Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Finding a Good Bit in Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” Essay

Amy Chua wrote a rather extreme essay, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal (of all places). In it she claimed strictness bordering on child abuse was (a) the norm for Chinese mothers (fathers apparently are irrelevant); and (b) produced superior children. Examples: no sleepovers, or, apparently, any other peer interaction other than competition; literally forced piano and/or violin lessons; major verbal abuse should the child come home with as low as a B grade in anything except, perhaps, gym.

And yes, it was based on her new book and will probably help sell a pile of copies.

The essay predictably caused a ruckus, especially in the wake of studies once again showing education in the USA to be behind others in “hard” subjects like math and science. An example of a typical counter-essay is The Problems With Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” Hypothesis, where the net argument is that it depends on your definition of success: a happy well-rounded child, or, what I can only describe as an uber-nerd: As in hard subjects, knows only classical music, etc., socially retarded. Then it goes on to connect uber-nerd-ishness with totalitarian states, particularly China, a connection I think is a bit over the top.

I’ve three thoughts about this:

First, don’t assume all Chinese (or other Asian) mothers fit the “Tiger” description. Education is a traditional value in Chinese culture, but things get mellower after some time spent out of the more traditional elements of Chinese society.

Second, I personally think there is one good bit in her essay, at least if the harshness is dialed down a notch: A lack of patience with a child not trying hard enough. Probably this is related to my own upbringing (I’ve no known Asian ancestry, by the way), since I distinctly remember “Your father is smart, I’m not dumb, you certainly can learn that. No excuses! Work harder!” This particular kind of refrain is enough of a cliché about the Chinese that it appeared in dream sequences of Minoriteam’s Dr. Wang, the Chinese Human Calculator (Minoriteam is based on stereotypes, obviously). He dreamed of his parents screaming, in broad, faked Chinese accents, “You no try hard enough! You work harder!” I think there’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, in a version of this that instills in children the assumption that they can always learn something or conquer some obstacle. It doesn’t have to be done abusively. At least not all the time.

Third, good luck to any folks building uber-nerds out of their kids. Unless they also have good social skills – which Chua’s over-the-top version is not tuned to produce – their job-hunting will be hard in the USA. Think about it: What this is likely to produce is someone you interact with by sliding a problem under the door and getting an answer slid back out later. If that’s all the interaction involved, how fast does that get outsourced to the other end of an internet connection?

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