Jonathan Liu, a Core Contributor to our companion blog GeekDad, offered to share his thoughts with GeekMom readers about a topic that hit close to home for him:
Over the weekend, I was pointed to an article from the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” And over the course of the day and the rest of the weekend, I saw more and more references to the author Amy Chua and her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, mostly from Asian-American parent bloggers, and almost all harsh criticisms of the article, of the “Chinese mothering” espoused and of Chua herself.
As a Chinese stay-at-home daddy blogger who was raised by two immigrant parents, I felt almost obligated to weigh in on the matter. If I hadn’t already been busy writing about stay-at-home parenting backlash I probably would have dashed off a response. As it was, I’ve had a little more time to process it since my initial reading.
First, here’s the gist of the article, in case you haven’t read it already: You want to know why Chinese kids are so stereotypically successful? Because of Chinese mothers. Amy Chua raised her two daughters with lots of restrictions, incredible pressures and using techniques that I imagine many parents would consider abuse. She uses the term “Chinese mother” to mean a particular type of parenting, admitting that not all Chinese moms adhere to this practice and that many non-Chinese moms do. It’s about tough love, high expectations, total control.
Many commenters and bloggers–in fact, the vast majority of the ones I’ve read–are aghast. Some are appalled at Chua’s parenting techniques and the potential damage it could cause to children who are raised this way. Others are angry because they have no desire to be lumped into Chua’s “Chinese mothers” categorization and feel that the Wall Street Journal is simply perpetuating harmful stereotypes. I’ve seen quite a lot of hateful language directed at Chua.
My own reaction is a little more complicated, and not something I felt I could sum up in 140 characters for a tweet. While I don’t endorse the method of parenting portrayed in the article, I also found some truth in it and couldn’t simply condemn Chua either.
Yes, I was shocked at the example Chua gave, a “story in favor of coercion” in which she forced her daughter to stay at the piano until she mastered a particular piece, not even allowing her to get up to use the bathroom. Yes, I agree that calling your daughter “fatty” or “garbage” is reprehensible and that Chua comes off as a tremendous bully. Yes, I feel that there is more to success than going to Harvard or Yale and performing in Carnegie Hall.
But here’s what else I saw: the acknowledgment that the reason so many Asian kids seem to excel in academics has little to do with genetics and a whole lot to do with practice and culture. As recently as this winter I’ve had conversations about how “Asians are just good at math,” and I had a hard time convincing some that the “model minority” stereotype can be a harmful one. Not only can it discourage non-Asians who believe they didn’t win some genetic lottery, It places an unfair burden on Asian kids who are expected to behave and perform a certain way. Chua credits her children’s success to the parenting techniques and not to some inborn abilities. I think there is some truth to the Eastern idea of “practice makes perfect”–as supported by the “10,000 hours” theory of genius–compared to the Western idea of innate talent. (I don’t deny there is such a thing as talent or prodigies, but I also believe that practice goes a long way toward developing those early aptitudes.)
That said, I have my disagreements with Chua. The biggest one isn’t whether or not severe parenting produces high-performing children: while I don’t think it will work universally, I think it’s fair to say that it has been proven effective in many cases. The deeper issue is how we think about “success” when it comes to our children–or more importantly, when it comes to our parenting. For Chua (and many parents, Chinese or Western), it seems that she feels her children’s behavior is a direct reflection of her parenting skills. Thus, if her daughter plays the piano well, she is a better parent. Also, Chua’s opinion on what constitutes success is quite stereotypical: academic achievement, musical excellence. Excelling at sports is seen as unimpressive, and school plays are completely laughable. Emotional maturity and personal passions? Forget it. The true measure of success here is “math whizzes and music prodigies.”
Here’s my own story. My parents are both immigrants to the U.S., and they raised me and my siblings fairly strictly, but with the encouragement for each of us to pursue our own interests. We were expected to study hard but we weren’t whipped for Bs. (Neither were we given monetary rewards for straight As.) We took piano and violin lessons because we asked for them, not because our parents forced them upon us. Though, having started, our parents wouldn’t let us just quit taking lessons simply because we were tired of practicing–they required a good reason. We were required to speak Chinese when we were at home, which irritated us as kids but has been a blessing for us as adults. My parents didn’t force me toward law school or med school, and while it was a bit strange for them to accept the idea of me becoming a stay-at-home dad, they’ve been supportive of me regardless. According to Chua’s article, my parents were not Chinese parents. Maybe that’s why we haven’t accomplished the sorts of things that Chua considers successful. But my parents are okay with that, and so am I.
This Monday I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion with many other Asian American parents, hosted by Jeff Yang of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Asian Pop column. Though all the participants were Asian American, we ran the gamut from first-generation to fifth-generation. Some were raised by Caucasian parents, one had a rebelling-against-tiger-mom hippie mom, some related experiences that made Chua seem tame in comparison. It was enlightening, to hear of the vastly different ways that we had been raised, but the common thread was that nobody endorsed the extreme “tiger mothering” reported in the article. Do a search for “Amy Chua” or “Chinese mothers” and you’re bound to turn up story after story of Asian Americans who are still reeling from the effects of this sort of parenting–or stories of siblings who committed suicide because of it. One participant in the phone call remarked that it felt like group therapy, being able to air these issues with each other.
I also learned, though, that the Wall Street Journal article doesn’t tell the whole story. I suppose by now that should come as no surprise. Yang shared that he had actually picked up the book and read the entire thing, and that the article does her a disservice–the particular excerpts used for the article, the headline (not chosen by Chua), and the way it was presented all paint a very one-sided picture of this self-proclaimed “tiger mother.” But what’s left out in the article, according to Yang, is a lot of self-deprecation, confession, and the uncertainty that all of us feel as parents about how best to raise our kids. Yes, Chua is an extreme example of Chinese mothering, but the book is apparently more nuanced, more of a memoir and less of a how-to.
Of course, the article will sell books. We already know it generated buzz–as of this writing it had already generated over 2800 comments. I’m sure the collected responses to that single article have already surpassed the word count of the book itself many times over.
In the end, here is my hope: that parents, Asian or not, would take the time to consider what constitutes success. That we raise our kids as best we can, remembering that our self-worth isn’t based on their performance, academic or otherwise. That our kids would know that we love them, by our words and our actions. That our kids would dream big and reach far, not because we’ve forced them to but because we’ve given them courage and confidence instead of a fear of failure.
And, hey, while I’m at it, I hope that we would learn not to judge a book by its cover (or cover story), and learn to tell the whole story instead of just the one that sells.
Jonathan Liu is a stay-at-home dad, Etch-a-Sketch artist, community agitator, board game geek, and a voracious reader.