Why Chinese Mothers Are Average, Part 2: What Tiger Moms Can Teach Us

Why Chinese Mothers Are Average, Part 2: What Tiger Moms Can Teach Us January 13, 2011

Rarely do we find race-tinged superiority claims displayed as garishly and unapologetically as Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.”  While authors are often not responsible for the titles of their op-eds, in this case the title locates the heart of her argument with pinpoint accuracy.  Chinese parenting techniques, she argues, are superior, insofar as they produce superior children.  Since the op-ed belittles and mocks the parenting of the vast majority of Americans, and by extension their children, it has attracted an extraordinary amount of attention.  Which, of course, is precisely what she wanted, so to promote her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

In Part 1 of this series, I explained how poorly Chua frames the whole issue: with a rip-roaring false dichotomy between “Chinese” and “western” parenting; with stereotypes that are inaccurate and simplistic; with no consideration for differing visions of “success” and the ultimate good which parenting pursues; with an evidence base (the success of Asian-American children) that is at least partly explained by other factors; and with a lack of perspective, since Chua cannot see the whole picture of whether her (still-young) children will be successful and fulfilled in life.

In this part, Part 2, I will explain what can, in my view, be learned from the parenting methods Chua describes.  (And again, please note I’m responding to the more extreme presentation of Tiger Mothering in the WSJ article; I suggested yesterday (because the teaser for the book suggested it) that her book might be more moderate.  Apparently it is.)

1.  Tiger Parenting rightly emphasizes education and achievement.  Asian-American circles are one of the few remaining social circles in the United States where it is cool to get the best grades.  Anti-intellectualism is alive and well in many American youth circles.  Enough of it!  It’s foolish and self-destructive.  Please, never let your children believe that it’s uncool to get good grades, and constantly encourage them to dream big, to set lofty long-term goals, and to set about achieving them.

In retrospect, what strikes me most about the youth culture in which I was raised (in Tracy, California) is that there was almost no ambition.  It was not cool to be in the “gifted” class, and even in the gifted class it was not cool to work hard at your schoolwork.  In some circles it was worse; they just wanted to get through their classes, almost never thought of college or career, and lived in perpetual denial that they would one day have to provide for a family.

Although mine were excellent parents in nearly every way (and I do mean that), they almost never knew when I had a test, almost never knew whether I had done my homework, never arranged for me to shadow a professional, and never discussed how to build a résumé.  I bought my own SAT prep book and arranged to take the test, and my parents never drilled me for it.  They were not especially involved in the college admissions process, though they did make sure I sent the applications on time.

The saving grace, for me, was my mountainous ego, which thought that I should certainly becoming someone important, and my gymnastics career, which showed me a much bigger world than the little social fishbowl of my hometown. But my Asian-American friends were strongly and consistently encouraged to bear college and career in mind; they were directed to “shadow” various professionals in various professions in order to get a sense of what they might become; and their parents made sure they were building a résumé that would allow them to reach their goals.  Their parents made sure they got a good education; they would even move into a house they couldn’t afford, and take up second jobs, in order to get their kids into the right schools.  Their commitment to education and to their children’s careers was clear and complete.

Of course, education should not be an idol.  Neither should career.  But they are extremely important.  Tiger Mothers can remind us how important education and career are, and offer stirring examples of how we can communicate that importance to our children through our words and deeds.

2.  There really is a virtuous circle between effort, achievement, and enjoyment, but it takes a great deal of effort — for parents and children — to enter that circle. I’ve observed an awful lot of parents in the Chinese church to which I belonged in Princeton, NJ, and in the larger Chinese-American community in Atlanta to which I now belong, and I love how the parents expect excellence of their children and are willing to work extremely hard to achieve it.

The logic of one of Chua’s central claims is iron-clad.  Most things are funner when you’re proficient at them; it takes a lot of work to become proficient at something; and most children will not put in the work unless their parents require it of them.  When parents, however, do encourage or require their children to put in the time and effort necessary to become proficient, and the child begins to receive the rewards of proficiency (success at competitions, the simple joy of doing something you excel at, the sense of confidence and significance and optimism that follows), then success becomes its own motivator.  You become successful because you’ve worked hard; then you work even harder because you’ve enjoyed the taste of success.

In general, I don’t think my parents, excellent though they were in most respects, pushed us hard enough (sorry guys!).  I was pretty self-motivated, however, but I recall one occasion when I am very glad my parents did not let me quit.  I trained in gymnastics from 8 to 14.  By 14, I had suffered several discouraging injuries at the end of the past several competitive seasons and had not been able to perform well at the national championships.  I told my parents I wanted to quit.  They asked why, and we discussed it for a while.  Truly, the reason I wanted to quit (and I informed them of this) was because I wanted to spent more time with my girlfriend.  Although my parents had always told me that I could quit if I wanted to (they were not the super-aggressive sideline-parent type), they told me no.  They would not allow me to quit.  I was angry for a few weeks.

Then what happened?  The girlfriend broke up with me.  My anger went away.  And the next year I became a junior national all-around champion.  And that success bred more success, as I learned just how fun it is to excel at something.  I sure am glad my parents didn’t let me quit.  (They’re not so sure, since I eventually broke my neck, but that’s another story.)

I hope that my children learn how fun it is to be one of the best in the world at what you do.

3.  Your children are stronger than you think.  Don’t be afraid to push them. Chua says something very interesting when she says that “Chinese” parents assume strength while “western” parents assume weakness.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  Western parenting techniques have a whole psychological tradition behind them.  One thing many people who know Chinese culture will tell you, if they’re being honest, is that Chinese culture, especially the culture of the older generations, has not really been psychologized.  There is little appreciation for the multi-layered nature of the human psyche, the complexity of its motives, or how deeply and subconsciously people can be crippled.  That may sound prejudiced; but I believe it’s true.  We are so thoroughly steeped in Freud and psychological categories that we take it for granted that others are too.  They aren’t.  Freud meiyou jia zai Beijing.  He has no home there; not yet.

Many who were raised by Tiger Mothers experienced a little PTSD as they read Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, because they have experienced first-hand how children really can be damaged by verbal abuse, constant belittlement and the refusal to express love (see Lac Su’s I Love Yous Are For White People, for instance.)  I’ll say more about this tomorrow.

But western culture can promote the opposite extreme.  We see ourselves as the curators of our children’s self-esteem, and we hold it delicately in our hands as though it is made of the most brittle glass and one false step might damage it forever.  When we do this, I fear we only encourage our children to believe the same thing: that they are fragile, perpetually at risk, and often the victims of forces that make them feel bad about themselves.  So I appreciated these words from Chua:

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

This does not mean that you should harangue and abuse your child until they do something they had thought they could not.  You need to know your children, of course, and learn their limits.  But you may not truly learn their limits until you push your children and then–lovingly, gently–push and push them again.  They may surprise you, and they may surprise themselves.  And when they learn how strong they are, they won’t forget it.

4.  Good parents are willing to be hated. I admire that many Chinese-American parents I know are willing to let their children resent, despise, even hate them, if that’s what it takes to do what is best for the child.  The focus then is not on being liked, not on being friends, but on doing exactly what is best for the child, and nothing less.

If your children hate you over the long term, then you’re almost certainly doing something wrong.  One thing I loved about my father is that I actually felt greater respect and affection for him after he disciplined me than before, because he disciplined us in a wise and loving manner.  Your children should not hate you for long.  But if they need to hate you for a little while in order to do well on their SATs, then you’d better be willing to sacrifice that friendly feeling for their own good.

5.  It’s perfectly legitimate to manage your children’s extra-curricular activities.  Chua only allowed her children to learn violin and piano, did not allow other instruments, and did not allow other activities like drama or computer games.  I disagree on the particulars (team sports, for instance, teach many invaluable lessons), and I think children should be entrusted with a gradually increasing amount of freedom in making some of these decisions themselves, but I also find that too many “western” parent provide no direction at all over their children’s activities.

In fact, in many stereotypically “western” households the children are allowed to try, continue with–and quit–whatever they want.  But since sports and instruments and art forms and the like are often miserable when you’re first starting, kids are inclined to give them up.  If they’re permitted to give up, eventually they learn to do nothing particularly well.  Not sports, not music, not a creative art form, not a leadership role, nothing.  They also miss out on all the developmental benefits that those activities have to offer.  And, since they’re doing nothing else, they give all their time to lazy media consumption, idle socializing, or eventually drinking and other American past-times.  Finally, perhaps worst of all, they’re establishing patterns of action, inclinations and beliefs about themselves: that they are the kind of people who don’t persevere, who don’t learn to excel,

While I do not think parents should dictate their children’s activities, I do think they should manage them.  Parents do have a better sense of what serves the long-term interests of the child.  Instead of spending 6 hours a day on computer games, 2 hours on a sport, 2 hours on an instrument, 1 hour on an art form, and 1 hour of computer gaming really is better.

6.  It’s also legitimate, and sometimes requisite, to manage your child’s relationships. Tiger Mothers are not afraid to tell their children that they (a) cannot be friends with this or that person, that they (b) will spend their Friday nights with this group, and they (c) cannot date until college (or later).  And the basic idea is correct.  Character is shaped by characters.  Sometimes it’s counter-productive to forbid a relationship, but a wise parent will be discerning, and will direct his or her children toward relationships that will be edifying and life-giving.

We all know how destructive it can be for a young person to enter a circle of friends who are doing all the wrong things–and yet we’re often squeamish about telling our children with whom they can be friends.  I’ve seen Tiger Parents forbid relationships that would certainly have led their children astray, and it preserved their children for their long-term benefit.  I’ve seen Tiger Parents force their children to attend church youth groups every Friday, and the at-first-reluctant children eventually developed friendships that nurtured and encouraged them.  And I’ve seen Tiger Parents forbid their children to date early, and in some cases it saved their children from countless hours of pointless soap operas.  This can be taken too far, of course; it’s important for young people to learn how to respond to unsavory characters and how to interact with the opposite sex, but a little romantic under-development is a small price to pay for keeping your child on the straight and narrow.

7.  Finally, children should feel obligated to their parents.  Another point I like from Chua’s article, and that I have long admired in Asian-American culture, is the sense that the child, once grown up, has some obligation to help provide for his or her parents.  I was raised with the attitude she ascribes to her husband Jed: parents provide for children, and once those children grow up, they become responsible to their own children–and never to their parents.  Chua says this sounds like “a bad deal” for the parents, but that’s where the western model has a point: the parent-child relationship is not a “deal.”  The children did not ask to be born and enter into a contract.  In this “western” model, the parent loves the child unconditionally and provides for the child while expecting nothing in return.

“Western” parents do not want to be a burden to their children, but it’s simply expected in most eastern cultures that children will honor their parents in part by caring for them and providing for them in their old age.  To me, this seems…well, it just seems right.  I don’t believe that the parents should expect or require it, but I do believe that the children should offer it–that is, they should offer their care, they should take the initiative to care and provide for their parents.  Our parents have sacrificed so immensely for us, have provided for us over and over again in our hour of need, so it only seems right that we should, once we have the means, provide for them in theirs.

In tomorrow’s installment, Part 3, I will explain what I think is wrong with the Tiger Parenting methods, and what Tiger Mothers like Amy Chua can learn from the “western” parenting approach.

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