I recently read an interesting article posted on The Wall Street Journal online. The article is written by a Chinese mother, and it is largely a no-holds-barred excerpt from a book recently published confronting the differences between “Chinese” and “western” parenting styles—mothering, specifically—and why Chinese parenting is superior and effectively produces more successful children.
Before I get into my points, I want to point out that the article is written by Amy Chua, an author and Yale law school professor. Clearly, Ms Chua obviously knows a little something about success. I am an unemployed 24-year-old with a masters degree. I also should point out that I am not a parent, and therefore it is quite easy for me to comment on parenting without having had the experience of doing so. I don’t need to highlight the differential there. That being said, that’s not going to stop me from commenting on this.
I am an overachiever, a perfectionist if you will. The first time I got a B+ in an AP class in high school, I tore up my report card and seethed for an entire weekend. (It was in Western European History. It’s not like Europe is important historically at all.) (I more than made up for that the next semester and then again on the AP test. Take that, western Europe!) I’ll spare you the particulars, but it was bad, so bad that my father had to get me in a moving vehicle which he was operating and which I could not escape before he could even talk to me about it, and I acted like a raving lunatic, not so calmly telling him that I should be grounded and publicly shamed, perhaps even stoned. A’s were a fact of life for me, not just because of my mental aptitude but because I
am was a little psychotic neurotic puritanically disciplined and I worked obsessively.
So I understand where Ms Chua is coming from. I often wish I had been forced to take piano lessons, read more of the great books, memorize poems and Bible passages, and otherwise had a far more rigorous and traditionally old-fashioned educational upbringing than I did. I also understand that if I did, the combination of that with my personality would have been disastrous. I did enough damage by myself without adding a strict parent to the mix. It’s taken me a number of years to really calm that side of my personality, to reflect on my successes rather than my shortcomings and to give myself a break.
It’s because the wisdom I’ve gained over the past few years that I find myself questioning and disagreeing with Ms Chua. She has valid points, and I do believe that she is genuine in her belief that such a parenting style is better for children in the long run, but I do not agree with her methods. I do not agree that calling your child garbage can ever do anything other than harm your child. It may motivate a child to succeed in order to prove you wrong, but I can personally attest to the fact that it also plants a seed of doubt, of self-deprecation. Success loses personal meaning when it comes at the cost of a perceived loss of self-worth. If anything, I find that it makes you more likely to contribute your successes to external factors such as luck or a teacher’s good opinion or a good memory rather than any sort of inherent intelligence or effort. Then again, I’m also willing to concede that this is perhaps an entirely western mindset and not one that eastern children are susceptible to.
Still. Ms Chua’s parenting style is alluring. After all, look at the picture of her and her daughters. They are lovely young women, donning the obedient and brilliant daughter look so well. They look like the sort of children that every parent would love to have so that they could brag about them to other adults, making themselves look good. If that is their home, it is a lovely one. The entire picture boasts a successful, well-behaved, well-off family. It’s all very picturesque.
But is that what we should be focusing on? Certainly, discipline is important, and it’s something which is severely lacking in today’s youth in comparison to fifty years ago. Hard work, too, is important. Intelligence and success are things to commend, yes. However, what about kindness? Generosity? Manners? Graciousness? Love? Is success only measured in performance and achievements? In teaching our children to topple others in their efforts to be the best, what are we really teaching them? It becomes more than just a comparative evaluation of performance of abilities; by stressing performance and success as “what matters,” it becomes a comparative evaluation of human beings, in subliminally affirming that human beings are not equal. Admittedly, that is a strong assertion, but I don’t think it far off the mark. In such an environment, you end up kicking others down in order to pull yourself up instead of lending a hand to pull them up to your level. I can’t see how such a mindset is advantageous to a society, on a human level or even a progressive one—it’s animalistic, and beyond that, it’s stunting; I can’t think of any advances or discoveries that have been done without the help of some form of collaboration.
I was never the sort of student who could simply be happy with an A. If I got a 96 and someone two rows over got a 98, it somehow made my A seem like less of an A in my mind, a mediocre A. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, more than once I would smugly pat myself on the back when I had the highest score or when I outperformed someone else. There’s a certain pleasure and rush that comes from being on top. It makes you think that you’re better. You’re not. I’d have to remind myself of this and mentally scold myself. I know it’s only human to think that way, but it’s not a healthy way to think. It’s not a charitable way to think. It’s also completely untrue.
For my part, I agree with many of Ms Chua’s points. You’re going to have to be tough with your children and force them to do things they don’t want to. They’re going to get angry, they’re going to hate you at times, but they’re also too young to know what’s best for them. As a parent, that’s up to you to decide—brushing your teeth, eating your vegetables, not watching television, not using the computer, going to church, doing your homework, studying until you know the material by heart, revising a paper over and over until it’s good, not staying up late, not eating ice cream for breakfast, not dating until you’re 16, practicing piano several hours a week, whatever—but it’s also up to you to help form them as humans, not just prepare them for the future.
Intelligence is good. Success is good. Wealth is good. But it’s not everything. We’re not just preparing children for the future; we’re creating our future. The best tended flower will not survive long if the soil is bad.