Saturday, January 8, 2011

Amy Chua: Chinese (American) Mother Superior

Perhaps out of necessity, Amy Chua, in her Wall Street Journal article, 'Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,' argues for an extreme position when it comes to parenting. I can understand that her philosophy has a balancing role to play in the current North American environment that demands passivity from parents--take, for example, this advice column from Miss Lonelyhearts to a dad bewildered by his drunk teen son--but as a stand-alone position it leaves me sputtering. The exaggerations, bordering on lies -- since when do all Chinese kids get only 'A's? -- are unnecessary hyperboles that only served to irritate me, the reader. Her confidence that her demeaning methods work for all and that all children are inherently strong, mule-like and thick-skinned leaves me extremely troubled.

For all Chua's high credentials, she forgets, or is unaware of, the phenomenon that epidemiologists and social scientists know as ecological fallacy. What works at the population level is not guaranteed to work at the individual level. (This is the opposite of the mistake we tend to commit when we use anecdotal evidence to influence behavior at the population level. More about that later.) More precisely, Chua's children could be practicing-learning, practicing-achieving, practicing-thriving despite Chua's methods and not because of them, but Chua grabs the credit every single time it works (Other intrinsic and time/place-specific external factors may influence motivation and success). But for simplicity's sake, let us assume it is solely Chua's style of parenting that ensures her children are successful at every scheduled activity ordained by her. So, proportionately speaking, Chinese (and Indians) may be over-represented in the hallways of Yale, thanks to upper-middle class Chinese(or Chinese-American or Indian-American) style of mothering, but there is no guarantee that your Mandarin-speaking or my Tamil-speaking child will benefit from that appalling scene Chua describes with herself and her child Lulu at the piano. Woe is us if our child happens to be the one exception: the one resentful rebel in the neighbourhood who would rather self-destruct than put up with an overbearing parent. An academic and a policy analyst who advocates the finer points of democracy across the world, she never second-guesses her inability to practice democracy at home.

After committing the ecological inference fallacy (whether by intent, to drive home a point, or by blind convictions), Chua stomps on ahead and passes off anecdotal evidence as accepted methodology to sell more of her points. The anecdote: her undented self-esteem even when her father calls her 'garbage.' Yes, even garbage may sound as sweet as nectar if you are lucky enough to come from a solid, secure, loving environment. But try coming from a dysfunctional family, being insecure, and being called garbage and you will find it to be a whole new ball-game. In my opinion, dysfunctional families are the last to know about their own dysfunctionality. My point is that parents should stay away from name-calling and verbal taunting, however high an opinion they may have of themselves and their parenting skills. Words have this strange and powerful way of coming alive, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Between the two extremes posited in Chua's article ('Western parents' vs. 'Chinese mothers'; by the way, where are the Chinese fathers?), lie a sea of invisible European parents, specifically, Eastern European parents. Economic and academic successes achieved by Eastern Europeans and their progeny in North America is largely ignored by mainstream America. Their model of rearing the second generation is ignored. Unless, of course, we are talking of generations of Jewish families. Then we are all ears (as we should well be). But in my opinion, contemporary Russian or Ukrainian immigrants (with post-secondary education) bring with them the best of the values endorsed by the 'Western parents' and they balance those values with the respect and reverence for hard work and scholarship that the 'Chinese mothers' supposedly instill (I hate this dichotomy drummed up by Chua since every one of my professors have been Caucasian.) The Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian children I know actually stop to smell the roses without feeling compelled to write rose-inspired poetry, bottle and patent rose perfumes, and ship long-stemmed roses to Siberia at 10 bucks a piece. And yet, I will not be surprised if, in due course, one of them genetically engineers thorn-free rose bushes. Until then, they play (and why not? even animals encourage their young ones to play just for the fun of it), and work, in seemingly right amounts.

The Chuas and the Misses Lonelyhearts can flaunt all the tales the old and young wives in their cultures, respectively, spin, but it will be prudent of us to study and listen to our own individual child's need, style and quest for achievements. A small example from my life as a mother of young children: The 1-2-3 discipline rule works without a hitch, every time, with two of my three children. And it never works with one. Never. Strangely enough, this is the one child who is most like me in temperament. I am still trying to figure out what works or doesn't work with this child, and I am still making mistakes.

Chua never mentions what makes her daughters happy. We only get an idea of what makes her, the Mother Superior, happy. Disappointed, I went to back to a favorite article of mine. To remind myself that there is no guarantee that success is entwined with happiness. Or that success is even a pre-requisite for happiness. And Chua should probably pay attention to what is being said. After all, that body of happiness research comes from Yale's rival institution, Harvard. I don't care how much we achieve but I know that we are never going to be happy if we do not know how to love and accept people in all their weaknesses, fears and imperfections.

Here is a review by Elizabeth Chang of Amy Chua's book, 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.' Any lingering doubts I had about Chua possibly being self-deprecatingly funny have been dissipated.

Here are two scenarios that I have been mulling over as potential analogies and as fodder for further thought:
1) How do we react if a poor, black mom in the United States (or poor, Aboriginal mom in Canada) puts her to child to work for endless hours doing menial labour such as doing other people's laundry, ironing, folding just to make a little extra money? (My guess is that in the States, Geraldo will be in with his TV crew, ready to mock on air, and Child and Family Services will come to hear of it in Canada.) Is it fair that upper class and a Yale professorship (and musical accomplishments) confuses our understanding of reasonable expectations from a child?
2) Why is even Hollywood not allowed to work a child until breaking point (they have to respect the right of the child to reasonable work hours), but a mother, under the guise of parenting, can?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The media, like politicians, has to appeal to its base. What is not told is there are ten million Chinese women (by my rough estimate, someone please correct my number if you have a better one) married American husbands in the past decade. Times that by 3 then you have 30+ million cheerleaders for the media who hyped this. Now do you still wonder whether chinese mothers are superior or not?