Saturday, January 22, 2011

Of Chinese and American Mothers

American media is abuzz with news of China these days. As President Barack Obama plays host to Chinese President Hu Jintao and both leaders agree to cooperate on various fronts, there is an undeniable undercurrent of unease and anxiety in America over China’s seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

China’s economy is the envy of the world. In technology, particularly green technology, China’s progress has been astonishing. By testing a new generation of stealth fighters, China has informed the world that its military is keeping pace with its soaring geopolitical ambition.

But two recent “events” have compelled the attention of the average American even more than China’s material and military progress, increasing the anxiety level.

One was the result of an international study, released in December 2010, ( that looked at how students from 65 countries performed in reading, science and math. Traditional powerhouses have been Singapore, South Korea, Finland, Canada and Japan. But the clear winner in all three categories by a wide margin this time was Shanghai, China!

The United States? It came in 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.

As if to explain the phenomenon, the other “event” appeared in the form of an essay in The Wall Street Journal on January 8. Written by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law school and titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it was excerpted from her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

Chua’s thesis is as stark as it is uncompromising: Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts because they demand the best of their children and drive them relentlessly until they are at the top. They know that “nothing is fun until you are good at it,” and that one becomes good at something only through hard work and discipline. Since “children on their own never want to work, it is crucial to override their preferences.” Chinese mothers override their children’s preferences routinely and ruthlessly until they have reached, and exceeded, their goals.

In Chua’s case, nothing less than an “A” in every subject (except gym and drama which she considered unimportant) was acceptable from her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, starting when they were 6. “For example,” says Chua, “if a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong … Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.”

Chua never let her daughters watch TV or play video games. There were no sleepovers or extra-curricular activities or computers. Once, Sophia came in second to a Korean kid in a math competition, so Chua made her do 2,000 math problems a night until she regained the top spot.

7-year-old Louisa was having difficulty once mastering a particularly difficult piano piece. Chua made her practice almost to the breaking point, night and day. There were tears, screams, insults, threats to burn all the toys. “I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling.”

In the end, Louisa was able to give the perfect recital before an audience. Chua finds American parenting weak, aimless and half-hearted. American parents are too concerned about a child’s self-esteem. The child may be lazy and manipulative but hurt his tender feelings? Heavens, no! American parents are consumed by the present - what’s going on with their children’s education here and now - whereas Chinese parents groom their kids for the future, with all the attendant sacrifices, be it to become a math whiz or a musical prodigy.

The furor erupted immediately. Parents and pundits of America pounced on Chua’s claims with outrage, scorn, even mockery. A representative response came from Ayelet Waldman, a writer based in Berkeley, California.

Comparing her style with Chua’s point by point, Waldman pointed out that she resisted any attempt to impose the violin or the piano on her children. She encouraged sleepovers, watching TV, playing video games, the use of computers and the Internet. She is grateful if her children are satisfied with their efforts in tests, the score notwithstanding. She wants her kids to have fun while learning and acquire good social skills that come only from human interaction and never from books. She wants her kids to be happy, even though she knows that there is enough trauma in any home to make this as daunting as a perfect SAT score.

Waldman’s point is that most children eventually find their way, through failure as much as through success. Parents just have to trust them, guiding them with a firmness tempered by love. If a child is passionate about reading and loves books, even if she is dyslexic (as Waldman’s daughter was), she can overcome her handicap and come out of the experience surer of herself, “a more powerful and tenacious person.”

The danger here is to generalize and claim that this or that method of parenting is superior. There is no perfect parenting code because every parent has to learn on the fly, even if there is much in the tradition to fall back on. The right parenting skills lie somewhere between flexibility and firmness, between tough love and unquestioning love, between nature and nurture, between reining in and letting go, between, one may say, prose and poetry.

Every child, like every snowflake, is unique, and one size will never fit all. As Waldman puts it, “roaring like a tiger turns some children into pianists who debut at Carnegie Hall but only crushes others. Coddling gives some the excuse to fail and others the chance to succeed. Amy Chua and I both understand that our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs.”

Amy Chua’s views on parenting style almost unleashed a clash of cultures, especially when a commentator pointed out that Asian-American girls aged 15 to 24 have above average rates of suicide. However, things have settled down somewhat and the consensus is that each culture brings something unique to the table when it comes to parenting. Those with open minds can pick up pointers from other cultures to add to their parenting skills.

Rudyard Kipling thought that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” but in this Age of the Internet, East and West meet everyday in the marketplace of ideas – including ideas about parenting - and both are enriched in the process.

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