Why Do Chinese Parents Lie to Their Kids More?

Is it okay for parents to lie to their kids? In my latest piece at The Atlantic, I discuss a new study that suggests that, while a majority of American parents admit to lying to their kids, almost all Chinese parents do. Chinese parents are also more approving of the practice. The specific lies in question are “instrumental lies”–or lying for the sake of ensuring compliance. For instance, a particularly graphic lie that only 4 percent of Americans tell their kids but one-fifth of Chinese parents admitted to threatening their children with was, “If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish.” To get a breakdown of what lies parents admit telling–and which group, Americans or Chinese, are telling which lies–click here.

For my piece, I talked to the always interesting Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, who had some interesting thoughts on whether lying to your kids is a good parenting strategy: 

When Amy Chua was a little girl, her parents told her lies. They told her that if she did not get straight-A grades at school, she would wind up on the streets—or that if she got into the car of someone she did not know, she would be kidnapped.

In an interview with me, Chua elaborates. “They wouldn’t so much lie as exaggerate… wild exaggerations to point of untruths,” she says. Her parents, Chinese immigrants to the United States, “were paranoid about safety.”

Ultimately, she decided that a policy of complete honesty to her own children is better:

The tiger mother does not approve of instrumental lying. Chua tells me that she and Rubenfeld “definitely don’t lie to our children. They’re so smart that we would lose credibility.” Chua’s older daughter, Sophia, is a sophomore at Harvard majoring in philosophy and Sanskrit. Lulu, 17, is a junior in high school with a passion for violin and writing. “I’m not morally opposed to it,” Chua says about such lying. “I just don’t think it would work.” The lies Chua’s own parents told her backfired: “Every time my parents said I would be kidnapped if I did this or that, I just got more reckless.”

Chua advocates complete honesty. “Tiger mothers are actually more truthful—we don’t sugar coat,” Chua tells me. Recently, for example, Lulu was working on an essay for class about a short story. Chua read the essay and told Lulu that the point she was making was cliché—it was not as interesting as Lulu thought it was.

Or consider an example from when Lulu and Sophia were much younger: Chua, Rubenfeld, and the girls were at a restaurant together for Chua’s birthday dinner. Chua was dipping her bread in some olive oil when Sophia and Lulu presented their makeshift birthday cards to the tiger mom. The cards were pieces of paper folded in two with half-hearted “Happy Birthdays” written in them. Lulu gave hers first. Chua took one look at the card and said, “I don’t want this.” It was not good enough. She then said, “I reject this,” and threw the card back at Lulu, who was about four years old at the time. Sophia, whose card was not good enough either, was probably seven. Chua said to her, “That’s nice, Sophia, but not good enough either.”

Later that night, the girls redeemed themselves. They presented Chua with far more thoughtful cards that she still has—a tiger-mom victory, and a victory for Chua’s complete-honesty policy.

You can read more here.

  1. Trink

    I’m in a bad mood . . . and that B.S. about throwing the “makeshift” birthday card at her daughter, makes me want to puke.

  2. Brandon Phelps

    There’s lying and there’s joking. And there are very little kids who don’t get it until later. In the case of the Santa Claus lie, not until much later. It is all about intent. Deceiving kids because you’re lazy and don’t want to think about why you really want them to do something is wrong. Deceiving kids because its a fun game, like with Santa Claus, or like I tell my kids ‘I’m sending them to the gypsies if they don’t behave” is not wrong. There are those who disagree but I would guess those kinds of people have a sterile or somewhat rigid outlook on life. And maybe they should loosen up.

  3. Instugator

    I am sure your conversation with Amy Chua was enlightening – but I have never heard of an Asian parent behaving the way you describe here,

    Emily Esfahani Smith:

    Or consider an example from when Lulu and Sophia were much younger: … Chua took one look at the card and said, “I don’t want this.” It was not good enough. She then said, “Ireject this,” and threw the card back at Lulu, who was about four years old at the time. Sophia, whose card was not good enough either, was probably seven. Chua said to her, “That’s nice, Sophia, but not good enough either.”

    Whenever you hear a tale like this that might be just a tad over-the-top, I would recommend you bounce it off of one of our Ricochet Asian moms – maybe Joan of Ark-La-Tex, for example.

    I have seen the safety paranoia (among all of our Asian immigrant friends), but I have not seen the over-the-top perfectionism that Chua manufactures.

  4. Frederick Key

    Tell you the truth (ha!), I think parents in the West  also used to do whatever was necessary to get kids to behave short of bribery, which is a current and counterproductive method. Mom always told us we’d wind up in the orphanage; even drove past it once to scare us. I think it was a public school outside our zone. Sure looked like jail to me.

    You better believe it worked.

    Chinese parents may not have gotten to the point of thinking that telling lies to kids leads to kids who tell lies.

  5. Johnny Dubya

    I frequently buy Chinese-made guitars, basses, and mandolins, and I can tell you that a surfeit of perfectionism is not an issue in the factories that produce these instruments. Quality control is a consistent problem. As far as the parenting matters are concerned: Lying to children breeds mistrust. I’m on board with being frank when school work is not up to par. But throwing a greeting card in a young child’s face is nothing less than monstrous. That Chua seemingly gleefully shares such information is in itself evidence of a personality disorder.

  6. Sandy

    Amy Chua does not strike me as interesting, except as a rather strange parent, though she does strike me as a fairly successful self-promoter. 

  7. Instugator
    Johnny Dubya: . That Chua seemingly gleefully shares such information is in itself evidence of a personality disorder. · 1 hour ago

    It is in Chua’s best interest to keep Chua’s name in the media.

    That she does so by making outrageous claims regarding Asian parentage is a shame.

    That young writers continually seek her out, doubly so.

    So this is how a negative stereotype makes it into popular culture – Ms. Esfahani Smith – If you want to know why Asian kids do well at school (and other endeavors) please do not consult Ms. Chua – she learned it second hand. Go to first generation immigrant Asian families and ask them.

  8. outstripp

    I’ve seen this kind of behavior in japan too. Mothers will say (in a store or station) “if you don’t behave I’ll leave you here.” Or in other places, ‘if you do that a policeman will arrest you.”

  9. Despair Troll
    Instugator: I am sure your conversation with Amy Chua was enlightening – but I have never heard of an Asian parent behaving the way you describe here,

    Emily Esfahani Smith:

    Or consider an example from when Lulu and Sophia were much younger: … Chua took one look at the card and said, “I don’t want this.” It was not good enough. She then said, “Ireject this,” and threw the card back at Lulu, who was about four years old at the time. Sophia, whose card was not good enough either, was probably seven. Chua said to her, “That’s nice, Sophia, but not good enough either.”

    Whenever you hear a tale like this that might be just a tad over-the-top, I would recommend you bounce it off of one of our Ricochet Asian moms – maybe Joan of Ark-La-Tex, for example.

    I have seen the safety paranoia (among all of our Asian immigrant friends), but I have not seen the over-the-top perfectionism that Chua manufactures. · 5 hours ago

    I can vouch for this kind of behavior.  Asian women have no souls.

  10. Joan of Ark La Tex
    CoveredUp

    I can vouch for this kind of behavior.  Asian women have no souls. · 3 minutes ag

    o

    These sentences are almost laughable. You are better than this. 

  11. Instugator
    outstripp: I’ve seen this kind of behavior in japan too. Mothers will say (in a store or station) “if you don’t behave I’ll leave you here.” Or in other places, ‘if you do that a policeman will arrest you.” · 2 hours ago

    Yeah, my mother, grandmother and great grandmother all said the same thing – to my sister. I was the very model of childhood deportment.

  12. Zafar

    All I know is that Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother thing is as American as the Shahs of Sunset : – )

  13. Astonishing

    When I was on especially long streak of bad behavior, my mom would say, “If you don’t straighten up real quick, I’m going to send you to Reform School.”

    I think she was lying.

    But maybe she wasn’t.

    I believed her at the time.

    Mom was tough. She didn’t take guff from children: One time my sister threatened to call Child Welfare if mom ever spanked her again. Mom gave her a spanking and then handed her the phone. Or maybe she gave her the phone first and then gave her the spanking. Either way, I remember my sister whimpering afterwards with the phone in her lap. That still is for me an indelible image and an indelible lesson . . . about family loyalty more than anything else.

    We got spanked, but we were never beaten. Spankings never left a mark, except maybe on the psyche. Times were different back then because you didn’t need to be an amateur psychologist to raise a kid.

  14. EJHill

    It’s not lying. It’s exaggerating.

  15. Foxman

    I’m always suspect of studies where people “admit”  or not to things.  Maybe the Chinese were just more honest.