Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

27 Feb

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

In early January, an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother hit wsj.com, and almost instantly the mothering and mothered masses responded. I saw the link posted on Facebook a dozen times; I received an email about it; we even discussed it in my sociology class. There were counter arguments among counter arguments; the blogosphere nearly exploded with people dying to take on the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother. Eventually, she retreated, but not before being sufficiently roasted by everyone and their child. It begs the question: why did it make American tick?

First, there’s the obvious: for many (dare I say most), there is no job more important than parenting. Naturally, it’s a sensitive subject- no one wants to screw up their kids, let alone admit it if they do. So when this woman makes such a bold, brash statement criticizing the vast majority of American parents, insecurities flare up: “How dare you say I’m screwing up my child, you don’t know him/her or the rest of my family and what works for us.” Parents suddenly realized that their parenting styles are being judged by ever Jack and Jane in the pick-up line at school, either for coming too early, too late, or sending the babysitter- there’s no way to win, and it sucks.

There’s also the subconscious dislike of that which is too different- what is unfamiliar is scary, and therefore we mentally file it away as ‘bad’ (which is not to say we’re all ego-centric assholes… it’s just that when presented with a new anything, we are can either accept it, modify it, or reject it completely. Essentially, a modification is a rejection of the proposed idea, simply because it is not accepting it. Take play dates, for example. Chua boasts that her children never have play dates. Some parents, such as those of children I grew up with, only allowed their children to have play dates on the weekends- one might call this a modification of Chua’s rule. The modification is, however, ultimately a rejection from the extreme, which we must have deemed as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in order to change it and not accept it wholly).

Another point of tension was that Chua seemed to be discounting the genetic lottery her children won. As the children of two highly intelligent parents, Sophia and Lulu were more genetically predisposed to succeed- to clarify, not claiming that geniuses breed geniuses, but intelligence is, to a point, hereditary.

But that can’t be all. There has to have been something bigger driving the responses: the fear that she’s right. The fear that Western parents really are too soft, that we’ve shortchanged our children, that we’ve let them fly too far off the mark. And sometimes, I think we have. When I was in middle school, the ‘F’- for fail- was changed to a ‘U’- for unsatisfactory. Why? The F was demoralizing. Despite that the F was, in fact, a failing grade, it needed to be softened as to not hurt the egos of the students. The era of the hovercraft parent has bred a generation or two of kids who expect too much- they want the ribbon for trying. They want to be praised for doing what’s expected of them- doing their homework, getting good grades, the works. Don’t get me wrong, I totally include myself in this- I was so conditioned to expect compliments and cheers at every turn, in the back of my mind I still feel like the Pavlovian response to me doing anything well- from scoring a point in frisbee to making Dean’s List- should be met with celebration.

Obviously, I know that’s not true. My parents didn’t raise no dummy- I never got paid for good grades, nor was I incentivized to call my grandparents once a week or clean my room when it got messy. Those were just things I did. Period. But Chua has a point- nothing is fun until you’re good at it. When I started high school, I was a bit wary to take all Honors classes. I was petrified of failing. But my mom pushed me- she told me I could  and should and would do it. So I did. And I didn’t fail. And I stayed on the Honors/AP track all through high school. There’s something to be said for pushing a product through to completion- you’ll never know what you can finish until you, you know, do it.

At any rate, while bloggers nationwide found joy in roasting Chua, the commenters seemed to back her up pretty strongly. It makes sense: being a hardass parent is kind of like starting a new diet- it’s appealing in theory, but when push comes to shove, it’s just so much easier and (momentarily) satisfying to order takeout than to make a salad. And so, when it comes down to being liked or respected, there is nary a parent I know who has actually chosen to be respected on a regular basis. Parents do say ‘no,’ sure, but at least where I was raised, it’s not a word anyone’s kids hear very often.

In my opinion, the greatest fault in Chua’s method isn’t her practices- if I ever have kids, you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be accepting “my teacher hates me” as an excuse for poor grades- it’s the location in which she chooses to execute them. A friend of mine said that the worst part for the girls must’ve been seeing all of their friends going off and having sleepovers and going to drama, not necessarily not participating in the activities themselves. It’s just so much worse to know you’re the only one, she said. And she’s right. When discussing this article with my sociology class, a girl who attended an international school said this sort of thing was actually fairly common, and even though they all lived in Manhattan, it was less stigmatizing because so many kids faced similar restrictions.

Speaking of which, there was some significant conversation among both commenters and bloggers coming from the children of Tiger parents. The general consensus there seemed to be a wary appreciation, which makes sense- yes, it got them where they wanted to be, academically, but God were they miserable. There’s something to be said for letting kids be kids- grades are important, success is important, but if one more kid at my college says that they can’t so much as watch a movie without feeling guilty for not doing work, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. It’s important to instill in children a sense of self-preservation: teach them how to relax and have fun and play hooky once in a while. It’s worth it! Promise!

As a product of Western-style child rearing techniques, I certainly appreciate its merits- it would’ve actually killed me had my parents made me play soccer, stick with the dreaded violin, or ostracize myself from my peers by turning down any and all offers for play-dates and sleepovers. I love(d) that my parents let me go into the city by myself at 15; I love(d) that they let me pursue whatever activities my sister and I wanted (except for competitive cheerleading. My sister had to live without that one, unfortunately); I love(d) that I didn’t (don’t) have to fear the consequences of coming home with a B; I love(d) that my best is/was (almost) always good enough. The most common thread among the commenters is that Western-style parenting breeds creative and independent thinkers- I agree and I don’t. Creative, yes- for better or for worse, kids can be pretty innovative in crafting reasons why they didn’t do so well on the history test or why they really need to go to that party. They’re good at thinking of new ways to solve problems (because the teacher is always wrong, of course), and are (for the most part) pretty decent team players. But independent, not so much- if mommy’s always there to tell them how great they are, what’ll they do when the applause stops? (Look for an upcoming post about that…) Overall, I think Chua got it right in mentality (think of your children as strong, don’t accept excuses), but skewed a little bit in the execution (forbidding her daughter from getting a drink was probably a little bit much).

So why is this interesting? Parenting is one of the few professions for which no degree is needed, and there’s no training to be had. There are parenting books, sure, but those can only do so much- look hard enough, and I bet you’ll find completely contrasting advice (expect a rant on parenting books later). It’s all instinct. No one wants to screw up their kids, and Amy Chua reifies that that which doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger. Sure, studying for hours for calculus may not be fun now, but when we end the year with the A (and ultimately get into the college of our choosing), we’ll look back and smile: we survived.

Author’s note: Chua’s memoir is not, nor did she intend for it to be advertised as, a parenting guide. The excerpt was run as a promo, which many other books run. This analysis is strictly written on the basis on the excerpt and its implications, even though it is not representative of Chua as a person or mother, nor is it representative of her book in full.


3 Responses to “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”

  1. Andre M. Smith January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Why is the art of music required to endure the ill-informed antics of such inartistic imbeciles as Amy Chua? Her lust for fame as an old-fashioned stage mother of either a famous violinist (yet another mechanical Sarah Chang?) or a famous pianist (yet another mechanical Lang Lang?) shines through what she perceives as devotion to the cultivation of the cultural sensitivities of her two unfortunate daughters.

    Daughter Lulu at age 7 is unable to play compound rhythms from Jacques Ibert with both hands coordinated? Leonard Bernstein couldn’t conduct this at age 50! And he isn’t the only musician of achievement with this-or-that shortcoming. We all have our closets with doors that are not always fully opened.

    And why all this Chinese obsession unthinkingly dumped on violin and piano? What do the parents with such insistence know of violin and piano repertoire? Further, what do they know of the great body of literature for flute? For French horn? For organ? For trumpet? Usually, nothing!

    For pressure-driven (not professionally-driven!) parents like Amy Chua their children, with few exceptions, will remain little more than mechanical sidebars to the core of classical music as it’s practiced by musicians with a humanistic foundation.

    Professor Chua better be socking away a hefty psychoreserve fund in preparation for the care and feeding of her two little lambs once it becomes clear to them both just how empty and ill-defined with pseudo-thorough grounding their emphasis has been on so-called achievement.

    Read more about this widespread, continuing problem in Forbidden Childhood (N.Y., 1957) by Ruth Slenczynska.

    André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
    Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
    Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
    Formerly Bass Trombonist
    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
    Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
    The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.


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