East Meets West

In Canada, Celebrity Obsessions, Peanut, Tolkien on January 17, 2011 at 9:38 pm

It was the hoopla I heard about first.  The Wall Street Journal‘s excerpt from an upcoming book by Amy Chua that they headlined “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” really hit a blogospheric nerve, didn’t it?  It was actually the overwhelming, extremely polarized response that made me interested in reading the original article itself. 

I feel qualified to comment on this because I am the daughter of Asian (though not Chinese) parents.  And I have to say, as uncool as it is, I basically agree with Amy Chua.  Not entirely; of course I don’t think it’s OK to call your children garbage or to deny them bathroom breaks.  But her point — that Chinese (the term is used loosely since it can apply to parents of any culture) parents put in far more work hours to parenting than Western (again, term used loosely) parents do — hits home to me because Peanut is reaching the age where I have started to question my own parenting work ethic.  For example, our response to her gradually emerging temper tantrums.  Because she’s strong-willed, Tolkien and I have long said amongst ourselves that we will have to be very firm about teaching her obedience and good manners.  Who wants to look back and realize they raised a brat?  But now that this stage is starting to become a reality, I can see that it may be quite difficult to put our principles into practice.  We decided that when P flings herself on the floor screaming in outrage at a perceived slight, we will calmly leave the room until she stops.  This has worked for mild tantrums; once she looks up to gauge our reaction and realizes she has no audience, she turns the drama off immediately (amazing how that happens) and comes toddling to find us.  However, this weekend she threw a much longer tantrum that did not resolve with our usual response.  And after ten minutes of screaming and sobbing so hard she could barely breathe, we just picked her up.  Now, it felt like we were being loving.  But I couldn’t help wondering if we were actually being lazy.  Discipline is hard, but truly loving parents do it.  And if we give in to her,  perhaps it’s because we’re not willing to put in the work required of us, perhaps it’s because it’s easier than letting her scream, and perhaps we’re not thinking of her best interests.  And then I started thinking of my friends with much older children who put in 3-4 hours of homework assistance a night and who relearn calculus themselves so they can teach it to their kids when the local high school’s math teacher isn’t cutting it and I get very tired, because dude, I didn’t like calculus when I was the one taking it, why do I have to go through all that nonsense again?  But then why should Peanut’s calc grade suffer because I’d rather watch HGTV than be a diligent teacher?

So it was with that background that I read the Chua excerpt.  And, thinking back to how my parents raised me, I think she has a good point.  “Chinese”-category parents demand and expect excellence while “Western”-category parents think, you know, excellence is cool, but what’s really important is that you have fun and have good self-esteem.  While “Chinese” parents are demanding, they also put in thousands of hours of personal sacrifice (her example is drilling kids in math and the piano) to help their children get there.  My parents were not anywhere near as psychotic as her examples, but they definitely did expect academic excellence, and they definitely did sacrifice years of their lives for us.  I have many memories of my dad going over pages and pages of math problems with me in the evenings; my parents driving me constantly to lessons, the library, competitions and performances; my parents reading and re-reading drafts of my short stories; the mutual understanding that doing excellently in school was my number-one job.

The difference for me was that I was naturally an anxious, perfectionistic kid, the kind who freaked out entirely of her own accord if she didn’t get straight A’s or made a mistake of any kind.  No joke, when I was 8 years old I used to lie in bed at night worrying about the national economy.  Because they had a kid like that, my parents very wisely recognized that their job was to bring me back down to earth by constantly telling me that I didn’t have to be the best, that all I had to do was do my best, and perfection didn’t matter.  And thank God for that, because if I’d had the Amy Chua parenting method on top of my personality I would have ended up in an institution.  As well, Baby Howie and I were encouraged to participate in extracurriculars (my utter absence of athletic ability and the fact that sports teams usually want to, you know, win was the only reason I never played sports.)  My mom had a special gift for realizing how important fitting in can be, and wanted us to be socially adept; therefore we were allowed to attend parties and sleepovers, though far less often than our Western friends were.  And my parents never, ever called us names or told us we were worthless.  We always knew we were loved (though I guess Amy Chua would argue her daughters do, too.)  Clearly, any strict (compared to the West) parenting style must be accompanied by a copious amount of love, kind words, snuggles and laughter.

But with those caveats … I still think Amy Chua is largely correct.  It has always mystified, if not irritated, me to see how excessively important sports are in American school life.  Since when did athletics supersede academics as the primary focus of a student’s energy?  With the amount of time your average U.S. high schooler devotes to sports and a social life, it’s no wonder Western kids are falling behind other kids around the world.  Interestingly, this seems to be a uniquely American rather than Western phenomenon, as I did not find this lack of academic focus to be the case when I was growing up in the Canadian school system.  School is for school, people.  And you can’t expect teachers to do it all, either.  Parents have to be willing to push education hard at home as well, though exactly what form that takes in all cases I’m not sure.  I wonder if I have that stamina.  Chua also made an interesting point when stating that nothing is fun until you’re good at it, and children naturally don’t want to put in the work to get good at things.  I think she’s right.  However, the thought of wrestling a screaming Peanut into practicing the piano or doing multiplication tables is not tremendously palatable.  Yet … I think that is our job.

When I have my doubts about the “Chinese” style, I have only to re-read this absurd blog post by actress Elisabeth Rohm and I am re-convinced.  (I am a celebrity trivia nut, and I don’t have any clear idea who Elisabeth Rohm is.  Ms. Elisabeth Rohm, I think that’s a bad sign.  For you.)  This is a People magazine celebrity mom blog entry (the most embarrassing part of this sentence is that I am publicly admitting to having read a People magazine celebrity mom blog entry. )  Anyway, I thought it was ridiculous before I even read the WSJ article, and now doubly so.  To me, it’s a caricature of everything that stereotypes say is wrong with Western parenting, and I’m a Westerner as well as Asian, so I take offense.  When her daughter — “intentionally”, I might add– hits her in the face, her response is to tell her how sweet and kind she is?  I realize it’s part of an effort to motivate the child to behave better, but really, you have got to be kidding me.  What on earth is wrong with saying “You are not allowed to do that”?  Or “You never hit your mother — or anyone else”?  Or, you know, “No”?  The psycho-babble is particularly impressive.  “Non-reactive parenting”?  What, exactly, is wrong with reacting?  I’m pretty sure that a swift reaction gets kids’ attention.  Not reacting swiftly would tell me, at least, that the non-reactor was under some kind of heavy sedation.

So … on the spectrum of parenting between Amy Chua and Elisabeth Rohm (oh, she’s on Law and Order!  Got it!), I want to be closer to the Amy Chua end, with a healthy dose of loving kindness and humour.  Much like my parents were and are.  Time will tell whether we are able to do as good a job for Peanut.  Tell her what, I’ll let her keep her dollhouse.  Just as long as she gets straight A’s and goes to Harvard.

I’m kidding!  Yale would probably be OK too.

  1. Oh, Much, this was another great post. I’ve heard a little about this Amy Chua controversy, but haven’t felt invested enough to learn more about it myself. I can relate to your experience of growing up as a perfectionistic kid with parents whose #1 priority was my (and later my siblings’) education. When I was learning how to read, dad would make me read aloud and start at the beginning when I inevitably messed up. (The perfectionistic apple doesn’t fall far from the perfectionistic tree.) Still, my parents’ high expectations for me, I’m sure, led me to expect more from myself. There is the potential for disappointments if the expectations aren’t met, but there’s also the implicit incentive to feel confident that one may just be capable of greatness. (I am getting cheesy.) Like you, I am grateful to my parents, recognizing that everything they did was motivated by love. I think you and T will find that the “whats” of parenting aren’t as important as the “whys”–that is, that how exactly you handle a tantrum doesn’t matter as much as Peanut’s experiencing the immense love and goodness that make you wonderful parents (and friends!). (Ugh…getting cheesy again.) It baffles me how critical people can be of others’ parenting styles, but I guess I will someday be critical of my own, since, you know, raising a kid is important.

    This is a really long comment where all meant to say was: thanks for sharing, and you’re awesome.

  2. Dear Much,
    I really enjoyed your post.

    I read Amy Chua’s article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” in the WSJ last week and I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading her book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and I hope I enjoy it as much.

    I agree with Ms. Chua’s thoughts. First, I agree that nothing is really fun until you are good at it so and that “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence”. Second, I agree that parents who are overly concerned with their children’s self-esteem may tip-toe around the truth so that real issues are never addressed. I also believe that many immigrant parents sacrificed very comfortable lives in hopes of providing a better future for their children in North America, so children of immigrant parents do owe their parents for the opportunities they have. Finally, I do believe that good parents know what is best for their children and so I think it is quite acceptable that this knowledge overrides all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

    I look forward to reading what your readers think about the article and your blog post.


    • Thanks for reading Leena! I definitely agree — it’s not something I had ever consciously realized before, but we children of immigrant parents absolutely do owe them for giving up their established lives to start all over from scratch. Because they did that, we don’t have to, and we can live our adult lives on the same continent where we grew up. I know what a blessing it’s been to have my parents fairly nearby since we had a baby, and it’s so sad to me that they didn’t have their parents nearby when we were kids. You’ll have to give me your full review of “The Battle Hymn” when you’re done! Lots of love!

  3. I am 1000% with you contra that Rohm asininity. You know what really grinds my gears? Jellyfish parents that let their kids get away with murder! Wouldn’t want Madison (what I imagine such people name their progeny)’s psyche to be damaged by a little disapproval…”Oh honey it’s simply splendid that you shot at the cops, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine?”

  4. I agree with everything except the sports, and here is why. There is a 1 in a million chance that our daughter will have any athletic ability given our collective gene pool, and if she does, another 1 in a million chance that she will be good enough to get a scholarship to a mediacore state school. However, given that college tuitions are likely to be high enough as to be measured as a percentage of the GDP by the time she turns 18, I think it is totally worth the sacrifice. Thus, we will be skipping mandatory “SAT math prep hour” after school in favor of shuttle runs and steeple chases. Since Amy Chua says Asians are better at math, this should make perfect sense to you and our half-asian daughter.

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