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Chinese Moms vs. Jewish Moms: Who is Mother Superior?

Wendy Sachs
Jan. 12, 2011

The morning after my 7-year-old daughter's sleepover and a few hours before my 9-year-old son's play date, and just in the middle of quieting my daughter's kvetchting about her impending piano lesson, I happened upon "Why Chinese Moms are Superior," Amy Chua's controversial Wall Street Journal article that's created a firestorm in the blogosphere, with blogging mommies everywhere wondering if playdates are ruining their kids' chances at a Harvard degree.

Chua, a second generation Chinese American, mother of two and Yale law professor, argues that Chinese moms churn out whip-smart kids precisely because they DON'T allow childhood frivolity like sleepovers or play dates, along with just about everything else that is social, fun or distracting including: TV, video games, sleepaway camp, and auditioning for the school play.  They also insist that their children master the violin or piano - but only those two instruments -  be the top student in every subject with the exception of gym or drama, and receive no grade below an A.

Two Moms
As a working mom I've divided and loaded my personal and professional lives onto all three of my tech gadgets and without them, well, I simply couldn't function.  I simultaneously adore and curse my technology.

Somehow throughout the millennia, whether we were living in the desert, the shtetl, the ghetto or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Jewish moms have also turned out successful progeny, despite all the kvetching.

Perhaps that's why there are so many Jewish lawyers. Jewish kids debate at home.  They speak back to their parents.  They argue while practicing their powers of persuasion on their exhausted parents.  And we moms, well, we at least subliminally encourage it - after all, we love a good argument.  And after centuries of persecution and existing on the fringes of nearly every society from Egypt to Eastern Europe, either fighting for entry or thriving in spite of it, Jews are hardwired for resistance - which perhaps explains my two strong-willed children.

Chua claims that heaping shame and ridicule on her children drives them to success.  In her world, insults motivate. Praise only comes with perfection. Weak discipline creates mediocrity.

"You are garbage!" she once screamed at her daughter.

Western parents, Chua says, worry endlessly about their children's psyches, while Chinese Moms simply demand a tougher resilience.  Obsessing about damaging your child's self-esteem is a Western parenting weakness in this style of parenting.

Chua says that Chinese moms don't mince words when it comes to their children's appearance either.  They can say: "Hey Fatty - lose some weight."

The Jewish Mom would more likely kvell over her daughter than insult her, no matter how fat she had become.  

"You are too gorgeous, but maybe you want me to get you a gym membership," a Jewish mom would say.  The F-word would never enter the conversation.  While Chua describes Chinese Moms in almost pathological terms, the Jewish Mom style is decidedly more passive aggressive.

"Why don't we go study for your spelling test now?" I say to my son.

"Can you please get your math review sheets?  Let's make sure you get 100 percent on your quiz!" I say in my best bubbly, you-can-do-it voice.

We frame demands in pleasant questions. Really what we mean is: "Go study now and I want you to get straight A's and a National Merit Scholarship that gets you into Harvard." We just message it differently.  

Does this style always work?  Absolutely not.  Do we coddle our children?  Definitely.  Do we ascribe to more lax, permissive parenting that's wrapped in Jewish Mom guilt?  Without a doubt. But we are a culture of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and Jewish bubbes who probably manufactured the term "Mama's Boys."  After all, it takes a little coddling to turn our men into menshes.

Sleepaway camp, verbotem in Chua's world, is another area in which the cultures differ.  Jews love sleepaway camp. They are a rite of passage (an obscenely expensive one these days) for many American Jewish kids. Jewish parents view sleepaway camp as a place for their children to develop independence, grow emotionally, make lifelong friends, get away from the grind of school, learn a smorgasbord of completely non-relevant life skills like how to shoot an arrow, ride a zip line, capsize a canoe, create cheesy Color War songs, and just have crazy fun.

"You won't even recognize your children when they come home.  They mature so much.  We really focus on creating strong self esteem," a camp director promised on my sleepaway camp tour to Maine last summer.

Yes, Jewish moms tour the camps a year in advance to make sure it's the perfect fit for their kvetchy camper.  We also check the bathrooms for cleanliness and the camp menu for good food options and interrogate the counselors to seem if they seem warm, engaged and enthusiastic.

You know, I'm seeing a whole battle cry online now - humorously - calling on Jewish mothers, "C'mon Jewish Moms, You're losing it to the Chinese!"  It's a funny position to take.   

Should Jewish Moms become more like Chinese Moms?  Maybe. As long as we can hold on to the playdates, sleepovers, open debating and sleepaway camp.

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