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More on Chinese Mothers, Parenting, and Verbal Abuse

I really hate the term "verbal abuse". It came into vogue in the 1990s when studies show that children who were yelled at repeatedly had just as poor outcomes in many cases as some who were beaten. The thought went, then, that since yelling is just as bad as beating, we can call yelling "verbal abuse".

But that's not necessarily true, and verbal abuse is such an amorphous term. I have known women who have left their husbands who justify it, saying he was "verbally abusive" towards me and the kids, because the church allows you to divorce for abuse. But when questioned what they meant by verbal abuse, they would say that "he picked at little things all the time", or "he never said anything nice to me", etc.

I've seen other cases in my husband's pediatric practice where a divorce has occurred, and one parent has claimed "verbal abuse", convincing their children that their dad is abusive because he gets loud. And they start cowering in front of him.

So I'm not big on the term. I do agree that words can be as damaging as blows in many cases, but to me, context matters. If a person has a short fuse, but they're also really affectionate, then we're not going to interpret what he says in those moments when he's angry as really reflecting his feelings. On the other hand, if that's ALL he ever said, then it is abusive.

And so, with that background, I'd like to revisit that whole "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" thing, because some really interesting things came out of the comments last week. For those of you who didn't see that original post (and you really should read it), here's the low-down: Amy Chua, a Chinese mother, published an editorial saying Chinese moms are better because they push their kids towards excellence and don't accept laziness or failure.

I said that doing anything without God is wrong. Our job as parents is to equip kids to do what God wants them to do, not what we want them to do. But we do need to equip, which means teaching things and expecting their best effort. Chua's problem is that she's expecting "success" defined very narrowly, and basing worth on that.

Anyway, others smarter than I have commented on this essay, too, and I want to draw your attention to just a few things before making a larger point about parenting styles (and verbal abuse!). First, Kejda Gjermani writes in Commentary that Amy's whole parenting style seems to breed socialism/communism. It's really interesting, but it boils down to this:

To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same.

Wow. That's just one sentence long. That's a very DEEEEEP and LOOOONG sentence. But what Kejda is saying is this: The Chinese method doesn't produce beauty and grace and virtue; it produces obedience and a lack of creativity, the very opposite of what we want. And then we wonder why China lives under a Communist government.

That's the intellectual critique. Now let's go for a more practical critique, by Katie Granju. She writes:

I reject Chua’s assertion that her children are necessarily “superior” to their classmates being raised in a more relaxed, western fashion. That’s because Chua’s definition of success for her daughters is extremely narrow, focusing as it does on music (classical only, and only on acceptable instruments), academics (specifically math and science) and complete acceptance of parental domination. The only way Chua’s hypothesis of superior parenting producing superior children is if you accept this very limited definition of success.

So true. The only success Chua thinks counts is academic and classical music. She is the dictator demanding what the kids must do.

Which brings me to a larger point, and back to verbal abuse. In one particular instance Chua recounts in her essay, she had to bully her young daughter to perfect a piano piece for a recital. She called her names, yelled, stole toys, and threatened. But the girl got her piece right, and Chua sees this as success.

Is this verbal abuse? I don't know, but it does seem like in other areas of her life Chua is affectionate, so I'd hesitate to call it that. Context matters. But what Chua is doing is trying to use Power to force her children to do what she wants.

We can operate, as parents, from a position of either Power or Authority. Power makes a child do something; Authority makes them want to do it. When someone has moral authority over you, they may not hold any strings over your life, but you want to live up to their expectations. You want to do the things they want you to do. When someone has power, they can make you obey, but they can't touch your heart.

God has ultimate Power and ultimate Authority, but He chooses to lay aside His power to exercise His authority. He could zap you when you do wrong. He could compel you to do right. But He doesn't. He would rather we freely choose it.

As parents, that's what we need to be working towards, too. We start out with power, yelling, "No!" and slapping a wrist if a toddler walks too close to the stove. But as they get older, we use raw power less and work on developing a relationship so that we have moral authority.

If we exercise only power--constantly grounding kids and punishing kids and yelling at kids--then when they leave home, they're very unlikely to go in the direction we want because they haven't internalized any of our values. They've been made outwardly to do things, but not inwardly to want to do them.

We must parent with a mixture of power and authority, and as children age, the power must grow less and the authority must grow more. That doesn't mean that we don't discipline; only that the environment in our house must be about a free exchange of ideas, so that children feel as if they are free to choose their path, and free to explore what God wants for them, outside of what we want for them. They shouldn't be under our thumb, in other words.

Ms. Chua doesn't give her children any choices, and I don't think that's healthy. It may not be abusive, but it does rely too much on Power and not enough on Authority. The problem is that authority takes a long time to develop. You have to spend time with kids, show you love and value your kids, show you want what's best for them, so that they want to follow you. When you haven't built up that relationship, all you have to go on is raw power--and that's when parents and teens get into these power struggles, where the teens go off the rails, and the parents try to clamp down really hard. They have no other leverage.

Don't do that. Don't try to control your kids like Amy Chua does, because you lose your authority. But also spend time really getting to know them, showing you value them, and leading them to God. Then you do have authority. It has to start when they're very young, but the more you do that when they're 2-5, they more they'll listen to you when they're 12-15.

Parents, do not exasperate your children, as Paul wrote in Ephesians. Love them and lead them. Don't force them into a mold. Don't ignore their feelings. And you just may find that they WANT to follow where you lead.

UPDATE: I've been getting some comments that I'm being too hard on Chinese culture--they have to be strict because there is no leeway in their society. You fail as a teen, and your life is severely restricted. I understand that, and I understand the need for discipline. I just want to reiterate, as I said in my first article about this, that I don't consider myself a "Western" mom, I consider myself a Christian mom who probably leans more towards the Chinese model than the lax Canadian one. I also consider my Asian brothers and sisters in Christ closer to me than the North American parents who buy into the consumer mentality. So this isn't a West (ie. Me) vs. Them thing--it's just a comment on culture without God, which both the West and Asia currently have.

I should also note that I have plenty of Korean/Chinese friends who came to Canada to escape the pressure on their children. And my own half-brother is half Asian, raised in similar methods to Amy Chua. So I am not trying to make a racial judgment, only a cultural one. And I speak as one who does not consider myself really part of Western culture in particular, but part of a bigger global culture, which encompasses my Chinese/Korean/Japanese brothers and sisters.

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At 10:23 AM , Blogger The Roberts Family said…

Great post, Sheila! It makes me really think about RELATIONSHIP! When someone takes time to build a relationship with us, we usually naturally really want to listen to their insights/wisdom. I especially appreciate how you stated it must start YOUNG. If we're not building relationship with our kids are 2, 3, 4 and 5 .... how can we honestly expect to pounce in on their lives at 12, 13, 14 and 15 with all of our "advice"? :) In our family, we're experiencing some amazing blessed teen years (INCLUDING challenges of various kinds - hello!!, we are all sinners!!) ... but I am CONVINCED it would not be like that if we hadn't been extremely pro-active in building relationship when they were very young.

Each of our kids are different and that relationship will look and work a bit differently with each one. So important to remember that!

Blessings, Shelly


At 10:31 AM , Anonymous Destiny said…

This is one of your greatest posts in my opinion. I have learned a lot in the past couple of years about authority in areas such as the church and family, but not put a lot of thought into the difference between authority and power. I can tell I will be pondering on this for at least a couple of days.

My father raised me on a relationship based on power and fear. I rebelled. Hard. I have younger siblings who have been raised (by the same man) based more on authority and respect. It is his parenting style of my younger siblings that I hope to follow more so than the style used while I was growing up.

I love your blog, and read it all the time, and hopefully will be one of the first to order your new book.

God bless you Sheila!!


At 11:55 AM , Blogger Mary R. said…

I have lived in the Orient, and this type of parenting is typical -- it works there because of the needs there. People there don't have the benefit of a second chance, like we do here (for instance, "waking up" at age 40 and deciding you want to be a doctor). Over there, if you don't get into the right schools right away, you're out. For a girl, it would mean an inferior marriage as well.

This mother, coming from the Oriental context, was doing what she had to do for her daughter to have a decent life there. Social status and the type of life you will lead for the rest of your life are determined early. In that context, while it seems unnecessarily harsh to us, even abusive, the mother was doing the best she could for her daughter, acting in love, in their context.

I would not parent my child like that, but in the Orient, they probably feel they have to for the sake of all involved, the child and the family. No, I would not say it leads to much creativity, unfortunately.

The people there also did not seem to have the freedom to say, "who cares what others think?" Losing face is a very serious thing there. It was a harsh way of life. We don't know how blessed we are here.

It is hard to judge people from a different culture. You wouldn't believe what they say about US (that divorce is an "American custom," American women are wild, and stuff like that, and that is what it seems like to them).


At 3:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Great post! Totally agreed.
I was thinking, though, that many in this Asian culture do not often rebel in their teenage years (as a western child might).
I was wondering why, and thinking that perhaps guilt becomes the over-riding motivation into adulthood?
So power to control, and then guilt to keep that control well past an age when a grown child could choose another path. What do you think?


At 4:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I agree heartily with your comments about Amy Chau and parenting.

And I agree that the term "verbal abuse" has been abused. However, having suffered severe verbal and physical abuse growing up, I can't let it slide!

It does exist! I don't know how to explain it to you without giving you quotes-- much too colorful for your family blog. Being called every name under the sun by your MOTHER, being harshly and unfairly criticized for simple wrongs, being told you have been DIS-OWNED several times before you are 14 years old, being told you are only being kept around for the tax credit, a constant undermining of your self worth and self esteem by your parent. THAT *IS* verbal abuse!

I'm not looking for sympathy, I just feel I must speak out for those who have truly been through real verbal abuse.


At 4:14 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

To the anonymous poster:

I'm SO sorry! I obviously didn't write this correctly, because I didn't mean that it didn't exist. What I meant to say, which I obviously didn't do a good job of, is that verbal abuse has to be seen in the context of other actions. It's hard to label mere words abusive, because you have to see the context. In one family, for instance, I think almost complete silence would count as verbal abuse. In another, a lot of bad yelling wouldn't be, because there's affirmation in other ways (that's not to say that the yelling is fine, just that it isn't abusive).

What you're describing IS abuse because of the context and the content of the verbal stuff.

The reason I brought it up here is that Amy Chua was accused of verbal abuse for what she did with her daughter, and I would hesitate to call it that because of the context.

That's why I don't like the term: I think it's been politicized a little too much. But I do think it exists, and all I meant to say was that context matters!


At 4:29 PM , Blogger Janel said…

I think that's an excellent take on it.


At 4:45 PM , Anonymous Daisy said…

Amy Chua did not write an 'editorial' for the WSJ but rather a poignant memoir in which she honestly and compellingly discusses her journey as a parent and reflects on how she was parented herself. The excerpt from the book on which people are making all sorts of wild accusations does not begin to depict the journey Chua took nor the realizations she came to in the end.

As an author yourself you can likely appreciate what a slanted and unfair picture would be painted of you and your life, marriage, and parenting were you to be judged off of just a few paragraphs of your work. What your article and so many others are doing--seeking to paint Eastern cultures with a broad brush based off just a glimpse of one woman's parenting-- is grossly unfair and a bit concerning, especially if grace is supposed to be paramount in a Christian worldview.

Sheila, you are a blogger and author I have come to respect through my years of reading your writings in cyberspace but some of the points that have been brought up in these two articles is leaving me troubled. The reality of Asian culture, complete with strengths and weaknesses, isn't being taken into account, an intellectual understanding of the history and philosophy of these areas, or the reality that even in a land as vast of China ethnic diversity is great and a large wealth of parenting philosophies are represented. Without this background a fair picture of Eastern cultures cannot be given and many, many, many siblings in Christ are being slandered with the pen.

I married into a Korean family and have come to know a great many people who were raised by Korean Mothers who are nothing like the racist "Asians are non-thinking people" stereotype that is being painted here. Much innovation has come from the Far East, India, and many other parts of the world that rely on a more traditional form of parenting. Many of our centers of technology and innovation in the West are full of people from traditional cultures too. Strong disciplined warrior ethos--one that does not only include power-- have come from this part of the world and still inspire military men today, including many of the most elite warriors in the West (ex; Special Forces in the US). Beautiful works of philosophy, religious understanding, art, and aesthetics have been gifted to the world by these very ancient cultures. (Some of which are very old Christian works! The churches in the Far East are far far older than the Protestant churches of the West.)

There is not one view of success in these cultures nor are they all fed from a singular vision that could justify saying such a thing. People from more traditional cultures are just as different as the rest of us and just the same as well. This is a life paradox that is experienced by us all. Life in the West largely follows a similar script as well; capitalism depends on this to make for the best consumers after all.

I trust you know that this comment is not one of malice but one of profound sadness and concern. Neither the East nor the West has a monopoly on God, morality, or perfect parenting. Each has wisdom to offer and a poverty to be cast aside. Nothing more, nothing less.


At 4:55 PM , Blogger Mary R. said…

I didn't see the kind of rebellion among young people over in the Orient (we lived in S. Korea) that you do here. They are trained to be respectful to everybody and to rever their parents and family. Rarely would anybody ever do anything to shame their family.

I was privileged to spend a day in a public school, too (this was 30 years ago, so I don't know how things are now). Teachers have absolute authority and may use physical abuse to control the children. There is little discipline of pre-schoolers, but once they are in school, forget it. The teachers as well as the parents discipline them. The students did ALL the janitorial work (washing floors, toilets, etc., not just cleaning blackboards) after school was out, too. The teachers decided whether or not children may change out of their school unforms after school and whether or not they could frequent the video arcades. Don't know if it is still like this in 2011.

Overall, though, I found it a child-loving culture. It's just that their discipline and training seem harsh to us, but it is to help them survive in a harsh culture, where there is almost no social welfare system or second chance.

I liked living there and thought the people were great. Interestingly, the Christians there were well-disciplined, too -- getting up at 4 a.m. to pray every day (yes, there was some pride involved in all of this -- saving face is important in all areas of life). I knew pastors who went on 40-day fasts. But, it was not all pride. They were truly sincere Christians overall. N. Korean threat made them very serious about everything.

Anyway, good fair post, Sheila.


At 4:57 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


You're right about the lack of second chance, and how that plays a role in parenting. I think I said that in the first article that I wrote--that Western parents allow our kids to be lazy, and that's actually a strength of the Chinese model. Thanks for your comments!


At 5:07 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mary, sorry, I hit publish before I finished my comment! I think discipline is extremely important, and not nearly practised enough here. I think I said that more in the first post I wrote about this, rather than this particular one. I wish I were as disciplined in prayer as our Asian sisters and brothers! Thanks for the reminder (especially since I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning!)


At 5:17 PM , Blogger Mary R. said…

Each church had a siren to wake the people! With the continued communist threat to the north, those people took nothing for granted. We were able to visit Yonggi Cho's church and were really impressed. Those people really know how to pray.

Not saying I would ever want to discipline my children that way (mine are grown), but we don't know how blessed we are here in the West that we don't have to.


At 9:21 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mary R., Have you ever read Randy Alcorn's book Safely Home? It's just so beautiful, focusing on the plight--and hope--of Chinese believers. It echoes much of what you're saying. I read it years ago and still can't get it out of my head.


At 9:28 PM , Blogger Mary R. said…

No,I will have to look it up. My son is studying Chinese.


At 10:48 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


Thank you for your comment, and I hope you see that I addressed it in the update!

I want to stress that I am not the one who labeled it Chinese culture--it was Amy Chua. And she wrote an article on the editorial page, which is generally called an editorial. She also said herself that she was trying to be a little inflammatory (she's trying to drive sales for her book), so she deliberately was provocative. I'm responding to her; I'm not the one who is labelling it a Chinese culture; I'm simply responding to what she labeled a Chinese culture.

As I pointed out in my update, I don't think that what she was referring to was synonymous with Chinese Christians at all, anymore than the Western culture is synonymous with Western culture. And I don't consider myself a Western mother, anymore than my Chinese or Korean friends consider themselves Chinese or Korean mothers (indeed, most of my Korean friends came her to get away from the intense pressure their children face in Korean schools. The Chinese friends came here to get away from the one child policy).

Perhaps I should have clarified, but I was responding to what Ms. Chua wrote, not to the culture in general. And she wrote that column to generate discussion, so I don't think I was criticizing the culture in general--I was criticizing her portrayal of that culture and saying that the culture she portrayed wasn't Christlike--anymore than our own Western culture is Christlike.

We all have a long road to go to find the model for Christian parenting. I think that most in the West have a lot to learn from many Asian cultures about discipline, while those cultures may have a lot to learn about free will. But regardless, all of us need to get back to what Christ said about who owns our children--and it's not us. It's Him.

Thank you for your comment. I do appreciate it. And I will try not to paint with such a broad brush. It certainly wasn't my intention. I was simply responding to what she wrote (and indeed, trying to defend her from allegations of verbal abuse, which I have seen popping up all over the internet!).

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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