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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tiger Mother -- What Does It Take?

Amy Chua, Professor of Law at Yale Law School relates, "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."
(Amy Chua, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011)

In her article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," Chua states that Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents qualify as "Chinese mothers," too. Yet, she claims some mothers of Chinese heritage, nearly always born in the West, aren't "Chinese mothers" by choice or otherwise. She claims to use the term "Western parents" loosely.

Chua believes most Western parents who claim they are strict with their children really aren't. She believes proper emphasis on child development is crucial and requires hard work, and most Western parents don't enforce this. For example, she tells of a study that shows Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children while Western children are more likely to participate on sports teams. She reports that "tons of studies" show marked differences between Chinese and Westerners in methods of child rearing.

One study Chua cites claims "of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job."

Chua says Chinese parents understand "nothing is fun until you get good at it." She claims Western parents tend to give up when a child begins a difficult learning activity (math, piano, pitching) when they should have fortitude to overcome the child's preference not to work. She believes beginning to learn a difficult assignment is the most crucial time for parents to encourage continuance because the challenge for the child is the hardest then.

Chua believes once a child begins to excel at something through rote, repeated practice and is rewarded with praise and satisfaction, the child builds self-confidence and eventually this confidence makes the activity "fun." Chua calls the process a "virtuous circle." 

Chua says Westerners believe some of the things that Chinese parents can do to their children is totally unimaginable, even illegal. For instance, Chua states, "Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty—lose some weight.' By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of 'health' and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image." (Amy Chou, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011)

Chua says Chinese parents can successfully use harsh reinforcement such as to call their children "lazy" or to demand the children get straight A's in school. In contrast Western parents are left struggling with conflicted feelings about their children's poor achievement. So, according to Chua, how do Chinese parents get away with it?

1. Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem, their children's psyches, while Chinese parents assume the children's "strength not fragility."

2. Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents for the parents' long hours of sacrifice and caretaking by obeying them and making them proud. In the Western parents' mindset, "children don't choose their parents so kids don't owe their parents anything.

3. Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences (even though they do care tremendously for their children).

Chua says that the distaste people have for child-rearing methods used by either Chinese parents or Western parents is a misunderstanding. Both sides want the child to become the best possible product, but the methods used are vastly different.

Chua concludes:

"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." (Amy Chua, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011)

Personal Conclusions

Having been a high school teacher for decades and a father of four, I see Amy Chua's article as an interesting insight into American parents' desires and actions for their children. Of course, in the Western view, strict Chinese parenting could lead to a child's deep psychological and emotion distress, even suicide. But these days, so many Western parents face criticism for complete lack of control of their children. Many, many times I have held conferences with distressed parents who claim they cannot control their youth at all. Just as many times I have been witness to undisciplined, "wild child" children suffer, even die.

To me, many of Chua's restrictions on her daughters were insensitive. If the children were that smart and that adjusted, it seems cruel to prevent them from participating in such things as social and school events.I wonder how they ever interacted with others.

To be callous or cruel toward children is wrong. Still, the older generation remembers many situations in their past that required their parents' immediate, strong-handed action. Face it, our parents, in most cases, were much more demanding of our good behavior. Add to that, this discipline is often cited as something now sorely missing from many parents' homes. Teachers say it; much research supports it. Schools complain that they simply are not allowed to discipline properly and point accusing fingers at indifferent parents.

Could Chua be convinced that a degree of balance could be reached with Western and Chinese parenting methods? I love to see children excel, and I know the hard work required by those who help them on the road to excellence. To let students lazily drift through their studies nets mediocre results.When I taught, I used lessons that required extension and built independence. I believed that preparation for the future was essential. It was a very difficult job. Still, I am not naive enough to believe the methods and mindset of Chinese education will ever become those of American education.

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