Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Funny, Sad, Abusive, Culturally Interesting?

Amy Chua's recent essay in the Wall Street Journal is making its rounds through the Internet. It's shocking. No, appalling. No, disgusting. No, hilarious.

Titled, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," this essay is actually an excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She makes a lot of generalizations about Western and Asian parents, summed up like this: American kids are behind because their parents coddle them and so they never live up to their potential. Chinese (as well as Indian, Korean, and most children of immigrants) excel because their parents expect them to, force them to, and will not allow anything to get the way. No parties. No drama. No sports.
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. 

You can't watch too much of the news without hearing about how American children are falling behind and how it's the schools' fault, the teachers' fault, George Bush's fault, Barack Obama's fault. Chua would contend it's the parents' fault.

I have no idea what to make of it, but I do find it funny and her style is tongue-in-cheek enough for me to take it to heart as more of an interesting cultural insight and less of a how-to manual on parenting.

In my line of work, where we often expose Americans to other cultures, I find myself routinely chanting "It's not wrong, it's just different" - a key principle for any cross-cultural traveler to try to believe. I had to chant it to myself the whole time I read this article.

It is a reminder that no culture has it right. We all parent and educate out of our cultural beliefs and there's enough wisdom and crap mixed into those beliefs to shock onlookers from another world.

My (Indian) husband absolutely disagrees with my (very American) embrace of mediocrity. In my defense, I don't embrace mediocrity because I'm lazy, but because I'd rather know and do a lot of things I'm interested in, rather than one thing really well.  To me, mediocrity sounds like an interesting opportunity to try something else. (And sometimes I'm lazy.)
For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
What about you? When you read this essay does it anger you or do you relate? Or like me, do you giggle because you've seen the good and bad of both "techniques"?


Christina Marie said...

interesting article... i always seem to prefer the middle of the two extremes (maybe ben would call that mediocrity?!) can't we encourage kids to be the best they can be without taking all the fun out of childhood??

all the play dates, and extracurricular activities that she didn't allow, are necessary for building social skills and life skills that help you become a successful adult

what about children with learning disabilities who need different strategies and methods to learn, no matter how much a parent yells at them

on the other hand, i have dealt with many parents that put no responsibility on the child and come into school blaming the teacher, principal, curriculum for their child's poor grades (even though they refuse to do homework and don't pay attention in class!)

i guess no one will ever get it perfectly right! said...

The article's author completely skips over the fact that
US public schools serve a much broader spectrum of kids, and serve them from pre-K all the way through university. It's easier to have "academic excellence" when you weed out all but the most academically gifted students for college-prep (which is what many European systems do).

I say encourage a child to do his/her best because it helps them develop self-respect and problem-solving skills. Not because we're trying to catch up to some mythical overseas "better" standard - that doesn't even exist. (end soapbox =)

Sarah said...

Wow. I love this article. It's going to take some time to wrap my head around all of it. I think we had to have a tiny dose of "Chinese mother" to get through kindergarten.

Dawn said...

So I'm not a Mom and I am an educator, is our only standard of good versus bad kids is their ability to succeed academically.

Are those poeple who succeed academically the happiest? Maybe "mediocrity" is contentment in who you are and so you want to try new things.

Maybe there are also victims of people who used anyone and anything to succeed and when they don't watch out.

xaspireonfirex said...
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xaspireonfirex said...

Hi Susie

Funnily enough, I was only just reading about Amy Chua's book yesterday in this article

I did find it thought-provoking. I have to agree with this concept:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to over-ride their preferences.”

Certainly there are some things in life which must be worked for before they yield up their ultimate rewards and that is not a bad lesson in instill in children.

I think there is something constructive in encouraging children to continue to try (even when they don't like something, even if it is testing or "stressy"), to understand the value of work and, most crucially for me, to always give the best of themselves. If you can do that in a way that does not involve making your children afraid of you and in an environment in which they feel that a sincere worry or difficulty will be still heard and dealt with, I'm sure it would provide a good bedrock for later life.

My own mother felt on reading this that one of most important values to impart to children was a love of learning. If your children grow up to be people who enjoy experiencing new things, can cope with challenges and will endeavour to work to the best of their ability at their job, relationships and life's ups and downs ... they will hopefully make their journey through this world more postively and assuredly. I love my mother!

Sorry for the long ramble, and thanks for this post - as you say, it's good to be reminded that different approaches can sometimes be just that - different!

xaspireonfirex said...
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xaspireonfirex said...
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xaspireonfirex said...
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xaspireonfirex said...

Sorry - Blogger fail! said...

i think it's interesting, having lived in china for 3 years and spending 6 additional summers there, how the article (actually I saw her on an interview on the Today Show... b/c I'm American and reading the WSJ?..c'mon now!) did not anger me. In a culture having survived the Cultural Revolution and communisim, it makes sense that there is little room for mediocrity. It has been survival of the fittest. The mentality remains.

obviously there are serious trade offs and consequences to the chinese way.(perfectionism is rapant, broken family relationships, and a high suicide rate among college students) but there are some serious benefits too.

The issue is: culture is broken because of sin. cultural learning is key.

that's why i buy kai lan videos,turn them on and go eat snacks in the kitchen! best of both of best worlds ;)

The Lembright Family said...

Oh Susie---I'm glad you posted this! From a mom living in KL and riding the balance of "but my 4 year old is going to have to take an entrance exam to get into kindergarten next year" to "but let's just go to the pool and eat popsicles instead"...I think I'm going to just embrace the "it's not bad, it's just different mentality"! I try to remember that every mother, even those we knew in India that could never afford an education for their children, love them and want what's best for them. I think I'll spend my time praying more for the heart issues, than the head issues...want to meet me in Bangalore for coffee?

Natalie said...

Love this topic... Actually read it the day you posted it and have been pondering since. Few thoughts of my own (since we just had a discussion last week about opportunities and success). I have to agree with Dawn... It's all in how you define success. It's how you define happiness. I would for sure agree that there are two extremes... demanding too much and demanding too little. The beauty of parenting (and educating which I believe should be the primary responsibility of the parent) is that no child is exactly the same and cannot be parented in exactly the same way.

And if I remember correctly, don't countries that put such extreme pressure on success have a very high rate of suicides? Of course, in the US we have a high rate of suicides for social reasons rather than for educational or success reasons.

Needless to say, I think we need to demand the most from our kids and be able to confront a child who is intentionally lazy (we in the states put up with a lot and make excuses for our children) but at the same time we have to discern with each child their strengths, weaknesses, gifts, likes, dislikes, etc and make decisions on how we 'push' and 'challenge' our children based on those... not based on comparison to everyone else.

My final thought is where does Jesus fit in. As I shared on skype being in Mexico, I realize that if my kids don't have the opportunities to do the 'big things' (the things the US admire) or they don't become financially 'successful', but they love Jesus with all their heart and they find joy in serving God in whatever they do being a custodian, a garbage man, a banker, a doctor... then my child is successful. And no one with straight A's can ever compete with that. I believe if Christ resides in their hearts and they learn to live life for HIS glory, then success, in whatever shape or form in manifests itself, will occur.

Just my random thoughts that have come to mind since reading your blog. Absolutely love your blog girl!

Becky said...

First of all, I just love that you've already had to delete how many comments?? What is with the bloggers who comment here on your blog?? :)

My own 2 cents..I love the Chinese ideal, but I can't even find clean underwear for my kids to wear to school tomorrow in this house, so...

Miss you mama.