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I'm Not a Chinese Mother (Obviously!)

Posted Jan 10 2011 10:51am
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 but 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!
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