Saturday, January 15, 2011

More Tales of the Tiger Mom

Yesterday I devoted my RightNetwork column to Prof. Amy Chua’s notions about child rearing. Link here.  Her best selling book is: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother [Hardcover].

All columns require that their authors respect space limitations, so I could not say everything I wanted to say in mine. That, after all, is why God created the blogosphere.

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the outsized reaction to Chua’s picture of herself as a Chinese mother. To say that American mothers reacted defensively would be an understatement.

They insisted that Chua’s mothering techniques produced narrow-minded, human automatons who were more likely to commit suicide or to shoot up a shopping mall.

Rare was the American writer who asked the salient question: why are American children seriously lagging the world in academic achievement? What can’t Johnny do algebra? Why do these Asian nations seem to be outcompeting us?

Could it have something to do with the excessively permissive parenting style that they have experienced? And however much people complain about permissiveness, once they see the alternative, they run screaming for the comfort of their laissez-faire parenting.

As I said, Chua is bringing up her children in America world, in a world where the culture, as evidenced by the violent reaction to it, militates against it.

We should also keep in mind that Chua’s children were girls, and that the story recounts a type of mother/daughter relationship.

In many ways the story is gender-specific. Yet very few comments place proper the proper emphasis on the fact that in our gender-neutered world, Chua is trying to bring her daughters up to be women, not persons.

I would even say that she is also trying to protect her daughters from the gender-bending proclivities of American feminism, the better to allow them to become their own young women.

If I had to summarize the criticisms of Chua, most of which did not even pretend to be civil, two points stand out. Critics said that Chua was not allowing her children to fulfill their true creative potential and that she was not letting them become free and autonomous human agents.

I will add that this was not a left/right divide. The reliably conservative Commentary blog site offered us an interesting post by Kejda Gjermani where she argued that children brought up the Chinese way would never become Beethovens, would never learn to exercise freedom, but would only know how to kowtow to totalitarian Communist autocrats. Link here.

Of course, a society that imagines that every child should grow up to be a Da Vinci is a society that is going to create a large group of starving artists living in squalor. Sorry to have to say it, but you should not rationalize lax parenting techniques by pretending that we are making our children into great artists.

First, because we do not need that many Beethovens.

Second, because Beethoven could never have become Beethoven if he had not submitted himself to the kind of rigorous discipline that Chua prescribes.

Third, because Chua’s daughter, the one whose creativity has been stifled, is performing at Carnegie Hall while those creative and innovative American children are suffering from compulsive texting disorder.

Fourth, because if you want your child to be able to find gainful employment, you would do best to steer him or her toward engineering, not finger painting.

As for the notion that Chua’s Confucian insistence on the importance of filial piety means that she is preparing her children to live under the yoke of an authoritarian dictatorship, I think it’s useful to note that Mao Tsetung was not, by any stretch, a Confucian.

Confucius was one of the targets of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, not one of its inspirations.

Beyond the fact that these Asian children are outperforming their American counterparts, the nations that use rigorous parenting techniques also have robust free market economies.

While a self-esteemist America is gnashing its teeth trying to figure out how to deliver medical care to the poor and the underprivileged and the unemployed, these Asian countries are hard at work using the engine of free enterprise to create jobs for them.

As for the charge that these children do not learn to make decisions freely, and do not, if I may extend the point, have the opportunity to learn by making mistakes, I think that we need to clarify this issue by providing some context.

Let’s say that your child wants to jump into an empty swimming pool. The child can learn that this is a bad idea in one of two ways: he can be allowed to jump in and break a leg or he can be told that it is a bad thing and be prevented from jumping in, or, as they used to say, from following his bliss.

If you cannot respect parental authority, or if your parents refuse to assert any authority, you are left with only one recourse: you have to learn everything yourself, the hard way. It is not a best way to deploy your human resources.

If you allow a fourteen year old to find her own way, to make her own mistakes with sex, drugs, and alcohol, she will surely suffer emotional traumas.

Our culture militates in favor of early onset sexual experimentation at a time when every mother knows that her daughter is simply not equipped to deal with the consequences.

Lastly, I want to share a story that Ayelet Waldman wrote about in the Wall Street Journal this morning. Waldman offers it to refute Chua’s notion of proper mothering. I will start by quoting Waldman’s words, at some length. Link here.

“My Rosie is mildly dyslexic. By the time she was diagnosed, in second grade, she was lagging far behind her classmates. For years I forced her to spell words in the bathtub with foam letters, to do worksheets, to memorize phonemes and take practice tests. My hectoring succeeded only in making her miserable. Eventually, and totally out of character, she had even stopped loving school. She suffered from near-constant stomachaches and broke down in tears almost every day. At last we heard about a special intensive reading program that required students to spend four hours every day in a small room with an instructor, being drilled in letters, sight words and phonics. It sounded awful, but Rosie insisted on doing it. She loved books and stories. She wanted to read.

“Every day when we picked her up, her face would be red with tears, her eyes hollow and exhausted. Every day we asked her if she wanted to quit. We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused. Every morning she rose stoically from her bed, collected her stuffies and snacks and the other talismans that she needed to make it through the hours, and trudged off, her little shoulders bent under a weight I longed to lift.

“At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read. Not because we forced her to drill and practice and repeat, not because we dragged her kicking and screaming, or denied her food, or kept her from the using the bathroom, but because she forced herself. She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read.”

With all respect for Waldman, there is another way to understand how her mildly dyslexic daughter learned to read.

First, Waldman herself was anything but a model disciplinarian. She did not drill her daughter at letters and phonemes at a work table. She did it while the child was in the bathtub. This does not feel to me like the correct Tiger Mom technique.

Second, Rosie buckles down when she finds a teacher who is more drill instructor and less empath. This teacher and this instruction program fulfills the basic requirements of the Tiger Mom technique. And perhaps the teacher had more faith in the child’s ability to learn than her mother did.

Third, Rosie’s experience is so brutal that her parents try to make her stop it. They feel that they must protect her from this torment.. That is the normal American reaction. We do not want our little dears to undergo the pain of really hard work.

Fourth, Rosie does learn to read.

The story is perfectly analogous to what happens when Chua’s slightly younger daughter learns a difficult piece at the piano.

Far from refuting Chua’s idea, Waldman’s experience demonstrates its value and shows that children seek out discipline and willingly submit themselves to it, even when their parents cannot provide it themselves.

As I see it, Waldman draws precisely the wrong conclusion from her daughter’s experience.

She believes that Rosie was not motivated by shame or embarrassment or fear of dishonoring her parents.

Yet, when your father is the world renowned novelist Michael Chabon and when your mother is also a writer-- that is, when you are a child growing up in an extremely literary household-- would you not feel more than mildly embarrassed for not knowing how to read? You would feel like a total outsider in your family.

How can Rosie honor her parents if she cannot read what they write? Of course, she wanted to learn how to read. She felt compelled to do so.

Fortunately, her parents found her a Chinese-style program to teach her how to read. Coupled with the shame and embarrassment of feeling like a misfit in a literary family this taught her how to read.


David A. Bennett said...

I’m a big fan of your blog. I’m someone that has “had enough therapy” and, hopefully without belaboring the point here, I have found many interesting and useful tidbits in you writing. Thank you for making it available. I have never commented on your blog before and am not inclined to do so in general but I felt like I had to in the case of “More Tale of the Tiger Mom”. The problem with this woman and her book is not that she is espousing a parenting style that is at odds with current American societal norms; it is that she is a flat out racist. He parenting may be similar to what could be identified as an Asian Mom style but she is not just an Asian Mom and she is not living in Asia and she misidentifies most of what is going wrong with American parenting. That means that you are doing the same thing. Is her husband at all involved in parenting? Is he also an Asian Mom? Are her daughters not people of probably remarkable IQ and were they not raised in what would be considered unbelievable wealth by most people even in America? Are there not Americans that would agree with most of the things she says about parenting that are not Asian? Why did this need to be a book about Asian parenting and consequently about what a bunch of schmucks Americans are? Is there any chance on God’s green earth that a white American could write a book about the flaws in the Asian perception of the world, of which there are certainly many, and not be called a racist? You are no doubt aware that the statistics regarding educational attainment in various countries are at least problematic and very likely absolute nonsense. What I see when I read the excerpts from this woman’s book are the sorts of comments that only someone that has lived the insulated life of a college professor could come up with. She also seems to be saying that we all need to become Asian Moms but in the same breath that we are never going to be good enough to be Asian Moms cause were just a bunch of goofy Americans. Now you are promoting that opinion as well.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, David, for your thoughtful comment. If I did what you are suggesting, it was certainly not intentional.

I included the material about Ayelet Waldman's daughter's training to overcome dyslexia because I found it entirely consonant with the points that Chua is making.

I don't think one has to go too far back in America's past to find that such techniques were commonplace.

The Confucian culture that gave rise to them has much in common with any educational techniques based on Aristotelian principles.

Clearly, Chua's Jewish husband does not seem to be a factor in the children's education, but that may be because, as Chua says in an interview, he did not want to be mentioned.

It is worth mentioning that Chua's Chinese mothering would not be unfamiliar to many Jewish families.

I could have added, and I did not, that there are many private schools in America where children are worked very, very hard. I have heard many parents complain about how much homework their children have, while at the same time having no wish whatever to send them to school anywhere else.

As for the question of whether such techniques are reserved only for those who are gifted, Chua did an interview in the Journal today where she discusses how her mother raised and educated her sister who has Down syndrome.

Here's a link:

I hope the link works, though, if it doesn't I do not imagine that it is behind the firewall on the Journal site.

David A. Bennett said...

I’m looking back over my perhaps overwrought comment and your reasonable reply and I guess I’m now trying to decide if I’m still concerned about the identity issue here. I am a 4th generation resident of Washington State, before that my kin came to America in dribs and drabs all the way back to the Mayflower, but having roots in a place like Washington, which I doubt could be put into any sort of cultural reference by most Americans (coffee anyone?), and being from a family that probably defies any categorical description as well (my grandfather could have listed his occupation as wood cutter when married and auto body mechanic at death, my father, high school vice principle and, thankfully still with us, his last job was as a real estate broker) maybe I’m just not a good person to evaluate this. I am always struck by the tendency of people to explain themselves based on their heritage or their social position. Most of the time it ends up providing a convenient excuse or, it seems to me in Chua’s case, an opportunity to celebrate themselves (which I think I am guilty of earlier in this paragraph). I would say Chua has done a wonderful job bringing up her daughters, even though if one can quibble about the things she finds important (concert pianist…blah) but because of her belief that this is mostly (completely?) due to her heritage she has turned what would be excellent advice about parenting into a screed that has drawn a firestorm over the internet. Maybe I’d be just a resistant to her message if she was just portraying herself as a law professor, but I don’t think so. Of course if she had I bet I never would have heard about it either. Is it possible in America today to state a point of view and have it stand on its own? Maybe I’m a little crabby about this at the moment because of the example of Sarah Palin. What she has to say has been heard by almost no one but that hasn’t stopped the reaction to her from being something quite remarkable. Maybe I just don’t get this.
Don’t feel compelled to respond to this comment and thank you again for your previous response. said...

Here, I do not really consider it will work.