Excellent test-takers. Math whizzes. Fiercely competitive. Virtuosos. What’s that spell? Kids raised by Chinese mothers.
At least that’s how the stereotype goes. And since I’m not so big on stereotypes, that first sentence was a little gross to write.
Not so for Amy Chua, who wrote an essay perpetuating all of those things and more in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” would have been kind of gross to read if it hadn’t been so horrifyingly entertaining. (She’s Chinese, so of course it was excellent!)
In her piece, Chua credits/blames her Chinese mom-ness for any and all of her daughters’ accomplishments while also laughing at those she refers to as “Western” moms, who don’t seem to know what to do about their kids’ runner-up (if that) status. Chinese kids are superior because Chinese moms are superior. Chua generously shares her ancient Chinese secrets.
If “Western” moms want excellent kids, we’re going to have to get on board with the program. What program? For starters, don’t allow your children to do the following [the Wall Street Journal]:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
Too awful? She offers vague evidence that your “Western” attitude is getting you down:
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
Some solid (-ly stereotypical examples):
Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
I’ll hand it to Chua, she knows the talk. She strikes a bundle of parenting nerves — defensiveness for allowing kids to make their own way, fear that a kid making her own way is destined to fail. And naivete: what one might think is successful really isn’t all that fabulous.
She also sells the Chinese mom-ness like a Hooked-on-Phonics infomercial. Just make your three easy payments and follow these 10 easy steps and you’re kid will be a success!
Of course, it’s not that easy. Not all (or even most) kids reared like her daughters are destined for success. And all (certainly not most) kids whose feelings have been considered aren’t destined to live in their parents’ basements. Things aren’t exactly Chinese-mom stellar for even Chua herself.
KJ Dell’Antonia has read the entire book from which this essay was excerpted, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, to be published Tuesday by Penguin Press. The angry and insult-based coaching that Chua endorses in the WSJ piece? It backfires. Her daughter Louise, whom she calls Lulu, eventually rebels.
From Slate‘s Double X:
While the oldest dutifully continues to perform, Lulu rebels. At thirteen, she cuts off her hair in anger, rejects her mother, and begins to denounce Chua and her parenting to everyone she can. “You’re a terrible mother,” Lulu tells Chua. “You’re selfish. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. … Everything you say you do for me is actually for yourself.”
Chua reluctantly eases up on Lulu. She does, she says, the “most Western thing imaginable” and allows Lulu to choose how much music she wants in her life. It feels like a compromise ending, but the compromise is never complete: Chua never eases up on herself. By the book’s end, a teenaged Lulu is putting as much time into tennis as into her music, and Chua is scheming behind her back to improve her performance on the court instead of on the stage.
Chua’s essay has definitely struck a nerve. Already, there are nearly 1,800 comments and 82,000 “likes” from Facebook users. The feedback varies from “yuck! Reverse racism,” to “hey! Jewish moms get even better results!” to “this is how I was raised and I’m miserable.” And it’s true, Chua doesn’t address issues like suicide and burnout and, really, where all this “success” gets kids (besides therapy).
The essay was supposed to leave me, a Western mom, feeling like a hack, a moron and a total pushover who is failing her kids. And, in part, it did. I don’t force my daughter to practice the piano. I let my kids pick and choose their activities. How well they do isn’t the issue. They go to a school that doesn’t even give out grades (and I love that!). My only requirement for them is finishing, honoring commitments — no quitting in the middle, they have to stick out the season.
So why am I left asking if I should push them harder? Why don’t I drill them in academics? How can their lives possibly amount to anything if they’re at sleepovers and practicing for school plays, watching TV and considering taking up the saxophone? Maybe they would be better performers — thereby, better people — if I would call them “garbage” and “fatty” every once in awhile.
But I can’t do that, and I won’t.
My kids’ self-esteem is important, sure. But I’m also aware of the studies that show self-esteem and success aren’t connected. Self-esteem protection isn’t my main focus. What I’m aiming for in parenting is self-reliance and self-assurance.
I want my kids exposed to this messy, lovely and interesting world. And, most of all, I want them to learn from the greatest teacher there is — failure. I want them to start failing when they’re young. And I want them to continue to fail as they get older. I want failure to motivate them, not their mother’s growling commands. I mean, how else do you really learn — I don’t mean memorize, but learn? How else do you get better?
If my kids’ work and dedication has only been to keep me off their backs, to make me shut up, what motivates them when I’m no longer on their backs? When they’re adults? If they’ve seen failure and success as something only I, their mother, can adjudicate, what kind of perspective do they have when they’re on their own? I can’t nag them forever. And I don’t want to.
I’d rather them have walked down the path of failure so often that it’s just another day at the office, another challenge to overcome. Failure — trial and error — that’s the task-master that gets results. Even better results, I dare say, than Chinese moms.
What do you think of Chua’s essay? Were you raised by a Chinese (or Korean, or Jewish or … Chua has a broad definition) mom? Are you one?