". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Parenting for Success

I've seen this article in a few places recently.

"Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior"

Yesterday a friend emailed it to me and asked for my thoughts. So here goes.

The article was written by Amy Chua, who was born in the United States the daughter of Chinese immigrants and who grew up to become a Yale Law School professor. It explores why "Chinese" parents (Chua uses the term loosely to represent a certain approach to parenting that is often seen not only in Chinese parents but in other cultures as well) are so seemingly successful at rearing high-achieving children. Chua attributes the success to three things:

First, I've noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches. Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently. . . .

Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud. . . .

Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one. . . .

I find it interesting that Chua concludes her article by stating that "all decent parents want to do what's best for their children" and that the "Chinese" and "Western" approaches are just culturally different means for pursuing the same goal when the title of her article is "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." Perhaps she didn't write the title. But she clearly sees her parenting style as superior, not merely different.

I also find it interesting that several times in the article Chua refers to her husband Jed, an American who, as Chua tells it, takes issue with the Chinese view of child-raising. In response to Jed's questioning Chua's treatment of their 7-year-old daughter while Chua was coaching the daughter through learning a difficult piano passage, Chua mocked her husband:

"Oh no, not this," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone is special in their special own way," I mimicked sarcastically. "Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don't worry, you don't have to lift a finger. I'm willing to put in as long as it takes, and I'm happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankees games."

Wow. I hope her daughter wasn't around to see that.

My thoughts on this article are, I suppose, something of a copout. I think there are things "Western" parents can learn from their "Chinese" counterparts. I really like the pursuit of excellence through hard work, success as its own reward, and the respect that Chinese children are taught to have for their parents. The belief that Chinese children are indebted to their parents reminds me a little of the John Rosemond school of parenting. I agree that Western parents and educators are too enamored of self-esteem. And when I read Chua's description of how a Chinese mother would react to her child's getting a part in the school play and assuming that it would be acceptable to have that play take over the family's life for days on end, I found myself cheering inside. One of the reasons we home school our children is that we don't like anyone having more say over their schedules than we do.

I find it ironic, then, that a parent like Chua, who is so willing to flout the prevailing culture in certain ways is simultaneously so willing to acquiesce to the expectations of the school by bowing to the grade and deadline god. Again, one of the reasons we home school is that we place more importance on learning for its own sake than on chasing perfect report cards. Chua in much of her article is describing what I would call intrinsic motivation--pursuing excellence because it is gratifying to be excellent--but the obsession with grades, which are an extrinsic measure of success, does not jibe with that.

So my copout response is that I think the best parenting probably contains elements of both the "Chinese" and the "Western" approach. Lucky for me, I have a "Chinese" husband to balance my overly "Western" self. If you ask me, our kids hit the jackpot.


Rebekah said...

I wonder if the explanation for the school question you raise is related to a desire for external affirmation. What's the point of all this excellence if there's no one to put a big gold star on it and tell everyone how wonderful they've been (since it's pretty obvious that a kid who has accomplished this much hasn't done it all by herself)? People love officialness.

Untamed Shrew said...

The most vindicating line for me (though I am certainly a lazy Westerner 98% of the time) was this: We assume strength, not frgility.

Yes. I assume the best of my children, and I defy them to prove me wrong. I firmly believe this is better than assuming they're not smart enough and leaving them with the choice to prove me wrong or despair. There's a difference between knowing a child's limitations (as is the case with my autistic 5yo) and creating their limitations through apathy and pessimism.

Melrose said...

"People love officialness" ...so true, so true. I was glad to see this post because I found the same interesting contradictions and was surprised that someone with her education would not catch it herself.

Leah said...

This follow-up article seemed to give a little more well rounded explanation by Chua, where she answers questions generated by the first article (which I guess was only a small excerpt from her book).