The other day, my 11-year-old son asked me if I was a “Chinese or Western mother.” Apparently, he read the WSJ article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua with classmates during a Life Science class. The minute the article came out, I received e-mails from Chinese friends all over about it. Now it appears that this article, one that ignited a huge media and parental maelstrom, has made its way into the consciousness of 6th graders and their schools.
Judging by the 5,000 or so comments that are attached to the article, to say that Chua definitely touched a nerve is almost an understatement. Much of the reaction towards her article has been negative. She has been reviled as the ultimate evil mother, and it appears that my son’s school is trying to make an example of her as a parent that children are lucky they don’t have. But this is where I would like to step in, in defense of the Tiger mom. There are good lessons to be gleamed from her, and here are some:
First and foremost, laugh. I’ve had debates with friends about this, but I do think the article was hilarious and meant to be funny. The descriptions of her parenting style are tongue-in-cheek and seem by design to be humorous in its extremeness. The WSJ excerpted only a portion of Chua’s book that the editors deemed would stir the pot (and boy, did it!) The true gist of her tale can be found on the cover of the book. Under the title “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” are these words: “…But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of culture, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” Chua, seeing the errors of her ways, seems to be recounting how crazy some of her rules are. How could you take these things seriously: Chua’s daughters were not supposed to “…not be the no. 1 in every subject except gym and drama” and “play any instrument other than the piano or violin.” In case you missed it, Chua then adds that they cannot “not play the piano or violin.” Or this: “…Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.”
Self-esteem. As someone of Chinese descent, I found that the article had whiffs of familiarity with the way I was brought up, so I might find some of her ideas more palatable than most people. That said, I believe that Chua is right on target about children’s self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from the knowledge that they can do something well, rather than from their parents applauding every little thing you do. If it takes a little pushing and prodding from their parents to get them to practice or study, so be it. But that is more of a sure path to achieving inner confidence, than getting a trophy just for showing up. What Chua is saying is essentially no different from the 10,000 hours theory from Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers.” Simply put, it takes a lot of work to excel.
Choices are overrated. Children should definitely be given choices as they get older, but when they are young, choice-giving is almost unnecessary. When my older son was young, I didn’t give him much in terms of food choices. I just laid in front of him what I thought he should eat and coaxed him to eat it. Now, he is a wonderfully flexible eater. He eats all kinds of vegetables (his favorite is onions) and will happily eat sushi and chicken tikka masala. As for my younger son, I gave him more choices for reasons I can’t remember (ie. “Would you like A or B?”) Now he won’t touch vegetables and will only eat two things: pizza and chicken tenders. He seems to think he can control his food environment to his liking, but because his food experiences and exposures are limited, his food selection is also limited. My older son was exposed to a wider variety of foods involuntarily, but now is able to make wiser and more varied food selections. The bottom line is that giving children choices when they don’t know any better is not necessarily a good thing.
At school, my son was asked to list certain traits of his own mother and see if they fell in the category of Chinese or Western mom. “Mom, you’re more of a Western mom,” he told me, “but you never praise me if I get an A-. You’re a Chinese mom there.” Of course, why should I praise him when I know in my heart that he could have done better if he had studied more? But I wouldn’t call him “garbage” either.