Friday, March 18, 2011

My Take on "Asian" Parenting

A recent book by Yale law professor Amy Chua, titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has been stirring up quite a bit of controversy. One can find an introduction of the book in the WSJ article Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

I have not read the book (nor do I plan to do so if that requires me to purchase it), but from reading the WSJ article, I have to believe that Mrs Chua is overstating and/or sensationalizing her point for the sake of making the point (and thus boosting book sales).

In essence, Mrs Chua characterizes herself as a prototypical "Chinese" mother. In contrast to prototypical "Western" mothers who often employ permissive parenting, Mrs Chua stresses that (quoted from the WSJ article)
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.
To put it simply, this is ridiculous. In fact, her elder daughter's response depicts Mrs Chua as a caring mother who, while strict, also encourages her daughters to expand their horizons. This clearly contradicts the WSJ article, which depicts Mrs Chua as totally controlling from both time-management and thought-management standpoints.

I furthermore find her use of the term "Chinese" distasteful. After all, she construes Chinese so broadly that it loses nearly all meaning (not to mention the fact that she barely qualifies as Chinese in the real sense of the word). All this suggests a blatant emotional ploy to conflate her parenting philosophy with the pervasive American fear of losing economic competitiveness to China (and thus boosting book sales).

Of course, stereotypical Asian parents are more strict than stereotypical Western parents. No one denies this. But Mrs Chua's sensationalist characterization is so extreme it borders on the absurd. To pigeonhole all model Asian parents into Mrs Chua's caricature is very misleading. And even should some Asian parents mirror Mrs Chua's description (and these people do exist), it is folly to think that the children are always better off having received such an upbringing.

Take my upbringing, for instance. It is true that, as a child, my parents often criticized my work and were generally dismissive of my accomplishments. If I succeeded, it was to be expected. If I failed, it was a disappointment. Sure, they had high expectations. But I still participated in my share of school plays. My mom still picked me up from after-school rehearsals. I still sang in a choir for thirteen years. And even though my parents thought such activities were mostly a waste of time, they also recognized that childhoods are fleeting. In fact, over the years, their opinions have slowly changed to the point where they now value the fact that I participated in so many extra-curricular activities. Some of my proudest moments include performing in front of my family.

I most certainly agree that strong parenting should include an element of "tough love" and setting high expectations for success. That is basically the philosophy that Mrs Chua is advocating if one overlooks the overly controlling manner in which she executes this philosophy (at least by her description).

But I also think that true success must come from within. People of all ages find the greatest satisfaction when they are inspired to work hard and succeed. The real reason I was motivated to work hard was not because my parents shamed me by telling me that I was garbage whenever I did not wholly succeed. There are two real reasons. First, I was surrounded by friends and teachers who encouraged me to tap into my imagination. Second, my parents are inspiring people in their own right.

Despite all the childhood angst I endured, I love and look up to my parents. As first generation immigrants, they found the strength to thrive and provide for their family, when many with lesser willpower would not have succeeded in their situations. That is true inspiration.

And of course, when the worst side of Asian parenting becomes too oppressive, then one runs the risk of sad endings.

In Remembrance.


Mathieu said...

I wonder if the situation isn't a bit different in China, because of the one child policy. From what I saw, the parents looked quite permissive with their child.

Yisong Yue said...

From what I've seen, parenting runs the entire gamut in China. But it is definitely true that many children are spoiled due to the one child policy.

Vivian said...

I wrote a much more eloquent response earlier, but lost it. :( Here is what I can recount:

I just finished reading the book yesterday! I also know a lot of people who are interested in reading this book but don't want to buy it, so I figured I would pass it around. Come visit us, and I will lend it to you!

After reading the book, I think the WSJ article pretty much hit the highlights, but I think it was missing an important part which explained why she chose to use "Chinese" parenting in the first place. I don't agree with her obsessive and controlling parenting style (I was not brought up this way by my Chinese parents.) And as you say, the book sensationalizes and somewhat over-simplifies her parenting methods. However, I could identify with her desire to instill strong work ethic and determination in her kids. To her credit, she actually states that it is more an immigrant thing than a "Chinese" thing. (I feel the use of "Chinese" is really just for the sake of simplicity/marketing.) I can relate to that because I don't want those values to be lost on my kids just because they will be more "Americanized" by default. Reading this book made me really think about how I want to raise my kids, and it made me appreciate my parents for still teaching me those "immigrant" values without being so extreme.

Yisong Yue said...

I figured that was the case. I guess I expected better from a Yale law professor.

Vivian said...

It's probably because she IS a Yale law professor (and has 2 Harvard degrees, and a bunch of other crazy over-achieving things on her resume) that she wrote this book. She already has the best education, a well-respected career. Why not add big-giant-book-deal-that-makes-her-famous to her credentials? I don't think she would have gotten a big giant book deal by being a softy.

Yisong Yue said...

I guess, but she also didn't have to willfully misrepresent the situation to such an egregious degree. I am disappointed with her choice of wording.

Belinda said...

Can I just point out that you don't need to buy it to read it. The Carnegie Library has at least one copy (that is currently in my house right now and about to be returned this weekend). You just need to show proof of residence (aka 2 pieces of mail) to get a card and actually when I was a student, I think just a CMU id was enough... but it's been too long.

Sure she's definitely more strict than my parents ever were but she does hit some key points. Not to mention, I am aware of many parents who were just as strict as Ms. Chua. To her credit - in the end, she does conclude that writing the book was therapeutic, which is definitely what she calls "Western". She also talks about how she had to change for her younger daughter.

Don't judge the book by the press. I must say, the press has certainly made the book #1 on the NYTimes Best Seller list, so kudos to the marketing team...

elsutton said...

Yisong and Vivian,

You seem to be using your own lives and parents as examples/counter-examples that prove/disprove elements of the book.

In particular, Yisong, it seems like you assume as the basis of your argument that you turned out "right." Not everyone would agree with this assumption.

Vivian, while your work ethic is strong, it could always be stronger, or maybe it is too strong.

In short, I do not think we can agree on what traits are "good" and what traits are "bad," especially because we cannot understand how some traits affect other traits. There are other important traits that seem to be taking the back seat in this discussion: humility, spirituality, physical fitness, sense of humor, and empathy.

My post is intended to add more than cynicism, though, so I will get to the point. Perhaps parents who are forced to "make it on their own" or "branch out" from their parents are more prepared to teach their children how to make it on their own and branch out. This trait would certainly be common to most immigrants. This trait is also common to many non-immigrants who didn't adopt their parents' way of life.

Although children who are better prepared to "make it on their own" are probably more likely to hold gainful positions and attain wealth, that still leaves the question of whether making it on your own (not relying mostly on your parents) is a desirable trait. Children with a strong reliance on their parents have a different type of bond with their parents, and I am not prepared to say that this bond is less (or more) valuable than the type of bond between parents and independent children.

Yisong Yue said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for your comments. I agree with you for the most part. However, I actually think it's totally legitimate to use my own upbringing to disprove elements of the book, because she's making such broad-sweeping statements.

I've also seen the damage that overly-oppressive parenting can cause from my other Asian friends. I don't believe that Mrs Chua is doing this with her children, but the way she represents her position most certainly encompasses what I deem overly oppressive parenting behavior.

I am not taking issue with her parenting, which I have little opinion about because I'm not taking everything she writes at face value. I am taking issue with how she markets and represents it.

This is in part because, as a professor, she has a professional responsibility to teach open-minded thinking and encourage clarity of thought. I believe this responsibility extends beyond the classroom, so I find the way she sensationalizes her parenting behavior to be irresponsible.

elsutton said...

Thanks, Yisong. I agree that there are some very dangerous assumptions being made in her book. I just wanted to bring to light that some of the most dangerous assumptions are those that assume which behaviors are favorable and which behaviors are not favorable. Even if we could model human behavior, through parenting styles, to maximize income, I do not think that the result would be "optimal."