Monday, January 10, 2011

I'm Not a Chinese Mother (Obviously!)

By now, lots of people have read the article "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" in the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, it upset me, and yes, I ranted and raved a bit. :)

Anyone who is familiar with my general views on parenting will not be surprised at how much I disagree with Amy Chua, the author of both the article and a book that will come out soon about her parenting philosophy. Her views are diametrically opposed to mine, not just the strategies she uses for getting her kids to do the things she thinks they need to do, but the fundamental principles.

Somehow, I'm all out of steam for an adequate ranting. We are so diametrically opposed here that it's almost not even worth the energy to get all riled up all over again. I'm feeling more dispassionate and clinical about it, I think in part because I really can't relate to her parenting decisions. The parts that upset me were more because I could relate to her children.

So rather than rant and rave here on the blog (I'm much funnier when I rant in person, btw), I think I'll just point out a few of the fundamental differences and let that be my response.

Here's one. Chua writes:

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."

Her statement that academic achievement reflects successful parenting was especially interesting to me. She, like many parents (Western parents, too) equates parenting with an outcome--in this case, academic success. If a child is successful academically, then her parents are successful.

I think parenting is a process (hence the gerund!) rather than an outcome. I believe that children have free will and how they turn out is due in large part to the choices they make. I think children need--no, want--to learn to be independent (in the physical sense and in the virtuous sense) and when they are allowed to make their own choices, they will learn what the virtue of pride is like, and they will begin to create a healthy self-esteem for themselves.

I do agree with Ms. Chua's general assessment that many parents are too focused on giving their child self-esteem, as if healthy self-esteem is something that can be given to you by someone else. A parent provides food and shelter and butt-wiping services; but self-esteem is not something I can possibly give to my children. They must earn their own sense of self-esteem. They must learn to evaluate their own choices and character in accordance with the facts, and independently of their parents.

Even though I don't serve up a side dish of self-esteem when I provide them with a healthy dinner, I do have an effect on their self-evaluations, because they are learning this skill, and look to me and my husband (and other people, too) for clues about how to do this. So I help them do this. I can encourage them to make rational self-evaluations when I talk to them about their achievements or failures. I can be honest with them and help them see what the facts of reality are. I can help them put things in perspective. And I can step back, stay out of it, and allow them to experience their emotions for themselves.

I could also make things harder. I could confuse them and help them learn to falsely inflate their sense of self-esteem when I praise them for being "a good boy" or a "smart girl." I could squash a feeling of pride by stealing their achievement and making it my own. I could discourage them with my words and actions. I could treat them as if they are not loved, and make them believe that they are not worthy of love.

I can influence this self-evaluation, as I influence a great many things in their lives, but at the end of the day I can't give it to them. Because I believe a healthy self-esteem is very, very important, I do my very best to be encouraging rather than discouraging. But those actions do not amount to empty praise or relentless shame.

Which brings me to another area of disagreement: that healthy self-esteem can spring from someone else shaming and punishing and screaming at you.

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

I'm sure that can be motivating, but I also think it's damaging in so many other ways. I do care about my children's psyches (something Ms. Chua flat out says that Chinese parents don't).

She also believes in the same false dichotomy that many Western parents do: that it's either praise lavishly to provide the child with self-esteem or punish and shame the child to motivate him to do better. Where many parents choose lavish praise, Ms. Chua chooses excoriation, punishment, and shame.

They share the same erroneous premises--that children require external motivation in order to work (aka, children are inherently lazy); that they will tend toward making bad choices if left to their own devices; and that kids can only learn how to behave via external (parent-provided) positive or negative reinforcements even in the presence of natural consequences. I couldn't disagree with these premises more.

Additionally, Ms. Chua's brand of parenting rests on other premises many Westerners might not share, but with which I vehemently disagree--that children owe their parents obedience and are "permanently indebted" to them; that kids shouldn't get to have optional values like friends or drama (she really seems to have something against drama!) or television shows; that children shouldn't get to have desires about anything, really.

What's interesting to me is that the tools she uses--praise and shame--are the same tools many Western parents use. They just apply them to different situations based on their differing values. The concluding paragraph of the article is yet another example of the false dichotomy that it's either praise or shame:

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

You can encourage kids to pursue their passions and provide a nurturing environment without empty praise. You can prepare your kids for the future by helping them arm themselves with skills and work habits and inner confidence without shame and punishment.

Actually, it's not a false dichotomy at all--I think shaming words/punishing actions and praising words/rewarding actions are really two sides of the same coin. They share the premise that kids will only learn good behavior and form good characters through parent-imposed reinforcement (negative or positive). That's not it at all--there is another way, and I've been doing my very best to describe this approach in theory and practice for a few years now.

Really, I could go on and on about how much and how I disagree with Ms. Chua. But it's time to wrap up.

She has more in common with Western parents than she thinks, but there is one major difference. Ms. Chua's particular approach is extremely second-handed (in addition to the bad premises). Her success as a parent is dependent on how well her children play violin and piano, how well they do in school. Her quest for success as a parent reduces her children to marionettes in her own little drama, and places her in the role of puppeteer. If the puppets put on a great show, then she wins. If they do not, then she loses. (Perhaps she won't let them join the drama club because she doesn't want the competition!)

And what happens when the puppets are free of the puppeteer? How difficult will it be for them to learn how to control their own strings? Or does "permanent indebtedness" mean they will never be free? For their sakes, I sure hope not.

Here's to puppet-free parenting, enjoying the process while accepting that the outcome is not entirely in my control, and giving kids chances to learn to the virtues all the way up to adulthood!


kelleyn said...

Thank you, Jenn.

Such Lovely Freckles said...

Excellent post, Jenn!

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness my son was not born to this woman. He has great difficulty in school, due, in part to mild dyslexia. His brain just does not "get" certain concepts. And with small motor planning delays and a bit of ADHD, learning to play the violin could be torture for him. Lucky kid got me! I can play my violin and he can enjoy it.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I think the difference between the Dragon Mother parenting style and yours, Jenn, comes from underlying values.

I tutored at the graduate writing studio at my local university, and helped many a Chinese student with their master's theses and doctoral dissertations. As I talked and helped those students write in English I saw that they valued harmony and conformity to external norms.

Traditional American norms, on the other hand, are created around the values of independence and innovation.

These are very different value sets, and I noticed that the greatest problem my Chinese tutoring students had cropped up when they needed to disagree with a professor, or to make a statement of fact or educated opinion that they know would be unpopular. The innovation we expect from American Ph.D. students is difficult for these students for that reason.

That most Western parents in the US tend to use lavish praise--the other side of the coin to terrifying excoriation--tells me that we are losing those values to a great extent, and after some study of my own over the past number of years, I believe that the public school system is to blame.

As always, I love reading about the Positive Discipline because it gives me great hope that not all of the next generatio will be willing to accept what they told unquestioningly. said...

Well done, Jenn. Your description of the mother as a puppeteer is perfect. To this mother, the end justifies the means ~ putting her child through horrors to obtain a perfect piano solo. In the words of Ayn Rand, "The end does not justify the means; you cannot achieve anything good by evil means."

Kathy Slattengren said...

The article by Amy Chua has certainly generated a lot of good discussion! I appreciated reading your views Jenn. I wrote my reaction in my blog post today:

Kelly Hogaboom said...

My first reaction to the WSJ article was, "Really. ALL Chinese parents share these same values?" Reading my Twitterstream I see that many Chinese Americans were offended the author would attempt to speak for all of them.

"What's interesting to me is that the tools she uses--praise and shame--are the same tools many Western parents use."

Exactly. Thank you for saying this. I would also add many people have probably lambasted the parenting strategies in this WSJ, and felt Chua was heartless or too domineering or whatever... meanwhile they're basically employing the same methods at home with "nicer-sounding" lingo (Scott Noelle calls this Dominator Lite).

Anonymous said...

I think we've all seen the outcome of a parenting style like Chua's--obedient, non-creative, non-opinionated robots who have perfect grades, recitals, and behavior. The definition of "success" is important here. Straight A's is not success, in my opinion. Living for your parents is not success. Chua's approach is completely opposite of Objectivism--happiness, creating, innovating, independent thinking, and most stereotypical American values are obviously not important to her. I'd rather my child be happy, drop out of school, and own his own small business than be a puppet, get perfect grades, and take orders from someone else. Chua's approach is more than wrong--it is abusive; she does not treat children as individuals or even as human beings. It saddens me to think about all the children who are treated that way.

Brianna said...

"To this mother, the end justifies the means ~ putting her child through horrors to obtain a perfect piano solo. In the words of Ayn Rand, 'The end does not justify the means; you cannot achieve anything good by evil means.'"

Well in this case, that's simply not true. After all, argue with Chua's means all you like; the fact remains that the kid learned the solo. Which to me, suggests that something else was going on here.

There are a lot of Western parents who value self-esteem above accomplishment, and who think the most important thing is to emphasize how special and unique we all whether or not the person in question has ever actually done something to distinguish themselves as special or unique. And there is an authoritarian tradition of parenting (not limited to Asians, though you see it a lot in that culture) which orders achievement of good outcomes whether the outcome means anything or not, and ignores it when there might be a real reason why the kid can't get straight A's or play the piano piece (dyslexia, for example). We view it as opposite ends of a specturm, but perhaps this is a false dichotomy, the same way the political spectrum is a false dichotomy. Neither actually looks at the child after all. One merely assumes the child is perfect and unique and special, and asks no questions beyond that. The other orders the child to mindlessly conform with standards, and asks no questions about the standards or the child's ability to do so.

In the case of the solo, I don't think the point is that mindless authoritarianism works. I think the point is that children are not fully-developed human beings, and as such don't have the determination or willpower of an adult. The kid was capable of playing the part; she got it right in the end after all. She just needed determination she hadn't learned yet in order to do it. And maybe the next time she is learning a difficult piece, she'll have the knowledge of what happened last time to fuel that determination, and she won't need her mother's help to stay on the job until she's done.

Sometimes an achievement is worth peforming, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes what a child wants to do is good, and sometimes it's a bad idea which they don't have enough experience to recognize yet. Sometimes a child has a legit reason for not being able to accomplish a desirable goal, and sometimes they just don't have enough experience to figure out that this is a time to push forward, not quit. I think it's the parent's job to figure out which is which, to exercise the judgement that the child hasn't fully developed yet, to know where to push and where to let it go, and to teach the child to figure out where to do the same.