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Monday, January 17, 2011

STOP! We're Doing It Wrong.

From this point forward, you all need to start calling your children "garbage" when they disappoint you.  You need to call them "fatty" if you feel they are overweight.  Make them practice an instrument for three hours a day, and if they can't get the music right - at age 7 - take away their meals, throw away their toys, berate them and scream at them for hours until eventually they've no choice but to play the piece correctly.

You'd think this was an exaggeration, but since it was written in an article by Amy Chua detailing her own homelife, I have to take it seriously.  After days of intense piano work with her daughter, during which Amy says she lost her voice yelling, Amy's husband finally said something.  He said that maybe their daughter did not yet have the coordination to play the difficult piece, and that she shouldn't be compared to another child her age because she was her own person, not the other child.

"Oh no, not this," Amy replied. "Everyone is special in their special own way. Even losers are special in their own special way."

To Amy's credit, her daughter eventually played the piece correctly and was proud of herself.  But at what cost?

Let's start at the beginning.  Amy says the difference between Chinese parents and Western parents is that "Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best."

While she makes some paltry excuses for her stereotype usage, I find it hard to believe that a Yale Professor would be unable to come up with her own categories, as opposed to "Chinese" (which she says could be any of a set of immigrant parents, including other Asian ethnicities, Irish and Jamaican) and "Western" (which could be basically any parent at all.)  If we are talking about two different types of parenting methods that cross ethnic and national lines, then perhaps "Chinese" and "Western" were the wrong choices for categorization. 

I'm not trying to start a fight.  I'm just wondering if maybe she should have called herself pathetic and made herself sit at the computer keyboard without eating or going to the bathroom until she came up with more precise terms.

She goes on to say that "tons of studies" show quantifiable differences between the two parenting styles.

Really?  Tons?  Because tons refers to weight, and while I suppose that's useful in its own way, I'd prefer to know the number of studies to which she is referring.  Just a thought as she prepares for her book release.

Amy then goes on to cite one study of 50 "Western" mothers and 48 "Chinese" mothers.  She says in that study, almost 70 percent of "Western" mothers said "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun...By contrast, roughly 0 percent of the Chinese mothers felt the same way."

First of all, one study of less than 100 people does not satisfy me.  If she wants to back up her claims, she'll need to dig deeper than that.  Secondly, the two answers lumped into one answer are too different to even compare.  I would say that parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun, but I would not say stressing academic success is not good for children.  She's creating false numbers, as far as I'm concerned.  Third, roughly zero percent?  Because in a study of 98 people, even one mother answering yes to either of those scenarios would be more than one percent.  So, either no "Chinese" parents answered the question positively, or one of them did.

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it."

That's a weird thing to say.  My daughter is two and a half.  She loves drawing.  I would even say she has a passion for it.  Is she any good?  Nope.  Well, I mean, I think she's fantastic, but I don't think any museums or art galleries are currently accepting crayon scribbles.  She's certainly having fun, at any rate.

Maybe Amy is talking about older children.  When I was in third grade, I loved soccer.  I sucked at it.  I couldn't kick a ball, couldn't dribble, had no ball control.  By my senior year, I was a top goal-scorer on the varsity team.  Could this be an instance of the rote repetition she mentions, here in a "Western" world?  It absolutely is.  The difference between my improvement in soccer and her daughter's improvement on the piano is that I was allowed to decide how accomplished I wanted to become at my sport.  When I made the decision and became better, I had myself and my own hard work to thank.  My parents didn't need my unending gratitude toward them for forcing me to continue something I didn't yet enjoy.  Just because you decide on something for yourself does not diminish your sense of accomplishment when you achieve your goal.  Who is Amy really trying to impress here?  Her daughter, or herself?  But this example doesn't concern her.  Her daughters will not play sports.

In third grade, I also gave the piano a shot.  I also sucked at it.  I gave it up after a year or two.  Do I wish I could play the piano these days?  Sometimes.  Does it haunt my every waking hour that my parents didn't force me to sit at the instrument and practice for hours on end until I could do it?  No.  Plenty of people can play the piano beautifully.  I leave it to them.  I think no one in my family is worse for the wear, and I got to eat all my meals.  Thank you, Mom.  Thank you, Dad.

It boils down to a child's life not being all about the parents.  What shells of people are we if we must define our own success and failure based on our children's skill sets?  And how dare we foist our own fears, determinations and failures upon those who have yet to do anything wrong?

"Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough."

In addition to my degree in journalism, I also have a degree in science.  I barely passed physics.  I had to take it twice.  I was in the TA's office so often that he asked me if I were a sorority girl (another stereotype for another day.)  I worked hard.  I worked so hard.  I was in the library at all hours, I was memorizing theories and mathematical equations.  I took summer tutoring courses.  I barely pulled in a B-.  But I did it.  I got my grade, I passed my course, and I was proud of myself.  How crushing it would have been, at 19, to have felt I failed, when I had still accomplished my main objective.

Amy says, "Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

Can we not have both?  Can we not respect our children's individuality, support their choices and nuture them while still preparing them for the future, arming them with skills and inner confidence?  Why is there a line drawn here?  And if a line must be drawn, I must say, I still don't understand how bullying and berating a child builds "an inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

Maybe that's my "Western" reading ability failing me, though.  After all, my parents never made me read Marcel Proust or Joseph Conrad over and over until I understood each sentence and word and meaning.  I did that on my own, as an adult.

I could go on and on, but, right now, I have a couple of children I need to go kiss and tell how beautiful and special they are.  Not because I'm fearful of their self-esteem issues, but because it's true.  And there's nothing wrong with telling the truth to your children.


Don't forget to please vote for Tales of an Unlikely Mother if you are enjoying this blog; we're number 14!

Amy Chua needs more hits on her article.  Click this link to see it.  Maybe it will even boost her book sales.  Well played, Amy, well played.


  1. I saw that article when it came out and was boggled that she's trying to prove something off of a sample of 100 people. And what does "Western mothers" mean anyway? American, German, Spanish?

  2. Apparently she may not have written the article. From

    "I was very surprised," she says. "The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."

    While the Journal article was unquestionably good for sales and awareness of the book, which has already hit #7 on Amazon and is only headed upward, it has been painful for Chua. "I've gotten scary messages. Death threats. All from people who haven't yet read the book," she says. "And while it's ultimately my responsibility -- my strict Chinese mom told me 'never blame other people for your problems!' -- the one-sided nature of the excerpt has really led to some major misconceptions about what the book says, and about what I really believe."

    She points out that while she uses the term "Chinese motherhood" as shorthand for her neotraditionalist style of parenting, she states early on that many people of Chinese background don't subscribe to such methods, and many non-Chinese do. She also asserts that this is meant to be her own tragicomic story, and not a recipe for others to follow.



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