Chinese mothers

I enjoyed reading this article which explains how the “Chinese mother” is a superior parent to the modern Western mother, but I didn’t know what to think about it. James Fallows says (jokingly) that commentary on the article is bringing the internet to its knees, but for some reason I haven’t run across any of it.

Fallows suggests that Amy Chua has actually written a Swiftian satire, and I tend to agree with that. Taken that way, she does a masterful job of tweaking the noses of people who vaguely envy the stereotypical successes of Asian children—while still reveling in those successes, which is the part that amazes the writer in me.

But I’m curious about one thing: why are we envious of the specific accomplishments she parades past us? For example, she brags about how her children were not allowed to play any instrument other than piano or violin, and not allowed not to play piano or violin. Is excellence on piano or violin (presumably playing classical music) a hallmark of a properly educated child? Does it enrich your mind in a fundamental way that, say, playing guitar or banjo—or even listening to music intelligently—does not? Does it make you more welcome at parties, i.e. do our eyes light up when our piano- or violin-playing friend shows up so we can beg them to entertain us with a performance? Does it get you anything except frustration over not having opportunities to exercise a hard-won skill?

I do think that Chua has done a good job of zeroing in on what we have come to see as excellence, and of demonstrating the hard work (and unyielding attitude) that is required to achieve such excellence. But it wouldn’t hurt to go over her article, skill by skill, asking the question: Would you remind me again why this one is important?

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9 thoughts on “Chinese mothers

  1. Are you sure you think this is satire? Have you ever met any of these ladies? I believed it was real because there are a certain number of (nonChristian, for the most part, in my experience) Chinese mothers who really DO believe that their children owe them (this is related to ancestor worship), who really DO define humanity in such a narrow manner. I suppose there is a chance that Chua herself is satirizing the Chinese mother, but I had the feeling that she was exactly like someone I once knew, to the point where I felt sure she was simply explaining her culture.

    I did find myself wondering…in an all-Chinese school, are they ALL best in the class? ;)

  2. Well, playing violin sure doesn’t make you more popular at parties–that much I can assure you! CZ is learning, as I learned in high school, to save her deep interests for the company of like-minded friends. And they say homeschoolers aren’t socialized.

    Ah, I only wish this article were satire. Brazen, self-conscious publicity stunt, maybe. But I know Christian parents who take this approach, and I know too many of them to believe that it’s all satire.

    I’m glad you’re writing again, Rick.

  3. Laura,

    Since you are too modest to point to your own comments about this article, allow me to do so for you.

    Well, playing violin sure doesn’t make you more popular at parties–that much I can assure you! CZ is learning, as I learned in high school, to save her deep interests for the company of like-minded friends.

    From your stories about CZ I know that the violin chose her, and that’s something that can only be embraced. But what a burden to choose for a child who hasn’t chosen it herself!

    I’m glad you’re writing again, Rick.

    The stopping wasn’t deliberate. Last fall I was running low on inspiration, and at the same time life got very busy, so I gave in and let the silence stretch out. Things have slowed down a bit recently, and the muse seems to be glancing my way again, so I do plan to post more regularly for awhile.

  4. I honestly think the article got the attention it did not because we admire Chinese exceptionalism but because Americans are such hopeless slaves to their own children. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground here. This lack of balance allows us to continue requiring nothing from our children because the alternative given is so ugly.

    You have probably heard me say this before but my high school was divided into 4 groupings: Advanced, Above Average, Average and Below Average. I did notice in the 10 years after high school that I seemed to have a happier life than my friends who were a step above me and I have always wondered if the Average group had an even happier life and so on :)

  5. Cindy,

    Too true. And since neither approach approximates the way Debbie and I have raised our own kids, I had to think a bit about what lies at the core of the third way we’ve chosen. Which gave me an idea for a parenting book which is sure to make me wealthy and lead to marked improvements in American mental health, so thanks for that.

    The core of our child-rearing is this: we let excellence take care of itself and concentrate on dealing with weaknesses—which sometimes means conquering them, sometimes compensating for them, sometimes just accepting them. The idea is to make them well-rounded human beings, or if you want a more spiritual description, supple all-purpose tools suitable to be used by God when and where He chooses.

    I even have a suitably Oriental title for the book: Child Like Water. It is taken from the Zen concept of “mind like water,” i.e. being completely adaptable to the situation at hand. As noted theolgian Bruce Lee put it:

    Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

    Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

  6. “The core of our child-rearing is this: we let excellence take care of itself and concentrate on dealing with weaknesses—which sometimes means conquering them, sometimes compensating for them, sometimes just accepting them. The idea is to make them well-rounded human beings, or if you want a more spiritual description, supple all-purpose tools suitable to be used by God when and where He chooses.”

    Well spoken! I’ve been thinking about that woman’s article all week. My thoughts have mainly been, that though her approach is extreme, it would have been all around better if she had more right and true priorities! This woman (if in fact, she is just describing her philosophy of child-training) is going to raise children just as selfish as she is.
    I find that Christians who like to talk a lot about “excellence” often take the definition from the World.

    The only point she made that I was sort of happy with is that parents who spend so much time and effort shaping their children care far more about their children than those who indulge them.

    Thanks for weighing in on this. And welcome back!

  7. Laura,

    Thanks for sending that along. I bow to the genius of Amy Chua’s PR people for knowing exactly what Western buttons to push!

    In fact, I think the skewed excerpt put the focus where it ought to be, namely on the contrast between Asian and Western parenting, rather than on Amy Chua’s journey to a deeper understanding. Not because that isn’t interesting as well, but it definitely takes the edge off things for the Western reader: “Look, the Tiger Mother eventually came to see the error of her ways!”

    Well, yes and no. The shortcomings of her approach are no vinidication of the Western approach. And there’s no way to know if her more temperate thinking at the end would be an improvement—her children are grown.

    What interest me most is a comment Amy Chua makes in the interview mentioned in that blog post:

    “I don’t think people pick up on this enough, but I’m an unreliable narrator!” she laughs. “My daughters kept telling me, ‘You’re exaggerating this, Mom. People are going to think you’re so harsh!’ But the truth is, even though I was maniacal about music, I did actually let my kids go on playdates. And I say in the book that ‘I don’t care if my kids hate me,’ but if you read on you’ll realize, that’s not how I actually feel. Who wants their kids to hate them? I’m very close to my daughters, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

    I’m much more interested in learning about the Tiger Mother approach—and hearing some details about one woman’s attempts to put them into practice—than I am in how steadfastly Amy Chua exemplified the approach.

  8. The Sunday NY Times Style section had an interesting interview of the author you might want to check out. The original WSJ article made me laugh because I was always the mother that my friends would threaten their children with saying, “If you don’t behave I’m sending you to Miss Claire’s home!” I’m still proud of that reputation.

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