivation…just more primal fear.

(Also, I have friends who say they’re getting fat, or that their parents say they’re getting fat, and it’s really not true. Again, while America is overweight and the “standards” are high, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy to be skin and bones.)

In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Yes. But, no. Yes, it’s bad to coddle your child, to “constantly reassure” them even when they do mediocrely. But depression and self-esteem issues are real, they’ve affected my friends, and this is how they start. I’ve always been able to turn to my parents for support, even when they’re disappointed in me for something. I don’t think that’s true for all of my friends.

Don’t insult your kid. Work with them to do better next time.


Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

…to be discussed next time.