Challenging Stereotypes: The Lived Experience of British Chinese Parenting

Challenging Stereotypes: The Lived Experience of British Chinese Parenting

Carmen Lau Clayton (University of Leeds)

In both research and popular accounts of Chinese families, children are often perceived as being conformist, hard working and high achievers; their parents in turn, are seen as strict, controlling, and guilty of placing high demands on their children to succeed educationally. Controversial media reports of ‘Tiger Parents’ as seen within Amy Chau’s memoir ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ (2011) and ‘Meet Britain’s Chinese Tiger Mums’ (British Broadcasting Channel/BBC Wonderland series 2012), cement such perceptions within the public domain.

Since Confucianism is the main philosophical backdrop influencing Chinese traditions and norms, it is said to significantly impact the lives of Chinese migrant communities, particularly within the domestic setting of familial relationships. The Confucian approach encompasses a collectivist ideal that prioritises the group (be it the family, society or state) over the needs, wishes and desires of the individual.

How accurate are such perceptions with regard to Chinese migrants (whether first, second or earlier generation) who now live in Britain and have taken British citizenship? Can cultural frameworks alone explain the parenting practices of British-Chinese parents in contemporary society? Such questions frequently go unanswered, as to date, there has been little research or political interest in the British-Chinese community, despite its long history (since the 1840s) and the fact that this is the third largest British ethnic group.

My research shows that what affects parenting outlook in the British-Chinese community rarely boils down to cultural norms and expectations alone. Instead, in a time of growing multiculturalism and cosmopolitan living, Chinese traditions cannot hold sway for families living in Britain without modern influences coming in to play. Furthermore, rather than being challenged and rejected by British-Chinese parents, many embraced and encouraged ‘Western’ values, alongside more traditional viewpoints, in the family home.

My recent book ‘British Chinese Families: Parenting Approaches, Household Relationships and Childhood Experiences’ (2014) documents household relationships and family dynamics between British Chinese parents and their children, from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and settlement histories, in the North of England.(1) Repeat semi-structured interviews were conducted over a nine-month period looking specifically at parenting approaches, parent-child closeness and the autonomy of British Chinese children. Parents and children were interviewed individually to uncover family life perspectives from both generations.(2) This article will focus solely on contemporary parenting behaviours and indicates that parental upbringing, connectedness with children, acceptance of westernisation and external processes are important factors to consider when discussing British Chinese family life.

When asked to recall their childhood experiences, the accounts of British-Chinese parents coincided with established research findings and common assumptions; Chinese parenting of the past was authoritarian and adhered strongly to Confucian values. Similarly British-Chinese parents of today appeared to place a high value upon Confucian philosophies, where patriarchy and filial piety in particular are stressed. Children were expected to be well behaved, to preserve ‘the face’ and integrity of the family and to respect parental authority. The importance of upholding Chinese traditions was seen despite the differences in parents’ backgrounds, length of British residence, socio-economic status and age groups.

The extent to which British Chinese parent’s applied Chinese values varied between households however. In contrast to dominant assumptions and research where Chinese norms are seen as all pervasive in the home, a much richer and more complex picture emerged. Here, British-Chinese parents demonstrated strong ties to Chinese norms but at the same time, their own upbringing, ideals around the parent-child relationship and an acceptance of Westernisation also played a significant role in their parenting approaches.

In terms of childhood experiences, for many contemporary parents, they had experienced a strict upbringing with distant relationships with their own mothers and fathers. Lack of parental warmth was understood as a by product of Confucian attitudes (parents are to be respected and children are to be dutiful and obedient), resulting in feelings of loneliness and a lack of support from parents. Such an experience encouraged today’s parents to be less authoritarian and more flexible in the way in which parental authority was to be upheld and displayed. Encouraging children to voice their own opinions and to challenge parents on some issues illustrated the leniency allowed within some British-Chinese families. Such parents recognised the individuality of the child and felt it was important for children to establish reasoning and good communication skills in a competitive world of work and education. Permitting children to question parental authority contrasts with the picture of Chinese family life of the past, where parents would be unreservedly unchallenged. British-Chinese parents who uphold the value of filial piety (respecting seniors and elders), but who were also more willing to accommodate a degree of flexibility in their belief systems, had a closer relationship with their children. This closeness was expressed by both parents and children in the research.

Establishing close bonds with children was prioritised by the majority of contemporary British-Chinese parents. Parents wanted to be their child’s confidante, play-friend, and companion.   The creation of positive parent-child relationships was exemplified through various means: having open lines of communication, shared hobbies and interests, and establishing a friend like relationship. Such efforts again contrast with the experiences and accounts of the earlier generations of Chinese families.  Speaking English in the family was an important factor with regard to intimate parent-child relationships. All the children who participated in the research preferred English language use regardless of their backgrounds and length of residency in the UK. Parents who communicated with their children in English, as opposed to Chinese, seemed to know more about their children and have a better relationship with them. Children in households where parents insisted on Chinese language use (in various dialects) reported language barriers with their parents and would in their words ‘open up’ less to them as a result.

Parents who displayed relaxed Westernised attitudes were the ones who were happiest to converse in English with their children. Many British-Chinese parents were more accepting of their child’s Westernisation due to their own childhood. Parents recalled anti-Western attitudes displayed by their parents, which led to conflicting perceptions and feelings of culture-clash. Chinese culture and traditions were heavily promoted in previous generations with the insistence of Chinese language use and a preference for Chinese friendship groups. Parents described feelings of segregation from school and peers as a result. In contrast to their upbringing, a large number of contemporary parents attempted to minimise their children’s feelings of cultural tension and strain. Here, parents’ acknowledged that a loss of Chinese culture was highly likely as a result of living in Britain, and they accepted the child’s friendships with Western peers. Contemporary parents recognised the benefits of retaining Chinese language use, but the reasons for this were different from those in the past. Previously Chinese language use was insisted on as one way of maintaining Chinese traditions and learning about Chinese culture. For this group of contemporary parents, retaining Chinese language use was to benefit their children’s’ future careers, as China’s growing global position meant possible future employment in Asia.

A small number of British Chinese parents were less accepting of Western influences. These families emphasised the use of Chinese traditions and customs more than other households. These parents had lived in Britain for the least amount of time or had strong connections with the Chinese community (e.g. social organisations). The migration history of parents was significant here. Settling into a new county and being unfamiliar with the surroundings, dominant language and culture encouraged parents to restrict or limit their children’s movements outside of the home and to emphasise Chinese traditions more. The children of such households complained that their parents were ‘old fashioned’ and ‘out of touch’, which consequently affected the parent-child relationship and their autonomy. When speaking to parents it was clear that culture alone could not fully explain the rationale for their parental behaviours. Instead parenting choices and behaviours are complex and interact with a number of other individual, personal and social factors.

Confucianism is regarded as one of the great traditions, which has influenced the behaviour patterns and structure of Chinese individuals, families and society. When growing up, the British-Chinese parent’s descriptions of their childhood coincided with established research findings, where the parents of the previous generation adhered strongly to Confucian values within the family. The importance of Chinese traditions and values were still evident amongst contemporary parents, though less stringently applied in the majority of cases.

Often contemporary parents would use their own childhood experiences to inform their parenting choices and were critical of the strict child rearing methods of the past. Creating strong parent-child bonds meant that parents were accommodating to children’s needs and less authoritarian; parental expectations of children’s submissive behaviours -as seen in the past- were seen as unrealistic given such aims and even as undesirable in some cases. There was also acceptance of and support for the child’s Westernisation within some modern households which contrasted with the parents’ own upbringing. Contemporary parents were happy for the English language to be used in the home and about the child’s integration with British peers. Relaxed attitudes towards Western influences and westernisation created less tension in the home between parents and children and promoted closer relationships.

Contemporary parental accounts indicated that individual upbringing, relationships and connectedness with children, in addition to external factors, should not be ignored when looking at British-Chinese family life. To focus on cultural explanations alone would mask the true extent and variety of British-Chinese parenting decisions and behaviours and so the use of culture to explain wider Chinese family patterns is therefore questionable. Furthermore the use of sweeping cultural generalisations is unhelpful when the British-Chinese population are already an under-researched community group, which continues to suffer prejudice, discrimination and racism (as seen within recent media reports).(3) Due to the lack of knowledge about the Chinese community, further research would not only expand our understanding of such a social group, but would also help to overcome prevailing stereotypes of the ‘Chinese’ and perceived attributes.


Lau, Clayton (2014). British Chinese Families: Parenting Approaches, Household Relationships and Childhood Experiences. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.
Lau, Clayton (2014). ‘With my parents I can tell them anything’: British Chinese Families. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth. ​Vol 19(1), 22-36.
Lau-Clayton, C. (2013). British Chinese Children: Agency and Action. Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol 33(2), 160-182.
Lau-Clayton, C. (2011). Contemporary British Chinese Parenting: Beyond Cultural Values. Childhoods Today. Vol 5(1), 1-25.

(1) Twelve families participated in the above study (2006-09). Eight of the 12 families can be classified as a nuclear household. The sample also had one blended household; a female lone parent family and an “astronaut” family (where the family members reside in different parts of the world). Parents were from different countries of origin, including Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, and had varied lengths of U.K. residency, education levels, and careers. Nine mothers and 3 fathers between their late 30s and 60s participated in the study. Children in the sample were aged between 11 and 14 years old.
(2) Repeat qualitative interviewing was used as it allows participants to tell their stories on their own terms and in their own words. Contact over time in research can encourage children and adults, to relax enough with the researcher to reveal their beliefs, feelings, and concerns. In turn, repeat interviews permit the interviewees to get to know the researcher better. As such, more of a reciprocal relationship can be formed between the researcher and respondent.
(3) Thomas, E. (2014). British Chinese people say racism against them is ‘ignored’.


Carmen Lau Clayton is the Principle Investigator (PI) of the ESRC funded Following Young Fathers Study (2012-15) based at the University of Leeds. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Child and Family Welfare Studies at Leeds Trinity University.