If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a good, long look at the article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which appeared last Sunday in the WSJ by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor. The piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, describes Chinese parenting techniques in relation to those of “Western parents.” Chua cites her personal experiences with her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, and all the activities she doesn’t allow them to do– like “have a playdate” or “choose their own extracurricular activities.” Sound familiar? If you grew up in a desi household, it probably does. And Chua’s recollection of a particular situation, where her seven-year old daughter Lulu had trouble learning a difficult piano piece, may also strike a chord, no pun intended:
I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and 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, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Now, I consider my own mother to be a very good mother. Edit. I consider my mother to be an excellent mother. As a childhood elementary education major, my mother could be quite rigid when it came to rules, but she gave us siblings room to pursue our own interests. As long as I pulled in semi-respectable grades, I was free to audition for the school play, write for the school paper, etc. But as I read Chua’s piece, particularly the piano piece story, I instantly recalled the time when I was a nine-year old struggling with fractions and my mother, who home-schooled us, might as well have been a “Chinese parent.” Perhaps my mother was particularly frustrated or stressed that day, but my failure to comprehend adding and subtracting fractions turned her into a banshee. She yelled. She screamed. She threatened. She beat. And sobbing, I spent the entire day by her side, learning fractions. Like Lulu, I did finally make that breakthrough. I learned how to add and subtract fractions. I got it. But 16 years later, if I find myself in the slightest bit of a stressful situation involving numbers, I still freeze. Even though I’ve actually taught math to high school students, if you ask me calculate tip at a crowded table with a waiter hovering over my shoulder, I start to stutter and fumble. My heart races. I feel my hands start to shake. I’ve gotten better at controlling my nervousness when confronted with numbers, but it’s never going to go away.
Chua describes her story as a win for Chinese parenting:
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.
And no doubt many of you appreciate your parents for pushing you into learning the basics necessary for your academic and professional success. I’ve heard any number of desi folks tell me, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If my mother/father hadn’t beat learning into me, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.” But they go on to ask, “But at what cost?” Chua mocks Western notions of self-esteem in relation to children, but I refuse to believe that bullying and browbeating a child promotes a healthy intellectual curiosity. Sure, Chua is right in saying that children of a certain age may need to be persuaded to accomplish certain milestones. But I worry about parents who can only accomplish this through threats or bribes–which Chua apparently promotes. And Chua never mentions the beatings that usually accompany such disciplining. Many were the times that I saw my Asian peers get thrashed by their parents for failing to produce less than perfect results. I’m not anti-corporal punishment, per se, but parents with Chua’s mindset often teeter over the border between abuse and discipline.
I hope some of you parents and parents-to be will join me in condemning this kind of parenting. I love my parents, I do. And I know that compared with the kinds of punishments they and their classmates received in Pakistan, their way of raising us was relatively tame. But I’d never even considering using the shaming, belittling methods spelled out by Chua and used in so many desi households. And I’m sure neither would most of you.
Note: Thanks to Nila for editing this post.
UPDATED: Take a look at this great piece from Slate that emphasizes that Amy Chua’s parenting techniques represent one kind of “Chinese mother.”