Monday, January 10, 2011

Chinese parenting - right or wrong?

In a Wall Street Journal essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", author and Yale Law School professor Amy Chua shares her perspective on "Chinese parenting".

Where do I begin?

I must emphasize that I'm not speaking for all Asians. I do have some things in common with Amy Chua. I do know what it's like to be the daughter of Asian immigrant parents with high expectations, and I'm also a mom of two facing challenging issues concerning academics and discipline. But Chua and I have different perspectives on parenting.

Chua describes the Chinese attitude toward education, where achievement is not an option. She discusses the shame and humiliation Asian parents subject their children to if expectations are not met. She views this style of parenting as clearly superior to "Western parenting".

After reading the WSJ piece, horrified, one of my friends asked me if I agree with that style of parenting. "I was completely blown away," she said. "It was really hard to read."

To me, it's, well, complicated. In thinking about the Chinese parenting style Chua advocates, on a large scale, I do have concerns about how it contributes to the model minority myth. I worry about how this parenting style affects the mental health of our children. There is research that links parental pressure to high rates of suicide among Asian Pacific American women.

On a personal level, though, I admit I was a bit entertained and amused by some of the examples Chua laid out in her essay. They were so familiar. It was like the first time I read Joy Luck Club. I ticked off the checklist: pushy mom - yes, cowed daughter - yes, outrageously high expectations - yes, oh yes.

In my own experience, I grew up in a close-knit Taiwanese community in Cleveland. My parents and their Taiwanese friends emigrated to the United States to pursue careers in medicine, engineering and natural sciences. They expected their children to excel academically as well.

And for the most part, we did. We graduated from well-regarded colleges and universities. Some did go to Ivies, some did become doctors. I majored in English as an undergrad and studied journalism in grad school; my sister became a social worker. Some people may regard our career choices as a colossal Asian parenting failure, but my sister and I are doing meaningful work that we enjoy.

Still, it is easier to say this now that we are adults. It was painful growing up under the scrutiny of an entire network of overbearing Asian parents. I used to dread the large family gatherings where, after dinner, all the children would be summoned for an impromptu piano recital. On the way home, my mom would list all the amazing awards the other kids had achieved, as told by their mothers - math contests, science fairs, etc.

The pressure to excel is intense. "If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion," Chua says. "The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A."

I can relate to that. In seventh grade, I went through a rebellious period where I thought it was terribly uncool to care about grades and studying. It caught up to me when I got behind in my algebra class and midterm progress reports were sent out. I estimated when the mail would arrive and planned to intercept the envelope, the contents of which were sure to cause an epic parental reaction. When I got home - it was a Wednesday afternoon - my stomach lurched when I saw my father's car in the driveway. He happened to be home early that day, after taking the car in for repair. I walked in the door and saw a tall stack of math books piled on the living room coffee table. "Start on page one," my dad commanded. And that was before Mom arrived on the scene. It was a brutal several weeks.

"Chinese mothers get in the trenches," Chua says, "putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids." She shared her own experience of how she forced her young daughter to learn a difficult piano piece for a recital.

I remembered a piano recital of my own when I was in junior high. At one point, my fingers stumbled, but I quickly recovered. Too late. From the back of the room, I heard my mother cluck her tongue. After the recital, fuming, I told her I did not want her to attend any more of my piano performances. "Good," my mother shot back. "Then I won't have to hear any more of your mistakes."

In exchanging Moms with High Expectations stories with my friend Claire, a playwright, she laughed when I told her that one. "I'm using that!" she said. (See the story come to life in her upcoming theater production, Mother/Tongue, this month!)

Asian moms demand perfection from their children - and not just when it comes to school and piano. Image is important. “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty—lose some weight,’ ” Chua says.

Again, this resonates with me. Years ago, on a family trip to Taiwan, I had such severe food poisoning that I had to go to the emergency room. My mom was disgusted and impatient with me when I fretted over the shots the doctor prepared to administer. "Stop whining. Women your age give birth with less fuss," she said to me in Taiwanese. I was weak and dehydrated, having lost 10 pounds in four days. She added, "You look great, though".

So I'm a mother myself now, and I oscillate between Eastern and Western traditions, customs and values. My husband and I want to find a balance, but it's hard to do. Sometimes I find myself repeating my parents' words and actions. I hear myself using words like "sacrifice" and "responsibility" a lot. But I also do some things differently. I hug and kiss my kids a lot. I have high expectations for my children too, but above all, I want them to be healthy and happy.


linn said...

awesome lisa!

The Wandering Brain // Tracy Lucas said...

Amazing and eye-opening post. Much to go back over in there.

If it's not too nosy (and please forgive me if it is), may I ask, where does your husband fall in, opinion-wise? Is his ethnic background and childhood pattern the same as yours, too?

I'm a Caucasian Chicago native who married a Caucasian Nashville native, and we hardly agreed on anything at first when it came to our kids. :)

Curious how all of this plays into your marriage, too.

The Wandering Brain // Tracy Lucas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

My husband is a Tiger Papa. Over the recent holidays, we had conversations like this: "Why are you making our children do homework on Christmas morning? Can't you give it a rest for just one day???" My husband replied that our children's future depends upon test scores, that they must develop discipline, yada yada. a couple days later, I read a review of Chua's book and it made me laugh. I can't wait to read it and share my observations with my husband.

Cecilia said...

Hi Lisa, am visiting by way of Literary Mama. I enjoyed reading your balanced response. My sense is that alot of the newer generation Asians (Asian Americans) are making hard efforts to try and blend the best of both parenting styles. Ultimately I think alot has to do with socioeconomic class as well. Good luck as you and your husband find your best balance!

Lisa said...

Thanks for the comments! My husband, who is not Asian (Italian + assorted), has high expectations for our children too, but he was not raised at all the way I was. He has always been highly self-motivated, even as a young child. I don't know if I would have been too - I always had parents who pushed. I guess every family develops its own culture, and it has certainly been that way for us. We do some things the Asian way, like taking off our shoes when we enter the house, but as I said in the blog post, we hug and kiss our boys a lot!

Maria said...

Such an interesting take on the issue, Lisa. What matters most, regardless of our parenting styles, is that the kids feel loved! Nowhere in that WSJ article did I see that.

I was never pushed as a child in the same way described. Sometimes I wish my parents had been less coddling. But I would never hold that against them.