Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ancient Chinese secret?

I am reproducing here a few comments that I made on Facebook in response to a friend posting this article: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

Written by a professor at Yale Law School who is publishing a book about parenting, the article is (in my opinion) rather self-congratulating about a parenting style that another friend described as "quite pushy and hyper competitive."

As a parenthropologist, it took me effort to give benefit of the doubt and try to read past author Amy Chua's Western-versus-Chinese contrast to see what else she might be saying.

For me, parenting, in addition to its joys, is about humbling moments and continual soul searching. So, reflecting on how you were parented yourself seems a productive place to begin.

Personally, I have thought a lot about what I feel my parents (and admittedly, this means primarily my mother, which is itself worth further commenting upon...) did quite well, and what I now make efforts to do rather differently. It is true that I sometimes think about these differences in terms of culture. (Chua's parents immigrated from China - my parents from Korea.)

At the same time, I think it also matters that parents raise kids at particular historical moments. So, it is not just "cultural" differences that account for different priorities or practices for parents.

Clearly, at this particular historical moment, parents in the United States are faced with a lot of anxiety about raising children.

The problem, I suggest, is not that American parents are not doing a good enough job. It is that we are having to do our best under conditions that continually undermine our efforts. As anyone with kids will tell you: This is not a family-friendly society.

Re: Chua. The point that continues to stick in my craw is the continued propagation here of an East-West contrast. A few years back, there was a book written by two Korean-American sisters called Top of the Class that was more or less a tribute to "Asian work ethic" and "Confucian values" - in contrast, presumably, to the liberalness and permissiveness of "American" parenting.

As a cultural anthropologist whose research interests include parenting, for me the question is not whether or not Chinese or Korean mothers are "superior." (What does that even mean?) Instead, it is how and why it is (again) that East and West become held as opposed reflections on each other - this time on the thorny issue of parenting.


  1. The New York Times post sensitive and sensible responses to Chua's piece today on its Room for Debate blog:

  2. I've been interested in following the debates around Chua's article too. Here's what I wrote on a friend's FB link. I would also add that what's been really annoying & ugly are the racist comments about Chinese (and Asians) being automatons and incapable of creativity & innovation. Really? Do we still have to go there? Anyway, I'm off to read the NYT Room for Debate:

    I'm not a Yale law professor, so clearly, my Korean immigrant parents were not "Chinese" enough! They paid for piano lessons for years, made me and my brother practice, cared very much about academic performance, tri...ed to persuade me to go to law school, but ultimately, I was a willful child and my parents didn't make us afraid of them. For which I'm grateful.

    I take Chua's point that there are notable differences in the approaches to parenting and agree with her that the discourse of "self-esteem" can disable parents' ability to discipline & motivate. I also think there are benefits to a less individual-focused "shame culture," in which you're taught that your actions reflect not only on you personally, but on your family, the larger group to which you belong (I agree with you, Alfie, that there's a difference between shame and humiliation). Also, I think it's important to note the very different valuing of education in various eastern cultures vs. America. I think America is essentially an anti-intellectual place, whereas in the "East," scholars, learning, education, teachers, etc. are venerated. Thus, I never doubted that I would go to college, I never felt awkward or out of place for being smart or liking to read or not being especially athletic, because I got a lot of affirmation from my family (immediate & extended) and immigrant community for doing well academically. My Caucasian husband who grew up in working-class upstate NY had a VERY different experience.

    BUT, I'm not comfortable with the way she uses reductive stereotypes to make her case, and ultimately, to sell her book. She knows her market: anxious middle-class parents in the West looking for answers on how to help their kids in a competitive global economy. So if "achievement" and "excellence" are your goals and measures for success, I guess her argument might be persuasive, but she doesn't really address the question of happiness or the kinds of emotional relationship you have with your kids. In my own parenting, I'll try to take what I think are good from both the "East" and "West." My kid's only 2.5 so I haven't yet had to worry about academics. On the other hand, I guess I better get him going on piano or violin soon!

  3. What?! SL - you need to start the Suzuki method yesterday.

    I agree with what you said about being raised to think about how your actions reflect on more than an individual - and the veneration of intellect.

    What I have come to realize, too, is that when my parents urged me to try, it was not b/c they thought in terms of A-for-effort, which studies now show suggest actually might undermine "self-esteem." My parents sincerely believed that I was capable - but really only with effort and practice and support to be able to assert myself.

    Which interestingly enough is what seems so revelatory to business-class readers devoted to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and other books that now are talking about talent being overrated.

  4. Yep, I think a lot of education literature has also confirmed that hard work and consistent practice trumps "raw" talent. Interesting research by Carol Dweck (sp?) showed that children who were praised for being smart became risk-averse and didn't work as hard for fear of failure, whereas children who were praised for working hard continued to work hard and were more open to challenges. Which is all to say that there are better and worse ways to push and prod.

  5. SL, thank you for your insights-- I could not agree more about the "propagation of East-West contrast." Really unnecessary-- and unhelpful-- in this day and age. I'd love to know more about you mean when you say, "It is that we are having to do our best under conditions that continually undermine our efforts." Do you have specific conditions in mind?

    I, too, wrote a piece in response to Chua's article, though I don't mention it specifically-- it's also published by the Wall Street Journal (online), where Chua's essay first appeared. Here's the link:’s-gift-permission-to-fail/