Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lessons from a Superior Chinese Mother (Intentional or Otherwise)

I should note that there probably isn’t much point in reading this post unless you’ve read Amy Chua’s by-now infamous piece in the Wall Street Journal:
(or unless you at least plan to read it). I should mention that Chua herself has expressed some reservations about the piece; she’s suggested that Journal strung together controversial pieces instead of presenting the full picture. Apparently, her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is (despite its title), more nuanced, and depicts a parenting journey not evident in the WSJ piece. Of course, the controversial nature of her article has pushed her book up the bestseller chart. So I’m not so sure she’s sorry about their spin.

Two weeks after its publication in the WSJ, the piece has so many comments (thousands), my browser times out trying to load them all. Comments abound in the blogosphere , but the dissonant chord that it’s struck with so many people seems to get at the heart of some of our controversies over parenting: controversies that we acknowledge (like self-esteem building) and those we don’t (like the role of ‘success’)

Lest I go on forever, I’d like to focus first on where I admire Chua and/or agree with her. She is clearly a strong and committed mother. She is willing and interested in what she sees as the best interests of her children and she is really down in the trenches, working with them in hands-on way. She’s not preoccupied with being her daughters’ “friend” or being liked by them; she wants to make them into what she sees as better people. That may sound like I’m trying to be nice to her, but too many parents use a vague idea of consideration and respect for their children’s personalities to justify their own slackness. To be honest, I respect her toughness on many levels; it’s a sign of character and resolve; I sincerely wish I were as tough as she is (in some ways). She sees the limitations of self-esteem, and I agree with her when she says that our (“Western”) approach to making kids feel good about themselves is misguided. She says about Chinese parents that “[t]hey assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently”-which makes fundamental sense to me.

Many people have focused on Chua’s name-calling of her children and her rigid parental restrictions (no TV, no sleepovers, no school plays). My reading of the article suggests the name calling fear may be a bit overplayed –while it’s clearly part of her MO, one could adopt her general approach without the name calling.

But there are three big things that strike me as fundamental problems with the Tiger Mother Method (TMM). Namely:

1) TMM’s view of freedom . Chua says in her piece that “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.” She seems to deny the fundamental autonomy of her children. Lurking under the surface here is the possibility of an interesting discussion regarding children’s freedom. Freedom doesn’t mean license, and we need to see that. But she seems to see her kids as machines. Sophisticated, complex, machines, that don’t cooperate; and the managing of which requires greater skills on the part of the parent. But on this point, she is missing something fundamental. You can’t simply ‘override’ your children’s own desires and preference. They are not machines—or dogs, for that matter.

2) TMM’s vision of the parent-child relationship. Interesting, this is one of the only places where Chua addresses her husband’s view of things (not sure what this says about their relationship…) Her husband sees parents as owing everything to their children because they foisted life on them. Chua believes, along with other “Chinese parents” that kids “owe [their parents] everything.” Call me a crazy Christian, but I see both parents AND kids as owing life to Someone Else. A Someone Else who orders ideas of debt, freedom, and responsibility rather differently.

3) TMM’s vision of success. I rather suspect that this success thing is part of the reason that Chua has been so controversial. The idea of readily quantifiable success as the fundamental measure of all things permeates our society and the very air we breathe. It is the basis of Chua’s confidence in her own skills: her girls (or at least the older one) have been SMASHING successes. Can’t argue with that, can you? I mean, if this whole crazy “Chinese parenting” technique gets your kid playing at Carnegie Hall and admission into Harvard, it MUST work, right? I acknowledge how hard it is to put up a coherent argument against this—and yet, most readers have an instinctive sense that there is something wrong with these priorities, above and beyond our own limitations and laziness as parents. Though I disagree with Chua’s idea of success, I know I can’t easily eliminate it as a frame of reference. But in the end, is admission to Harvard really the most that we want for our kids? Aren’t some of the great “success stories” of recent years some of the same people being blamed for the economic recession we’re in now. God help us if there’s no more to life than that kind of success.