Monday, January 17, 2011

Failing to access my inner Tiger Mother

By the time you read this, the outrage caused by Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal essay, entitled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," will have mostly died down. A lot of people will read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (#4 on Amazon's bestseller list at the time of this writing); but those who don't will remember her only as the crazy bitch who calls her straight-A, musically prodigious daughters "garbage," and violates a dozen articles of the Geneva Convention while overseeing their piano practice--all in the name of helping them achieve their potential.

And sadly, many who read the WSJ essay, or even just scan a few of the bazillion blog rants and Twitter freakouts it inspired, may have forever etched in their minds the stereotype of the hardcore Asian Mama who shuns affection always, and breathes the fire of shame when her kid gets an A-minus, despite Chua's subsequent backpedaling regarding her overstated claims and bombastic tone in the essay.

I'll probably never read the book (unless somebody wants me to review it, or gives me a copy when I'm caught up on all the other stuff I want to read or...who am I kidding?--I'll never read it), but I'll take her at her word that the voice of her essay represented her earlier, more confident attitude about her draconian parenting style, before her younger daughter's rebellion caused her to lighten up a bit. She also explains in the essay and elsewhere that she uses the phrase "Chinese Parent" as shorthand for the tough-as-nails mentality any number of immigrants adopt as they strive to prove their mettle in their new country.

By the time Chua has responded to her critics, it seems that her argument is less that oppressive, coercive, "Chinese"-style parenting produces exceptional adults, and more that high expectations and an unrelenting work ethic of the kind embraced by immigrant populations, when built on a foundation of love and understanding, may contribute to success for some children. But that kind of talk isn't going to sell many books, is it?

Even before hearing Chua qualify her claims and soften her tone, however, I wasn't outraged by her essay.

My wife, whose family immigrated from Vietnam when she was a toddler, grew up in a household that was in many ways similar to Chua's, the major exception being that my wife's family arrived empty-handed, with no idea of how to navigate the labyrinth that led to success in the U.S. Her father worked nonstop, and her mother didn't speak enough English or have enough education to help the kids with their schoolwork or music practice the way Chua's parents (and of course Chua herself) did. My wife went to kindergarten knowing only the English she had picked up from Sesame Street.

But her parents' demands were much the same as Chua's: excellence in school, success in every endeavor, and unquestioning obedience. And the prohibitions on sleepovers, playdates, inessential extracurricular activities, dating while in high school (and in my wife's case, in college* and med school as well) were in place too. The language of shame was also deployed with gusto whenever any minor transgressions occurred, and they peppered their admonitions with hyperbolic threats (e.g. "I'll beat you until you die") that, although my wife and her five younger siblings never really felt that they were in harm's way, certainly added emphasis.

While my wife wishes she had been allowed to do a lot of things her peers were when she was a kid (attend sex ed, for instance), she doesn't seem to resent her parents any more than the average person does. In fact, we often lament the abolition of shame as a guiding principle in our society as we gripe about my entitled students and her entitled teenage patients who snap their gum and shrug when she asks how they expect to support their babies.

Our kids, we say, will never be like that.

***

The three principle differences between "Chinese" and "Western" parenting, as laid out by Chua, seem as fair as such broad generalizations can be, despite some overstatement and anecdotes of borderline child abuse as illustrations. First, Chua claims, Western parents don't push their children hard enough because they worry about their self-esteem; whereas Chinese parents "assume strength rather than frailty," and parent accordingly. Second, Chinese parents operate from the assumption that "children owe the parents everything," while the opposite is the case for Western parents. Finally, according to Chua, whereas Western parents indulge their children and give them the freedom to make stupid decisions, Chinese parents "believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences."

My wife and I agree that Chua is largely correct in this assessment of cultural differences in a very general way, and that children and society in general may well benefit more from the "Chinese" way than the "Western" way. In theory.

But as tough as we talk about what's wrong with kids these days, and how most people could use a good dose of shame, I just can't see us as anything close to "Tiger Parents." It will take all the willpower we can muster, in fact, to be anything tougher than "Free To Be You And Me" parents. Like many Westerners, we're enchanted by our babies, and can't stomach the idea of withholding affection from them, even if it was in their best interest. Chua might say that this attitude is indulgent, not only of the children, but of the parents. That a parent who cares about the long-term happiness of their child would sacrifice the pleasure of a comfortable relationship during childhood in the interest of shaping a confident and productive adult. I hope we will be able to teach our kids responsibility, humility, and respect without having to resort to threats. But I think that empathy and compassion are equally important traits in successful adults, and I don't know of any other way to teach that except by example.



*Where we met and were Just Good Friends


Please come visit me at my personal blog, Beta Dad, where I post funnier stuff than this, as well as hella-cute pictures and videos, and sometimes epic DIY projects.

I also write for the group blogs DadCentric and Aiming Low.

18 comments:

jacksofbuxton said...

Amy Chua was interviewed this morning on my side of the pond on BBC Radio 4.As BD points out,once you got to the nitty gritty of her argument it isn't really that controversial at all.However,an article entitled "We do things slightly differently in China" isn't going to set pulses racing.

Here's the interview

Kalei's Best Friend said...

Being born here in the states as were my parents and one maternal gp, Chua's idea of western parenting is wrong... I consider myself a western parent and I did not push my kids, NOT because I lived in fear that their self esteem would be in the toilet, I didn';t push them because I didn't want to come off like the typical off the boat parent.. I saw what it did to my Japanese friends.. Back in the 60's they were told not to associate w/anyone outside of their race after school, don't date outside of their race, etc... Well, would u believe I perused a reunion book and saw the ones who were told no to outside races, were now married to haoles??? That makes me laugh till i pee in my pants...
I thought my kids could make their decision if they wanted to play an instrument.. My mom didn't push me cuz her father forced her to learn to play the violin... to this day, she doesn't remember anything great about it... The violin is one of the hardest to master and she never had the heart to achieve it...I also saw kids who weren't happy because they were pushed, so do u think I would do that to mine?? NO WAY JOSE....My kids have turned out fine... One graduated top 10% from UCLA and the other from UCSD, the other one is at our local JC, still trying to figure out wth he wants to do...which, echoes what my other friends' sons are doing as well.

Genie of the Shell said...

The effectiveness of different parenting styles is largely context-based. For example, what works best in a dangerous, poor neighborhood hardly resembles what works best in an affluent, safe environment to raise the most successful and healthy (physically, mentally, emotionally) adult. Also, variations in the temperaments of individual children and parents determines how well certain techniques will work and how much good or harm will come from them.

I always want to know more about context before making a judgment about the "right" kind of parenting. I think it's foolish to suggest that any one way of raising children is always the best. If that's what Chua was doing, then I'm automatically skeptical. But although her parenting methods sound completely inappropriate to my family and culture, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt that they may work better for another family.

And, of course, I don't think that laissez-faire parenting and draconian parenting are the only two options!

Nicole said...

Well said.

I think it's relevant to note that parenting, even though we are very much insulated nuclear groups here in America, happens in the community as well. What we do with our children in terms of pushing them in school, bestowing affection, building up or protecting their self-images, are largely what our parent peers are doing as well. For that reason our children share a home life vocabulary with their peers that is a way for them to understand their places in the world and to build bridges to communication with each other.

I'm trying to get at the fact that Tiger Parenting, where you're the only tiger in the jungle, might not be as effective.

Wolf Pascoe said...

About the Chua contratemps, I have little to add. But about Free to Be You and Me, I have this story:
back in those days, a friends's son, who was eight, played with dolls. His parents wanted to let him know that was perfectly all right, and bought him the Marlo Thomas album. They played him the song about the little boy who played with dolls. When the boy heard the song, which said how okay it was for boys to play with dolls, he threw the dolls out.

So much for our ability to control kids' attitudes.

Homemaker Man said...

Prohibited from dating in college? I love that. Your wife just screwed things up pretty badly for my kids.

Beta Dad said...

@jacks--Thanks for the link. She had similar interviews in the States where she dialed back the rhetoric quite a bit.

@KBF--Great story! I guess it shows that you don't need to coerce your kids into being successful.

@Genie--That's a great point about the context of the parenting. And of course, you have identified one of the main flaws of what seems to be Chua's argument based on the WSJ article--the good ol' false dichotomy.

@Nicole--That's a good point. I think that's why my wife and I can't even consider bringing up our kids the way she was brought up. It's one thing if everybody's doing it; but it just doesn't feel right if it goes against the mainstream culture to such a great extent.

@Wolf--That's a great story! I remember getting the Free To Be record and being pretty much nonplussed.

Kurt said...

A good reflective post. Well done.

I'm totally going to ignore it though and go the "Asian porn is awesome" route with this comment.

Amiright? Up Top!

Important safety tip: Tiger Mother is TOTALLY different from Mother Tiger. (*applies Bactine©*)

Beta Dad said...

@Homemaker Man--no dating in college OR grad school. That'll teach 'em.

@Kurt--*Fistbump*

Jane said...

I actually understand and agree with most of Chua's points. I used to be another Barbie-obsessed American girl living in a “children-please-do-as-you-wish-and learn-what-you-want-society,” until I had the opportunity to study abroad. Only when I lived overseas, did I see the bubble we Americans live in. I wasn’t ready for the culture shock or the very competitive academic environment. I wanted to come home, back to my comfort zone, but my parents encouraged me to “grow up”, to see the world from outside the bubble, through the eyes of other cultures. Fifteen years later, I am still very grateful to them.

When I was overseas I met my now husband (who’s a very educated man and doesn’t have a clue about American football or Budweiser). Today, my children know who the parents are and the discipline standards we have at home; even my 4-year-old knows we have non-negotiable rules at home, and needless to say we have very high academic expectations. Rule number one: no TV without parental consent (never in the morning). Rule number two: mandatory reading (school or non-school related) every day after supper (at least 30 mins). Rule number three: never (absolutely never) open the door of mommy and daddy’s bedroom ;o)

Think about what sports mean to Americans, that's what Education means to some cultures.

-- An American mom who learned to be a mom overseas

rtb.ink said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Any Chua has missed the point on what makes Asians successful. A huge amount of Asian religion, mysticism and belief concerns Luck. Knowing what luck means and how to handle it makes all the difference in the world.

My wife is Asian (Chinese) and her parents were as demanding as any Amy Chua could be. My parents weren't successful at getting me to do well in school. Why? ADHD and a touch of dyslexia killed it for me. I was a total and complete failure, but since my parents had reinforced my self-esteem I was able to pick my self up and ask the all important question, "Well, if I'm not good at this what am I good at?". It seem that I can hustle and improvise. And I don't let people tell me how to live my life. I took risks.

I try and make sure that my children have good basic skill sets. The 3 Rs and the ability to think clearly. I also teach them that to be successful they have to seize opportunities, and you don't know what and opportunity will look like before it's in front of you. How to you know if something is an opportunity? You don't. That's why taking risks is important. The education that Amy Chua talks about is all about learning to exploit opportunities that arise for a certain class. You have to remember that this Tiger Love has to be mixed with all the other stuff that parents teach kids that they don't think about that is key to understanding here.

Asians are willing to gamble on their own futures. Since they learn how to bet early (not the same thing as learning how to win) they will statistically do well. If you bet often enough, and bet shrewdly you can do well even if you don't will very often.

Karen Peterson said...

I believe the "best" answer lies somewhere in between the Chinese parent and the Western.

I also believe that people here in the west have a tendency to get all freaked out about what they assume someone is saying before they take the time to read and ponder it.

daddad said...

Everyone is doing it. David Brooks says Madame Chua is a wimp.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/opinion/18brooks.html?ref=davidbrooks

Dr Eliot said...

Amy Chua is a narcissist…

...but not without reason. Benjamin Franklin (rightly) mocked the “Society of the Cincinnati”—an elite club created by former officers of the American revolutionary army, for its membership limited to the heirs of those who served the independence of the United States.

He said: “ ‘Honour worthily obtained (as for example that of our officers) is in its nature a personal thing and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it. Thus among the Chinese, the most ancient and from long experience the wisest of nations, honour does not descend but ascends.’ ” (BF.707)

“When the Chinese won [honor],” said Carl Van Doren, Franklin’s most famous biographer, “the credit went to his parents.”

“ ‘The ascending honour [said Franklin] is therefore useful to the state, as it encourages parents to give their children a good and virtuous education. But the descending honour, to posterity who could have no share in obtaining it, is not only groundless and absurd but often hurtful to that posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employed in useful arts [industry] and thence falling into poverty and all the meannesses, servility, and wretchedness attending to it; which is the present case with much of what is called the noblesse in Europe.’ ”

In contrast, after nine generations, a Daughter of the Revolution “owes her honor to the 512 persons (existing in 1784) from whom she had descended…each successive generation ‘with a smaller and smaller share of true honor.’ ”

Ascending honor is surely what Amy Chua had drilled into her by her own domineering parents. Yet is it no doubt valid to some degree…but not to the extent that she compromises her children’s mental health. Success is not learnt by rote.

—Dr Eliot

www.dreliotsfivefeet.com

Dr Eliot said...

Amy Chua is a narcissist…

...but not without reason. Benjamin Franklin (rightly) mocked the “Society of the Cincinnati”—an elite club created by former officers of the American revolutionary army, for its membership limited to the heirs of those who served the independence of the United States.

He said: “ ‘Honour worthily obtained (as for example that of our officers) is in its nature a personal thing and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it. Thus among the Chinese, the most ancient and from long experience the wisest of nations, honour does not descend but ascends.’ ” (BF.707)

“When the Chinese won [honor],” said Carl Van Doren, Franklin’s most famous biographer, “the credit went to his parents.”

“ ‘The ascending honour [said Franklin] is therefore useful to the state, as it encourages parents to give their children a good and virtuous education. But the descending honour, to posterity who could have no share in obtaining it, is not only groundless and absurd but often hurtful to that posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employed in useful arts [industry] and thence falling into poverty and all the meannesses, servility, and wretchedness attending to it; which is the present case with much of what is called the noblesse in Europe.’ ”

In contrast, after nine generations, a Daughter of the Revolution “owes her honor to the 512 persons (existing in 1784) from whom she had descended…each successive generation ‘with a smaller and smaller share of true honor.’ ”

Ascending honor is surely what Amy Chua had drilled into her by her own domineering parents. Yet is it no doubt valid to some degree…but not to the extent that she compromises her children’s mental health. Success is not learnt by rote.

—Dr Eliot

Mad Science said...

I'm as much a corn-fed white guy as they come, and I want to take umbrage at the whole slight against whatever "western" parenting/culture is...but I've got thick enough skin to get over it.

My biggest problem with Chua's message is that it seems to breed hard working automatons.

I'm an engineer, and I remember being in in classes with those kids(after all, biomedical engineering was the hardest thing to do). They're incapable of solving any problem that's not being spoon fed to them. Sure, they can read and memorize, but the second something open-ended gets thrown at them, you just get this "does not compute" response.

Cheating is also a big problem, as they're been trained to do whatever it takes to get the results.

Such is the result when you teach your kids that where and how you expend effort is to be decided by an authority figure, not the result of any critical thinking on your own behalf.

Dadadada said...

My mom is Jewish and that brings about it's own sort of expectations. While the knuckle beatings upon the keys of the piano might not have been in place when I got married the emotional equivalent of that took place.

I didn't marry a Jewish girl, had converted to Christianity and the emotional tortures that came upon me at 23 were shocking. To have to set boundaries with your own mother is both uncomfortable, and difficult.

My mom "over-loved" me so much that it was tortuous to go through the process. Nobody can guilt trip you like a Jewish mother, and she brought it all out. On the flip side I have my beautiful fiance` who is just beside herself. Interpreting everything as personal when it really had nothing to do with her. I could have been married a younger Bah-bara Streisand and it still would've gone down like this. I'm the oldest and my mom just couldn't let go.

I don't know what's worse, the academic expectations or the emotional ones, but somehow I survived. My mom and wife have had their valleys since we've gotten married - but it's mostly peaks. So even in this situation, love conquers all...

J Chapman said...

A lot of the response to Amy Chua and her article have been focussed on the individual impacts this has on children. Either the hard-nosed parenting approach has been defended because it does push children to do their best, or it is derided for damaging childrens mental health. David Brooks makes and interesting case for why slumber parties and social activities are more important for future leaders, and some asian writers over at Quora.com attribute the Confucian values that Chua expresses (in the article at least) as being a contributor to the Asian-America glass ceiling - producing high-achieving engineers, but not skilled managers (though I think they underestimate the role of persistant insitutional racism and reinforce some racial steriotypes).

What I haven't heard is a discussion of the deeper questions of what we are trying to get our kids to excel at - what are we fighting for? In some ways I find the fact that she drilled her daughter because another child beat her to be number 1 in math to be the most disturbing thing. It is one thing to push our kids to achieve their potential, but why must that mean out-competing everyone else? Where is she teaching compassion, responsibility and respect for others? Where is she teaching even healthy competition and sportsmanship?

The things my children do that fill me most with pride are not their awards and actions of traditional "sucess", but their acts of deep compassion - like the time my 10 year-old daughter stood up to her best friends when they were teasing another girl. In the long run that will do more positive good in the world than would being top of her class or best at her instrument.

John