On Parenting

Nobody likes a smart-ass.  And everyone probably hates a gloating smart-ass law professor from New Haven who gets a condescending op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal.  Ladies and gentlemen, it's my perverse pleasure to present the most annoying woman of the week:  Amy Chua, on the subject of her unparalleled parenting skills.

Some questions for Ms. Chua spring to mind as I read this delightful little insult to "Western Mothers" everywhere:
  • Until now I thought it was only permissible for oppressed or otherwise disadvantaged minorities to make sweeping generalizations across racial/ethnic/national lines in which they purport to be superior in some way to their majority counterparts.  How did you manage to circumvent this social norm?  Have you seen any backlash from non-"Chinese" (and by "Chinese" I understand you to mean "Chinese as well as some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian") Mothers?  And, for what it's worth, I don't think you can cover this with a vague and breezy disclaimer like the one you used:  "Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting."  Somehow, the words "tons," "studies," and "quantifiable" just don't juxtapose well in my mind, at least when used by an adult.  Next time, pick two.
  • I'm no logician, nor am I a professor of anything at Yale or elsewhere, but you say your daughters weren't allowed to be less than "No. 1" in all of their academic classes (way to cut them some slack on "gym" as you call it - I believe the term we use here in the West is Physical Education - and drama!).  Assuming that this rule holds for Chinese Mothers everywhere, does this mean that Chinese Mothers never have twins?  And if they do, how do they reconcile the matter?  Is there a ritual child sacrifice following Kindergarten graduation, to neatly eliminate "No. 2" from the picture?  And, setting twins aside, what do Chinese Mothers do in, just to pick a place at random...China?  Surely all their children aren't No. 1 in every class.  Or maybe I'm missing something here.
  • Your anecdote about being called "garbage" by your father once when you were a little girl is interesting, but probably not as instructive as you think.  I suspect that a lot of Western Children have been called "garbage" or some other colorful, yet no-doubt motivating, name one or more times by one or more of their parents.  If the experience is so powerful, I might expect repetition to have a magnifying effect.  This doesn't seem to be the case, though.  Here again, maybe the magic lies in the No. 1.  The power of berating diminishes as the number of verbal beatings increases.
  • I found the following vignette from your article quite enlightening:
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu's dollhouse to the car and told her I'd donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn't have "The Little White Donkey" perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, "I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?" I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.
Jed [Ms. Chua's husband] took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu—which I wasn't even doing, I was just motivating her—and that he didn't think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn't do the technique—perhaps she didn't have the coordination yet—had I considered that possibility?
Perhaps my perspective is warped because I'm neither Chinese nor a Mother, but I read that first paragraph and I see two bull-headed, petulant children locked in a power struggle. When the (Western?  "Jed" sounds Western to me, but then so does "Amy") Father steps in, he gets a double-barrel blast of impertinence to the face.  I guess we know who the No. 1 pants-wearer in the Chua family is.
Soon after this, you describe your "negative progress" (oxymoron?):  
I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Just a heads-up:  a Chinese Mother who uses metaphorical "weapons" on her daughter and turns piano rehearsal into a "war zone" should not be entirely shocked when said daughter applies for a nomination to West Point rather than accepting early admission at Yale; or just drops out of high school to join the Marines.  I'm not wishing this on you by any means, I'm just saying:  be prepared.  Of course, there's always the chance she joins the band.  They have a piano in the Fife and Drum corps, right?
  • Near the end of your essay, you hedge considerably:
There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
Are you under the impression that this will make up for all your prior scolding and condescension?  I'm not saying that Western Mothers have short attention spans, get offended easily, or tend to ignore long lectures from US-born Chinese Mothers, but I suspect a lot of them stopped reading your advice awhile back.  But, you've made your point.  And who will take it to heart?  My guess is No. 1.
I thank Paul Buchheit for bringing this essay to my attention.  His insightful counter-argument to a Ms. Chua's thoughts are worth reading, and are far less snarky than mine.  They're also less preachy than Ms. Chua's, and useful.