Wednesday, January 12, 2011
best quality crab
I would be in remiss if I didn't respond to the numerous comments and e-mails and tweets that I received about this article in the Wall Street Journal, titled simply, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." If reading that headline elicited any emotion in you at all, in any direction, welcome to the human race, because this article has really be making the rounds and getting a lot of notice. Which, quite frankly, is probably exactly what the author intended, especially given that she--surprise!--had a new book that just came out this week. So kudos to her on that canny piece of marketing and publicity, first off, because if she wanted to get a lot of attention, IT WORKED.
If you haven't read the article yet, you probably should do that first. Go on, we'll all wait. (Foot tapping, tuneless humming, awkward throat clearing.)
So anyway, the gist of the article was this: Chinese mothers are superior because instead of coddling their children's fragile little psyches, they expect and demand excellence from them (mostly of the academic variety) with methods that I daresay would be considered extreme in Western culture. We can discuss whether or not this is true in the comments, I'm sure everyone has opinions, myself included. But what I would like to say first is that this is exactly the kind of topic that causes fist-fights on the internet. It has all the crucial elements, namely, a lady parent who holds one extreme point of view on a topic who writes what a heartfelt (possibly baiting) piece that implies (well, more like explicitly states in the title) that those lady parents who hold a different point of view are doing things wrong. THIS IS HOW INTERNET FISTICUFFS GET STARTED, PEOPLE. So before we talk about this, let's all agree that we're going to talk about this but not, you know, hurt people's feelings, even if we disagree with each other.
OK, now here's my opinion.
I am Chinese. I am a mother. But I don't think I'm the kind of Chinese mother described in the article. Perhaps this is in large part due to the fact that I am significantly Americanized, having been born and lived my whole life in this country. This is not a bad thing, and ultimately I don't raise my kids based on any kind of theory or cultural boilerplate--I don't even think I consider my approach to capital-P "Parenting" as much as the authors of Redbook or Women's Digest or Parent and Child Weekly would insist we surely must. I just have kids and enjoy them and for the most part I try every day to help them a little bit so that someday they will be happy, successful adults. That's definitely not the quote-unquote Chinese Mother approach described in the article. Is that good or bad? Time will tell, I guess. I've got two case studies developing as we speak.
My parents are Chinese parents more in the classic mold. I don't think they were as extreme as many (in my mind, an Asian parent is like an overbearing stage mom, only for academics. "What happened to the other two points?" was a common shorthand at my high school for getting a 98% on a test--nearly half the student body at my high school was Asian) but the ideas put forth in the article are true and cultural and deeply ingrained. And growing up, I definitely felt it. My parents pushed me, but they did it because that's what you do when you love your kids. You pushed them to be the very best. As the article stated, there is the sense that allowing your kids to not be the best is the worst kind of parental neglect. I was raised "the Chinese Way" and every day I am grateful for it.
There were some downsides to it too, though. In a culture where every child is expected to be "the best," there ends up being an awful lot of pressure on the child, because the fact of it is, not every child can be the best at everything. Everyone wants to think of their child as "above average," but by definition, 50% of all kids have to be average or below that, right? Is it fair to insist on the superlative if, statistically, it's impossible for everyone to be at the top? And how much of it can be shaped by work ethic versus intrinsic aptitude or desire?
Between me and Joe, I think I'm definitely the stricter parent. It doesn't always come out in the most flattering ways. Though I don't insult or shame them, I do yell at our kids more. I tolerate a lot less guff, though much of my short leash is related to etiquette and behavioral issues rather than academics per se. That said, we do push the math and the reading. We think about this a little more with Cal than with Mack since Cal's older and actually in school, but the fact is, as great as the school is, we just don't feel like Cal's working up to his potential. And who better to assess his potential than us, his parents, right?
But we're not strict about it. We don't set a timer for his work. If Cal's having a bad day, we'll sometimes skip it. If he starts getting overly frustrated about not understanding something, we'll take a break. We do have the sense that we want to make the experience of learning enjoyable so that it can ultimately be self-directed, rather than academic exercise just for the sake of the exercise. Those are the ways in which we are more "Western" in our parenting than the Chinese Mother that the article so lauds. Because ultimately, the most important thing for us is not that our kids are the best, but that they're happy.
But there are times--more often now that Cal is getting older--that I think I should be pushing him more. I think back to when I was Cal's age, and, in an academic sense, I was able to do more than he is doing now. Multiplying three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers in my head, which my dad would use to drill me, often while walking home from school or waiting for the bus. (It is somewhat inconceivable to me that I could do this at age four and five, since I can barely do this now, as an adult, but I did.) Playing the piano. Reading more. Writing more. I know it's not fair to compare, since we're different people, and there are things that Cal at this age is much better at then I was when I was five--but I was raised the way I was raised, and I worry that I'm not being tough enough on him. Not that the toughness is the important part, but I worry sometimes that I'm underestimating my own child, that I'm taking the easy way out, the lazy way, and that I'm failing him by not pushing him enough. I'm worried that I'm letting Cal down because I don't have the heart or the will or the patience to do what it may take.
I'm not saying that this so-called "Chinese Mother" approach is the right one, and there were certainly more than one descriptions in the article that made me wince, because the idea of doing it to my own kid was utterly unpalatable. So what do you think? Is Amy Chua a miserable, gloating harridan who pushes her children to achieve at the expense of their own sense of self-worth? Or is she a gutsy, uncompromising advocate for her children because she knows what they're capable of and she won't allow them to do any less?
Discuss. (But nicely, please.)