Chinese Dragon Editorial Hits American Kitchen Tables
Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior by Amy Chua
I’m at the tipping point between “I’ve thought this over” and “I’m over-thinking this,” so it’s time to get my thoughts out the door. Read the whole thing and then come back to this because it’s more important that you see her words than mine. Like The Shadow Scholar, The Lie Guy, and I Live in a Van Down by Duke University, it’s a perfect editorial: a self-introduction by someone whose values are very different from the mainstream’s. This one is more important than the others. Westerners have been thinking about China more with each passing year, and now a female Asian-American Yale Law professor has proudly introduced the stereotypical Chinese mother to them. It’s been the Wall Street Journal’s most-viewed page every day since Saturday and has logged 3346 (make that 3358) comments at this printing.
What Others Are Saying
An Englishman married to a Chinese woman and raising two children in the States says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He and his wife like discipline but don’t have the time or energy to be as thorough as Chua. His lede, “Amy Chua has set the cat among the pigeons,” inspired my own title.
This American says she is doing the right thing in the wrong country. Her hard-working will be exploited by their schmoozing American bosses because American universities and businesses overvalue social skills.
One commenter says this top-down parenting style influences the Chinese business model in a negative way. Chinese bosses, like these parents, demand something, and the workers do their best to meet those demands even when there are problems. There is little communication because they all work alone. American businesses are messier but come up with more creative solutions because everyone has input. They take longer but are more efficient in the long term because there is more time for troubleshooting.
This parenting style puts children at risk for mental health problems. Thus suicide and depression rates are abnormally high for Asian-Americans, including among those who are total “success stories.” Many never think they are good enough. Many struggle with their relationship with their parents for their entire lives.
Some children who are forced to study piano never enjoy it, even if they excel: they are technically proficient but not emotionally expressive (they learn how to imitate expressiveness to win competitions). Once they don’t have to play anymore, they stop, and they don’t have good memories of those times. Instead they regret not being able to spend more time in pursuits that were better fits for them.
“Chinese v. Western” is a false parallel. Saying “all Chinese kids are successful” is a case of selection bias. Children raised in this fashion suffer with independent thought, and their Western professors see them as test-taking machines. This style could proceed from growing up in a dictatorial society where being technically sharp was much more valued (and safer) than being creative.
I’m not Chinese, but I live in Taiwan, I taught in Japan for two years, and like most Americans my age, I have Asian-American friends. I’m not a parent, but I have been parented. So I am Somewhat Qualified to comment on this.
At first, I had the same emotional reaction I do to all Chinese grandstanding: I’m awed but also put off by it. We often say “if you can’t beat them, join them,” but if this is the cost of excellence, I’d prefer to be beaten. But there are a lot of good things to be taken out of this editorial, too. Even Chua herself is likely not the hardliner she seems to be: controversy and duality sell books.
I agreed with a lot of what she said: hard work pays off; standards are important; we often underestimate children’s capabilities; there needs to be discipline in the house. Exposure to music and mathematics is very helpful to young minds. Sometimes you have to force-feed to get kids to like something. The concepts of “Self esteem” and “everybody’s a winner” are overplayed in a lot of schools, hence the huge gap between American students’ confidence and their actual achievement levels. Kids left to their own devices will often waste their time, so they should have an adult by their side guiding them. Everyone needs to know that life isn’t easy, and effort and devotion are the key to success in one’s profession. I would still do things differently. I couldn’t handle all that yelling.
Why does this model work? Shakespeare’s Pericles said, “Time’s the king of men, He’s both their parent, and he is their grave, And gives them what he will, not what they crave.” The time spent is the key to the model’s success. Just about any parent who is willing to put hours per day into raising his children is doing his job. The better the values passed on, the better.
The big problem in America is that many parents don’t spend enough time with their kids. Single-parent households are prevalent, and unless the grandparents are helping in a major way, doing work, taking care of the house, loving the children, and teaching them everything they need to know is usually too much for one person. Among double-parent households, now more than ever both are working. The time-consuming extracurricular activities Chua describes are sometimes meant to keep the students at school because they’re safest and most productive there. Finally, media distracts us from family life: television and the Internet allow us let us to let up our guard, relax..and take our eyes away of each other.
Why do kids put up with harsh parenting? There are some uncomfortable truths under the surface here. There are factors above and beyond the satisfaction that comes from achievement (or perhaps I should say in deeper and darker places). Parents need to believe they love their kids, and kids need to believe their parents love them. Whatever happens in the household can become normal, and everyone will call it love. I want to write more words to emphasize that but don’t have any.
What about criticism? I think it’s important to be honest, and the reason the overweight American woman resented her father calling her beautiful and perfect is that she thought he was lying to her. BUT you can tell your kids what they need to improve while still communicating your unconditional love for them, and consistently lying to them about how they’re doing is going to open a big can of worms.
What makes these parents so tough on their kids in the first place? I think it’s material necessity. 望子成龍 (“wanting your child to become a dragon”) is a well-known expression in Taiwan, but the typical parent isn’t like this. Nor were the parents I met in Japan. When life isn’t hard anymore, you don’t have to be, either. John Derbyshire’s review of Chua’s book “World on Fire” provides some background information:
Her family comes from the small but wealthy Chinese minority of the Philippines…Seen from the viewpoint of that majority, globalization has permitted the Chinese to soar up into a stratosphere of stupendous wealth, leaving ordinary Filipinos further behind than ever. Now invite that sullen, resentful majority to practice democracy, and what do you think will happen? Prof. Chua tells us. Her wealthy aunt in the Philippines was murdered by her own chauffeur, and the local police — native Filipinos — have not the slightest interest in apprehending the killer. In their report on the incident, under “motive for murder,” they wrote the single word: Revenge.
“I’m living each day like I’m being chased by something” is my favorite line from this unusual song, and it seems to describe Chua’s family’s experience. They were successful but also on the edge. The permissiveness that Chua sees in her neighbors likely comes from them not having a sense of urgency. Life has always been good for them. They are Not the Greatest Generation. One big question is whether the children of immigrants, who grow up in health and safety here, will raise children in the same way as their parents or as their neighbors. Maybe they will if life continues to get harder for Americans.
If she’s so into superiority, would she rather have one super child than four normal children? What about handicapped children? Actually, Chua is one of four sisters, and one of them has Down’s Syndrome. That child has grown up and become a Special Olympics champion. So anyone can achieve things, and this isn’t a eugenics program.
Why the overarching emphasis on technical proficiency? This is prevalent in Japan and Korea, as well, and it goes back to the Imperial Civil Service Exam, which is the intellectual model of current high school and college exams. The most fair way to measure ability, it is said, is to test the students’ mastery of selected material. Rich and poor, strong and weak are judged on the same scale, and people won’t be unfairly elevated or discriminated against based on the difference between their opinions and those of the examiners. Depending on who’s your boss, you might be better off going years without giving your opinion anyway. American schools try to look at the whole individual, but that makes admissions perpetually controversial. Asian schools measure one kind of thinking – to the exclusion of all the others. Creativity (and humor!) are things that can and should be developed.
Why not let kids play sports? I sometimes hear urban Asians lament how weak they are because they grew up in a system where they never got to exercise properly.
Why the condescension toward pancakes and Yankees games? I think this is a huge failing of Chua’s model. If there’s anyone who favors having a wide variety of experiences, it’s me: look where I’m living. Not only do a variety of experiences enrich you; they also better help you relate to other people. Cultural references are a big part of mass communication. Chinese intellectual discourse in particular is loaded with agricultural metaphors.
Which takes us to the “no sleepovers” style restrictions on social activity. Not all my conversations have been constructive, but now I’m really accustomed to talking to people, and I think I’d suffer to make and keep friends if I hadn’t had so many repetitions of this sort in high school. At best, people who never get to experience something good will never know what they’re missing.