A fascinating piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday 8th January by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, on “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”. (You can see the piece at http://on.wsj.com/hp4Ynx). The author was upfront about what some might see as harsh tactics in pushing her two daughters to pursue excellence, and made me consider the differences between “Chinese” and “Western” parenting. (I put the names in quotation marks because, of course, some Western parents are “Chinese” in their parenting style, and vice-versa – no nationality has a monopoly on parenting styles. Nonetheless, the image of the hectoring Chinese mother is commonplace in the western mindset).
Ms. Chua cites what she believes are the three major differences between Western and Chinese parenting. First, “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem” while “Chinese parents … assume strength”. Second, “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything… [therefore] Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud”. And third, “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children … That’s why Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can’t go to sleepaway camp.”
Having formerly been a teacher in the UK and China, and a Scout leader too, I’d like to put forward my own observations. Regarding her three main differences, she may have some good points, but from them she draws the wrong conclusions. To take the first point, children are resilient, true, and the current Western tendency to wrap up children from risk or danger is unwise. But this does not mean that a parent is therefore justified in calling a child coming home with an A-minus or even a B in a test stupid. Reacting with horror at a grade that’s merely good rather than excellent devalues what efforts were made in attaining that grade. To be sure, you can as a parent go through the paper and work out how to improve. But dismissing everything that isn’t first class shows a freakish competitiveness that distorts school into being an insane grades-chasing. It isn’t just a matter of believing a child can get an A; it’s an appreciation that there’s more to life to academics.
Which brings me to the next point. Ms Chua says she would never let her children have sleepovers, playdates, and that they must get A grades and learn the piano or violin. OK, that’s her choice. But to me, her children’s curriculum (indeed, their world-experience) is extremely narrow. Where are the sports, the hobbies, the play, the natural world, the self-reliance, the friendships? Where is the unfilled time that forces you to look within and consider what you want to do? I believe that Chinese mothers who cram as much education down the necks of their children, rather as farmers do to geese for foie gras, are entirely misguided on personal development. There’s education, the storing of facts. But far more important than this is knowledge, which can only come from experience.
When I have spoken with Chinese university students, I have consistently sensed that they have little life experience, and all the facts crammed into their minds do not compensate. To put it another way: the most valuable things I learned at school were outside the classroom. Many of my most formative experiences were gained as a Boy Scout, where I learned how a million practical skills and how to apply them: I gained such valuable life-skills as teamwork, leadership, self-reliance, concern for others and how to engage with strangers. (And my schoolwork improved in direct correlation with the time spent in Scouts. If my mother had been Ms. Chua, I would never have been allowed to join!). My experience with Chinese students suggested that many of them lacked such skills. I was often surprised, for example, at the social backwardness of the male students, who seemed to have their adolescent energy and boisterousness drummed out them. They seemed like they would have been happier spending hours at an internet café, avoiding direct social contact. I do not think this is a recipe for a healthy society.
As for Chinese children owing their parents everything, I have sometimes been embarrassed by western children and their selfish behavior towards their parents. Wishing to make your parents proud is a good thing; but spending your life repaying your parents? It sounds like Chinese parents see children as an investment, something which you work at for the sake of the return. There’s nothing wrong with seeking the best for your children, but seeing your children as investments strikes me as narcissistically self-centered, and entirely devaluing for the child. I doubt that anyone likes to feel like a horse bred to win the Grand National.
I can’t disagree entirely with Ms. Chua, however. I do believe that often Western parents are reluctant to push their children to achieve, and sometimes fearful of disciplining them. The tick-tock swing between authoritarianism and anarchy which has long affected western culture is in an anarchic phase, and children accordingly often have it too easy. I’ve sometimes been surprised by the ease with which parents give up when it comes to their children smoking, for example, or giving up extra-curricular activities. The absence of boundaries is as much a problem for some children as an over-structured life for others. It’d be easy to end saying the forms of parenting should be balanced out: in fact, I think both are wrong. Hectoring parenthood is as bad as absent parenthood. Parents should help children grow as individuals. The more life-experiences they have, the better; the more enriching a child’s experiences, the better. This requires a broader vision of what it is to be a parent than Ms. Chua would recognize, but I think her children would be far the better for it.
Published in Business Tianjin