Monday, January 10, 2011

Ethnicity and the "Mommy Wars," Introducing... the Chinese Mother!

Once in a while there's a lull in the "mommy wars," but I think there's going to be a little bit of a resurgence in "fighting" thanks to a book by Amy Chua* that is coming out tomorrow: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of it last Saturday titled: "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." The article seems to have attracted lots of attention and outrage (it has over 1800 comments in the WSJ website). I actually got the link on facebook from an indignant Chinese colleague from graduate school (now a nicely published assistant professor) whose FB friends were ranting about the stereotyping, etc.

Stereotypes or not, I do know at least one of these mothers really well and she happens to be the daughter of Chinese immigrants (raised in Thailand) married to an Indonesian immigrant (who is a dentist). Their daughter who just turned 20 was accepted for medical school in the Fall and is an accomplished cello player.They have her perform for any guests who visit. Last summer they paid for my husband to tutor her in physics so she could do better on the MCAT. It looks like it worked!

Their son just turned eight and he plays both the violin and the piano and the mother had him perform to us when we visited over New Year's. The effect on our own sons (who are both learning piano) was great! We ended up having an impromptu recital after their New Year's party -- we had all our kids play the piano, violin and, in one case, the guitar. As a result, Kelvin learned the two songs his friend was playing in just a day and the boy's dad told us laughingly that he thought that this kind of competition between children of the same age was very good -- it motivated them to practice harder and become better -- and I had to agree!!

I think that Amy Chua's analysis of the differences between the stereotypical "Chinese mother" or parent (and she does make it clear that there are people from many other countries that parent in a similar way) and the "Western parent" (mostly American, I suppose) is very interesting! The parts about Western parents worrying about their children's self-esteem reminded me of a book I was supposed to have reviewed for Mother Talk here on the blog years ago: The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance. This book helped me understand, among other things, why so many people in this country go to graduate school and pursue Ph.D. programs (they are told, over and over again, how great they are, etc.) -- I must say she didn't say that in her book, it was just one my personal conclusions. In any case, like it or not, Americans should realize that this society has a huge "self-esteem" bubble, bigger than the housing bubble and this "trap" (in Polly Young-Eisendrath's words from the book's title) is a great disservice for this country's young people who are part of an unprecedented "me-generation."

Frankly, I don't want my sons to be part of this "me-generation," although I don't think children should be pushed to extremes or forced to only get As in school. Some of the things that "Chinese parents" do were part of our upbringing (K and mine) in Brazil and we already follow some of the practices listed in the Chua's article: our children don't ever go on sleepovers, they watch very little television (and we try to limit playing in the computer and playing the Wii as much as possible) and they will learn the piano and at least another instrument and we'll push them so they can be as good as they possibly can at it. We encourage them to read and to study and we drill them in math a lot because they just love it, but we don't push them to get only As or anything like that. We do have complete control over their extra-curricular activities, but they do gymnastics once a week at school and I think maybe we'll enroll Linton in soccer.

I'm sure that lots of the criticism that Chua received must be because of the comments "putting down" the child that she says is common in Chinese parents (such as calling children garbage) and I don't think we should abuse our children, but we shouldn't treat them like precious fragile flowers either! I think it's important to be aware that children are resilient and that they shouldn't be left to their own devices and allowed to do whatever they want. Achieving the balance is the hardest thing, though. And perhaps neither the "Chinese" nor the "Western" parents have a balanced approach and maybe we can learn from both sides. I think I have or hope to do it.

* From the WSJ: "Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of Day of Empire and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability."


Anastasia said...

My BFF in high school was Chinese and his mother, oh my what a tongue she had! But if she called him garbage, it was in Chinese--and she frequently yelled at him in Chinese, so who knows. That said, he has a bigger ego than almost anyone I know. So in any case, it's not like his mother destroyed him. :)

Anjali said...

I live in an area whether the Asian (both South and East) hovers at 50%. All the kids are doing Kumon, multiple instruments, extra tutoring, etc. My friends tell me that school here is too easy.

As much as these parents push their kids, the kids actually seem fine with it. They sweet, fun kids who don't have any free time-- but they don't seem to be unhappy or depressed. My own kids, with their slacker parents who just want them to play all day, could probably use a little more direction. But I just don't enjoy my kids as much if I'm just there to direct them 24 hours a day.

Anjali said...

Sorry about all the ridiculous typos!

Lucy C said...

Well written! I love the "me-generation" comment.