"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thoughts on Tiger Mothers

I’ve enjoyed the recent discussion about Chinese parenting, spurred on by Amy Chua’s new book. If you haven’t heard much about it, check out this article from the Wall Street Journal: “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” I’d say try to read it with an open mind. Or maybe read it with your regular mind, then re-read it with an open mind.

While not yet a parent, I do plan on becoming one at some point; that’s one part of the intrigue of the article for me. But I think on a more emotional level, the article takes me back to some of the discomfort I felt in China last year regarding approaches to parenting.

The article is meant to be provocative, and it is. It actually provides some good critiques of American parenting, addressing values such as self-esteem and freedom of choice/expression/path. There’s a lot that may be agitating to an American reader here, especially her advocacy for a high amount of restrictions, shaming children into success, and near-complete dictation of children’s interests and time commitments.

This mindset to some degree informed the way I encouraged my students in China. I did have to be careful, because it was and is a challenge to recognize my cultural biases and discern what is simply different from what I believe is actually unhealthy. For example, I encountered a lot of students who were very open about their greatest ambition: to be rich. You’re not supposed to admit that all you care about is money, right? In China, it simply seemed to make sense to them. You work hard to become successful to make money.

But to their credit, this motivation for money-making may reflect China’s more collectivist worldview. I imagine many students wanted to make money because they know that’s what keeps the system going—that’s how they’ll provide for their families, that’s how they’ll contribute to society. I don’t want to deny that there is greed at work here, and that money is a widespread idol that won’t truly bring my students fulfillment. But it’s also tied in with more respectable realities, such as China’s “filial piety” culture.

So I would guess part of the reason Chinese parents generally (trying to avoid stereotyping) are stricter with their children is motivated by love as well as the nature of Chinese society: they believe that their child’s happiness and well-being is dependent on children excelling at something and thus becoming successful and making a lot of money—an excellence that will only come from intense pressure, discipline, and guidance from the parents.

Not to mention the parents’ well-being, since most children are expected to provide for their parents. That, combined with China’s honor culture, makes me sympathize with their situation. If your well-being and sense of honor is heavily dependent on your child’s success, then wouldn’t it be hard to not be harsh, controlling, and demanding of your children rather than giving them the space to fail, go at their own pace, let them express themselves, "find" themselves like we do in America?

I think Chinese parents who operate like Chua describes in her article truly believe they’re doing the right thing. But I also think a person can be motivated by love but express that love in a poor way. Is that fair to say? I can feel love toward someone, adore them, think highly of them, but the actual ways that I choose to express that love might be unhelpful, destructive, or ineffective. The problem is not in my feelings toward someone, but in my methods, the expressions of that love. I think a bit of open-minded, self-criticism can be a good thing when it comes to the ways we actively love those around us.

And I think that’s the problem I have with what I saw in China. It was a challenge not to be judgmental of what I witnessed in the lives and stories of my students. It was easy to think of myself as a sort of John Keating, trying to help my Chinese students and friends “seize the day” rather than follow a prescribed path set out for them. Just because a parent determines a career for you doesn’t mean it’s fitting for you.

I try to hold nature and nurture in tension; I recognize some of us may be predisposed toward certain interests and skills, but that to some extent those interests and skills can be chosen by us (or our parents). And I also hold in tension young people’s free will and their incapability of choice (in other words, do children really know what’s best for themselves?).

I think the underlying assumption of Chua’s style of parenting is that children don’t know what’s best for them, and need to have their decisions made for them. I suppose balance is key here, as in many things: a parenting style that recognizes children’s naivety while also respecting their individuality and freedom.

Maybe our American emphasis on self-esteem and self-discovery has the potential to instill negative tendencies in children, such as a strong sense of entitlement, indifference to the greater good of society, a poor work ethic, or maybe even a kind of psychological/emotional dependency on constant praise and validation. But the dangers of opposite emphases are there too, as I encountered in China.

I encountered what I believe are tragic byproducts of the pressure placed on students by parents: students miserable with their major, chosen for them by parents; stories of student suicides related to poor grades and fear of parent reaction; students skilled in memorization and repetition but less in creative and critical thinking; a physically-abused female student unwilling to tell her parents for fear of being blamed and shamed; students feeling insecure about weight and appearance aided by their parents’ bluntness in calling them “fat;” female students affected in different ways by their parents’ disappointment at not having a boy; the way students were sheltered from such things as sexuality, which—while motivated by a desire to keep their children pure and focused—for many seemed to just lead to later mistakes due to ignorance about sexuality; and a general lack of self-confidence and fear of standing out or looking silly.

Some of my critiques here are admittedly reflective of my bias, which was part of the challenge—wrestling with what was wrong versus what was just different.

But the other important factor for me is that I’m a Christian. And thus I believe that my conclusions about appropriate parenting should be informed by my Christian convictions. Through these lenses, I find it really hard to see the goodness in the kind of parenting Chua is describing. Part of this is because the “ends” of Chua’s parenting and the ends of the Christian life are different, I think. Chua wants her kids to be successful, and seems to believe that such success will bring happiness.

A parent of a student I visited with last year in China told me the most important thing to him in life was money. When you have money, he said, then you are free to do what you want and are in greater control of your life. But the goals of the Christian life are not success, control, spending power. Even if an individual is “successful,” or if an entire country is successful, does that mean they are truly better off, in God’s economy of what it means to be well-off or blessed? This is the question I have to ask if I’m to be faithful to my religious convictions.

Anyway… read the article. Those of you who are parents or even psychologists might be better able to speak to this issue than me. I'm no parenting expert (though, Mom and Dad, I know you guys nailed it, nice work...wait, that sounds like an indirect self-compliment, doesn't it?). I’m curious to know how others respond to what Chua has to say—with repulsion? Sympathy? With self-criticism of your own parenting? More confidence in your own parenting? Feedback welcome.


~Traci Emerson~ said...

"Maybe our American emphasis on self-esteem and self-discovery has the potential to instill negative tendencies in children, such as a strong sense of entitlement, indifference to the greater good of society, a poor work ethic, or maybe even a kind of psychological/emotional dependency on constant praise and validation. But the dangers of opposite emphases are there too, as I encountered in China."

Wow. I really appreciate the thoughts that you're articulating here. I can appreciate them even more as I myself am currently living in a different culture. I teach young children in a public school here in France and many of these same observations have hit me, albeit with slightly different nuances due to the fact that it's Paris and not China. :) Thanks for what you have to say, I resonate. Also, did I miss the link to the article?

Matt Boswell said...

Click on "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" in the first paragraph of my post. Sorry for the confusion!

Thanks for sharing Traci. I'm curious to know where France falls on the spectrum.

Brad Tricola said...

Matthew, great post. I read the Article in Time Magazine called The Truth about Tiger Moms. I had many of the same reactions. Especially a kind of so what if my kids are not "successful." I'm sure if I wanted to emotionally cripple my children into being superior mathletes or violin virtuosos... I probably could. But it was an interesting article that got me to think.