Friday, January 21, 2011

Are Chinese Mothers Superior?

Are Chinese Mothers Superior?
The Wall Street Journal recently published an excerpt from a new book  (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) by Amy Chua, (Yale Law Professor, Harvard Law grad (cum laude), writer and apparently a very intelligent person) that seemed to answer yes to that question.  When I read the article I thought it was a satire but it wasn’t.  I couldn’t imagine the Wall Street Journal or any other mainstream publication publishing anything that apparently endorsed the superiority of Caucasian/Black/Latino mothers.

To be fair both in the article and especially after publication Chua was careful to parse her words just enough to not endorse a generalized belief in the absolute superiority of every Chinese mother or suggest that there weren’t demanding no-nonsense mothers to be found in every group. She stated that she would not have chosen the title for the Wall Street Journal excerpt and that her book details a journey from one place to another, where she becomes a different kind of parent.  Chua explains

Still there is more than a hint of ethnic chauvinism or to be more precise, gender based ethnic chauvinism that runs throughout the excerpts shown.

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

There are stereotypes about every group on the planet.  Is it acceptable if one group endorses the positive stereotypes about itself?  Honestly I think everyone does that in private sometimes.
What was not mentioned in the piece but does deserve some scrutiny is the higher than average suicide rates of Asian-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Chinese in general. Asian American women age 15-24 have the highest suicide rate  among all ethnic groups. Not surprisingly there are also higher rates of depression among both Chinese Americans and Asian Americans.
Still there is no direct causal evidence that the extreme parenting styles used at one time by Chua are behind those somber statistics. It’s just conjecture on my part.  I can’t imagine growing up with a parent who would never let me choose my own activities or who forced me to play the piano or violin (and only the piano or violin).  I’m not sure Chua is typical even among Chinese mothers.  I do like the idea of demanding the best from your children. I don’t think you do that by tyrannizing them, threatening to throw away or burn their toys or insisting that they only play a particular Western instrument and a particular Western music style.  

Is this sort of style one that you could use if you are or intend to become a parent?  Do the higher academic achievement rates of Chinese-Americans justify the Chua tactics? If your parent never allowed you to attend a sleepover or choose your own activities would you harbor any resentment?  Is this no big deal as every group is secretly convinced they are superior in some fashion or another?
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