Chinese parenting

There are nearly 7,000 comments to Amy Chua’s now infamous article in the Wall Street Journal titled, modestly, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. I read the piece, as I’m guessing most of you did, with grim fascination. Its main contention is that Chinese parents raise kids who are more successful than their Western counterparts because these parents deprive their kids of fun, slave-drive them to study constantly, prohibit them from acting in school plays and sleeping over at friends’ houses, and insisting that they never get a grade below A. Chua’s description of how she terrorized her daughter to force her to master a piano piece is not something you’ll soon forget.

American parents, on the other hand, indulge their children and fail to treat them with authority. Their kids are raised believing they don’t owe their parents anything, and thus they don’t do all they can to excel and delight their parents. But the Chinese parents, Chua argues, aren’t doing this for their own gratification. It’s all because they want the very best for their children.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

The parent’s might also be arming them with a rip-roaring case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Not surprisingly, a lot has been written in response to this article. I am not going to try to say which side is right or wrong. I just want to point out some of the arguments.

The best critique I read came from Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap, who points out an interesting fact: Chua’s arguments are in no way consistent with those she makes in her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which she’s promoting with her article. The outspoken, borderline vindictive tone of the article, Minter says, seems to be a product of her PR people (very possible) and fails to reflect what she actually says in the book.

[A]fter the first chapter, I realized that I was going to stick with it, because – regardless of what you think of so-called Chinese parenting – it’s a beautifully written, oftentimes funny, humble and modest book about assimilation. That is to say, it has very little in common with the Wall Street Journal piece. Indeed, Chua is quite clear – in the book – that the genesis for the narrative is not a belief that Chinese mothers are superior….

The cruelty that some readers found in the Wall Street Journal is present in the longer text, but it is present with doubts about their efficacy, the damage that was being done to her relationship with her daughter, humor, and emotion. The Wall Street Journal excerpt doesn’t contain any of that. In fact, in large part, the Wall Street Journal “excerpt” only qualifies as an excerpt in name. In reality, it’s nothing more than some of the book’s most inflammatory paragraphs and passages, cherry-picked from various points in the book, and arranged in order, minus context

Now it’s all making sense. Because it’s truly hard to imagine that a Yale law professor like Chua could be so one-sided and obsessive. And yes, cruel. Only Minter, to my knowledge, has provided this insight; there’s much more to the story of how Chua views Chinese parenting.

Today David Brooks, who I very rarely quote, took Chua on from a different perspective:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

A good point. Relationships with our friends, doing things with them in groups, provide important training for our future. From personal experience, I would say there’s nothing more valuable for kids than to perform in the school play and sing in the after-school choir. That’s part of education, too, part of preparation.

But the most moving response to the article I saw comes from an actual victimproduct of a “Tiger Mother.” For all those not suffering from Chua fatigue, I recommend you read it all. Here’s a piece.

All my young life, my parents were quick to remind me of my stupidity. They constantly compared me to the children of their friends. They were particularly preoccupied with my lack of progress in school. Fixated on the idea that I was a slow learner, they confused my cautiousness for a lack of desire, and my need for affection as the wants of a spoiled American brat.

In telling me that I was a stupid, worthless waste of space, they believed they were spurring me on to do great things. By keeping me away from my friends, engrossed in several hours of teaching each day after school, my parents were confident they were helping me in every way they could. And no matter how hard I worked, or how obediently I obeyed their commands, it was never enough….

In spite of this, my parents’ approach failed. I still question every day if I am, indeed, stupid. I didn’t even raise my hand in class until graduate school because I believed a moron like me would have nothing worthy to say. I’ve been through countless hours of psychotherapy, and my lack of self-esteem still beckons me to trust alcohol to numb the agony. I should be chasing my dreams, not chasing pain.

If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it’s that I would trade every bit of my success in life — in a heartbeat I’d switch places with the guy who shovels elephant dung at the zoo — to remove the scars left by a Tiger Mother.

Maybe I’m too bound by my Western mentality, but this approach doesn’t seem to me a formula for success.

That said, I need to point out one thing: Most Chinese people I know haven’t been permanently scarred by “tiger moms.” Yes, they had to study hard and nothing was as important as education. But all things considered, most of these people emerged very smart, very successful and psychologically okay. Obviously I can’t say exactly how they were treated as children, but I suspect it was not as grim a childhood as Chua endorses in her article. I think there was some compromise, and the parents instilled in them a strong study ethic while still nurturing their self-esteem. (Must the two be mutually exclusive?)

My bottom line on the whole furor: Chua’s article has hurt China, giving a false impression of how and why Chinese kids grow up to be so successful. If people were afraid of China before, that fear shot up to a whole new level after reading Chua’s treatise. The lists she provides of what parents should forbid their children from doing is a disgrace, a formula for neurosis and social ineptitude; as Minter said, his first reaction was to check Chua’s bio to see whether the whole things was a parody, a bad joke.

Maybe it lets Chua off the hook somewhat if this was the doing of ruthless PR people (and they sure got publicity). But I don’t believe for an instant that the WSJ published this without her approval and her blessing.