A Chinese mother raising her son in the US reveals the biggest differences between American and Chinese parenting

The author and her son. Yan Mei
  • There is a lot to learn from looking at the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting styles.
  • For example, Chinese parents coach their children into learning new skills, whereas American parents are inclined to wait until the child shows initiative.
  • As her son grows older and experiences more, author Yan Mei knows that her cultural values and parenting strategies will grow and change as well.

My son was born in the US to a Chinese mother and a British father. He may speak fluent Mandarin, use chopsticks, say “lift” instead of “elevator,” and enjoy Weetabix and crumpets at breakfast, but he calls New York home.

There’s much more to multicultural parenting than language and food. In the past five years, I’ve gobbled up reams of parenting books, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as the perfect parent. We can’t choose our parents, but we can choose what kind of parents we want to be, regardless of our cultural background.

Here are four major differences I’ve noticed between how Chinese parents and American parents raise their kids:

Americans parents are perennial cheerleaders for their kids in a way Chinese parents often are not


I used to roll my eyes when American parents lauded their children, exclaiming, “Good job!” or “You’re great – I’m so proud of you!” Chinese parents drill into their little ones the philosophy that “Modesty leads to progress, and conceit makes one drop behind” (谦虚使人进步, 骄傲使人落后).

Instead of praise, I remember my dad often said to me, “You can do even better next time if you work harder.” I wondered why Americans acted like their kids’ cheerleaders.

That changed when I read Amanda Ripley’s ” The Smartest Kids in the World, And How They Got That Way. ” Ripley explains that back in the 1980s and ’90s, “American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed.” Now I see that the self-esteem movement was a quintessentially American phenomenon.

Since then, research has instead pointed out that it’s better for parents to applaud children’s effort (rather than their talents). I’ve been using these praise strategies with my son, and his response makes me chuckle: “Yes, because I’ve worked really hard and used my brain.”

Chinese parents take the lead, while Americans let their kids call more of the shots


One of my first insights into the different parenting strategies between American and Chinese cultures came at an unexpected milestone in my son’s life: potty training.

In China, potty training is a parent-led job: The child is held over a potty, and a parent whistles or makes a “shh” sound. “Kids eventually associate the sounds with ‘need to go,'” my mother claimed. “It’s quick to learn. You were potty trained just after 1.”

Well, it’s safe to say that all my child’s daycare friends were happily in diapers at that age. “Follow your child’s lead,” many American parents said. Our pediatrician also assured me starting potty training after age 3 was absolutely normal for a boy.

This disparity was demonstrative of a larger trend in parenting culture. Americans try to respect children’s individuality and natural signs of interest, while Chinese parents tend to coach as early as possible and push kids to get on with it.

Chinese parents have great expectations for their children’s achievement

Students taking their end-of-term exams in Fengqiu County, China. VCG/Getty Images

“Parents can’t always tell kids what to do, right?” my son asked recently asked me. We were discussing our favourite short films after returning from the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

“I can now, but who knows in 10 years?” I said to myself.

Confucian culture emphasises one’s importance to the family, society, and other people, so Chinese parents often project their hopes and decisions onto the next generation. Almost every child growing up in a Chinese family heard their parents say, “I do it all for you!”

A tragic story of an immigrant family puts a spotlight on this traditional Chinese parent-child relationship.

Paul Li told his son Calvin that he would never be a professional football player because he was Chinese, and asked him to focus on his studies instead. Calvin died in a car crash just before he was about to start college.

“Even though I know maybe in reality he would not be a football player. But it was just the way I shattered his dream when he was small … and I know for sure, there are other Chinese parents who are doing the same to their children right now. And I don’t want that to happen,” Li said.

Chinese and American parents socialise their children differently


There is one way American parents often project their expectations onto their children from a young age: playdates.

Both parents and kids lead hectic lives nowadays, so I am all for prearranged play. However, I am not comfortable with the idea of arranged friendships for kids. But it’s certainly eye-opening to see how enthusiastic American parents are about helping kids form friendships, hone social skills, and expand their own social circles through kids’ play.

If I only reach out to the families at my child’s request, am I robbing him of valuable opportunities to interact with his peers, develop personal relationships, and tackle conflicts outside of the school environment?

Experts have found that social competence can be nurtured, and childhood friendship has many benefits. So I am considering coaching my son more in terms of his social and friendship skills.

I know my parenting strategies will change with time


As my child faces educational choices, different racial attitudes, puberty, and more in the years to come, my cultural values and beliefs will be challenged even more, and my parenting strategies altered.

Thankfully, my husband, a true British gentleman, never challenges my parenting in front of our child. Every day I remind myself to stick with it, and when my son whispers to me every night, “Mummy, you’re the best,” I know that I’m doing parenthood right.