My thoughts on Amy Chua

Credit: Heikki Siltala

My last post was on Monday; looks like I spoke too soon. It is quite the struggle, I must say, to maintain work, relationships, friends, toastmasters, and debating all at once. But yes I am finally free again in the wee hours of a monday morning to write about a controversy, long after it’s been talked about.

In case anyone’s been hiding in a cave, a dichotomy sprung up between “western” and “Chinese” parenting recently, as a result of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s new memoir,Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as well as a Wall Street Journal piece containing excerpts, and quite strikingly titled “Why Chinese mothers are superior”. The seemingly brutal methods of pushing her kids to excel and emphasis on academic excellence led to outbursts and cries of child abuse and oppressive parenting, although there are supporters.

Then there was David Brooke’s article denouncing her as a wimp, for being too soft by not letting her children learn applicable, real-world soft skills such as group work and social dynamics. It’s been published in many papers, I believe, but I honestly think that article was absolutely trash. David, you’re trying way too hard to be a contrarian. Threatening to burn all your children’s stuffed toys and denying her food and bathroom breaks for a piano practice is far from wimpy behavior.

In the end, most settled for a “middle way” approach, stating the obvious that this dichotomy shouldn’t have to be, and I tend to agree too, tending towards the “chinese” side of the scale. Fundamentally, the question to consider is where do you draw the line at their freedom of choice.

In trying to seem more humane, we talk very loosely about letting the child do what she wants, or allowing her to have that sleepover and school recitals. Somewhere along the line, self-esteem gets thrown into the mix and somehow, we make the connection that the child’s self-esteem is essential to his mental well-being and choice, and if we were to deny him this, it would be paramount to stunting his development and by extension, hurting his self-esteem. This would be the extreme version of the “western”, permissive-parenting where the child is pretty much left to roam and explore, like free association in a psychotherapy session.

We must remember, however, that children are irrational agents with diminished capacity. There are definitely kids out there who are wiser than the average 25 year-old, and many a woman would readily attest to their partner’s sporadic regression to adolescence (usually when asked to ask for directions or soccer is involved.), but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. That’s why most countries have laws that draw arbitrary lines for various major decisions, like consensual sex or driving. It’s also why we don’t take our kids seriously when they say “I want to be a gay porn star”.

If Malcolm Gladwell’s magic number of 10,000 hours is to be believed, then not only can we not trust our child to make the right decision, she may also not be wise or driven enough to put in that time to practice. That’s where parents come in. Does it sound cruel to force the kid to practice? Maybe, but it’s necessary. It is not so much that you want her to complete her Grade 8 Piano Exam or be a Violin maestro like Vanessa Mae, but more of the value you’re imparting, specifically, the value of tenacity. Anything you commit to entails certain responsibilities. When you make a “wrong” decision, there are consequences and you just can’t walk away simply because you got bored. There will be many situations in life that you can regret, but not walk away from as soon as you’d like – from picking the wrong school or major to the wrong career in a economic downturn. Learn the grit necessary to survive these hardships and bide your time for a better opportunity – this is something I definitely want to pass on to my children.

What about group dynamics? What about self-esteem? Well, of course these are important, and should be balanced with academic excellence. I would think that so long as you’re not threatening to burn dolls, and do have the occasional year-end holiday treat, group dynamics shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and there are no shortage of enrichment courses meant to foster confidence in social settings, from drama to Toastmasters (they have satellite programs called SpeechCraft and Youth Leadership for kids). Maybe I can afford to be this optimistic, since I’m not a parent yet.

Self-esteem takes a bit of explaining. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that you should always encourage your child and provide a positive environment, don’t use negative words like don’t and no and couch criticisms as “areas for improvement”. Conventional wisdom is wrong, or at least the way we go about it is. I read from long ago (read: I lost the link) that there had been a psychological study conducted. Two groups of students were asked to do a simple test, and excelled. One group was praised for being “smart” while the other was praised for “trying their best”. Surprisingly, the “smart” group didn’t then want to do more challenging tests compared to the “tried their best” group.

(This applies in seduction too, apparently. It’s better to say something bad about your potential date, something really minor, but then follow it up with an uplifting compliment. Remember, something minor, not “Christ, look at that amount of food you’re eating! What are you, a war hog?”)

So yes, this has been a longer than usual post, to make up for the lack of posts for the past week. While I don’t believe that academic results is a direct function of parenting ability like Amy does, I’ve done badly enough in school to be presented with a set of challenges that made me realise how many more doors academic excellence opens for children. It’s unfair, but we all know how much lip service we’re all paying when we lambaste paper chase and wax lyrical about holistic education. And this is the problem: if we don’t firm up and teach our children through slightly cruel methods, they grow to depend on the system (education or government) to provide for them. So make them take mandatory piano, and score their As, and slowly let out your grand plan. As they turn 18, transcript in hand, tell them that the doors are now all opened, and it’s time for them to take matters into their hands, design their lifelong curricula and blaze their own trail.

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