Friday, January 14, 2011

The "Superior" Chinese Mother?

Everyone has been asking me about the WSJ article by Amy Chua, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."  Below is my personal ABC ("American Born Chinese" - or rather ABT "American Born Taiwanese") reaction to the article.  Note, I haven't yet read the book.

Overall I have mixed feelings about Chua's "Chinese" mothering philosophies.

I love the article for evoking so much fire on both sides of the aisle.  The 5,8733 comments and counting on WSJ's site show how it has really struck a chord with parents and aspiring parents - who ,let's face it, have no idea what they are talking about.  Unfortunately, many of the comments focus on the use of the word "superior" in the title over the actual philosophy.  The pissing matches over who is better, communist China or America are embarrassing.  These readers might as well just write in caps, "USA, USA, USA."  The outrage is particularly surprising.  Are these people seriously in disbelief that parents use these practices?  For me, the article isn't relevant regarding what style of parenting is better.  I think most of us know that different parenting styles are equally effective in shaping "successful" and productive members of society.  For me, it's about the conversation the article sparks and the memories it incites.

Chua's stories immediately brought me back to the sting of past piano practices and the tears I shed after losing tennis matches.  Up until the age of 10, piano practices regularly involved me protesting the second I sat down at the bench, my mother slapping me across the hands and face for embarrassing mistakes and tears shed by both mother and daughter.  Raising three kids alone must have taken a lot of the "Chinese" out of my mother, as she allowed us all to quit piano at a very young age.  I don't regret quitting piano.  

When it came to tennis, however, my mother's same tactics proved to be quite effective.  I practiced 3-5 hours per day, 7 days a week.  My weekends were consumed by tennis tournaments.  My mother did not permit us to watch TV during the week, although we didn't have time, considering once we got home there was only time for dinner and homework.  Maybe she knew that I wanted "it" so bad, and that inspired her to push me to my limits.  A tough tennis loss meant I would endure 3-4 hours of confinement in the car ride home listening to my mother scream at the top of her lungs that I was a "loser.  Second place is nothing.  Winning is everything."  I resented her for trying to live vicariously through my successes.  Once I was accepted by an Ivy League university, I think she realized ripping me a new one was no longer necessary.  I had achieved the holy grail.  Ultimately, I appreciate most of her approach to my tennis career, as her commitment, both financial and emotional, contributed to my acceptance to the college of my choice, and so on and so forth.  I know she was just trying to give me what she didn't have as a child.  I wonder if I could ever commit myself in such a way to my own child's success.  Would I want to?  I'm sure my children wouldn't want that.

As a college athlete, I don't agree that piano and violin are the only acceptable extracurricular activities.  Kids have a ton of excess energy to expend - why not let them unleash it in sports?  More importantly, sports, in the correct environment, have the potential to teach children discipline, team work, social skills, commitment, perseverance, pushing themselves to their physical, mental and emotional limits and can also teach children how to lose.  It's not just about winning.  It's about learning life skills.

I'm still unsure about my feelings on using debasement as a parenting tool.  My mother used to call us losers, fat, dumb, ugly, etc.  "Why can't you be skinny like your sister and your cousins," she would say.  The thought of debasing my little Henry gives me a visceral reaction.  I don't think I could ever do it.  I was born a very confident person, and openly told my mother at a young age that she was "lucky I didn't have an eating disorder."  I often wonder how her tactics formed me as a person. Was I confident despite her critical tactics?  Or would I be a ridiculous egomaniac if she hadn't taken me down a few pegs?  I'm already pretty arrogant, so maybe it's the latter?  Regardless, I know myself and I know that when it comes to my own children, I will definitely be embracing the Western approach to positive reinforcement when appropriate - I won't be one of those parents who praises every little thing.  

I agree with Chua that hard work will result in some success, no matter how limited the talent.  There is really no excuse for failing at something.  You probably just didn't work hard enough.  I know that I will have no regrets if I commit myself 100% to whatever I take on.  If I fail, I'm OK with it, so long as I tried my darndest.  I also agree that things are much more fun when you are great at something, that being great at something requires discipline, and that ultimately being great at something builds valuable self-confidence in children, which will follow them throughout their lives.  In my opinion, the magic equation is finding something the child will simultaneously enjoy and excel at, and once you find that balance, you push them further than they think they can go.  Of course, when it comes to academics, I believe kids must learn that not everything is fun and I have no qualms about forcing Henry and his soon-to-arrive-brother to sit at a desk for hours perfecting homework, etc.  Maybe this hybrid philosophy is an obvious result of my background - raised by an immigrant, but influenced by American peers and an American education.  

I put this philosophy to the test last fall while coaching freshman tennis players.  I initially scoffed at my  players' parents when they beamed with pride as their children lost 6-0, 6-0.  I thought, "Ha.  This is why our team is so bad.  Because the parents don't push their kids hard enough."  During practice, I pushed the kids physically and mentally despite their protest that they "couldn't do it."  One of the girls told me that during a PE physical, she could hear my voice in her head pushing her to keep going.  She was the last girl standing in the endurance run.  When my players lost, and they lost a lot, I encouraged them to work harder and reinforced their strengths.  Additionally, their parents gave them tons of positive reinforcement and support.  They enjoyed tennis and loved me for pushing them to their limits.  This all resulted in tremendous improvement in their confidence and actual tennis ability.  Now that the season is over and I've had time to reflect on how to coach beginners, I don't think the mushy smushy supportive approach is all bad.  There are definitely benefits to positive reinforcement, especially when a child is learning a new skill.  I want them to feel good about what they are doing so they will want to get better.  But, I also believe, if you push them and show them you believe they can do better, they will eventually believe in themselves and ultimately work harder and do better.

Hopefully, taking the "best" from Western and Chinese parenting philosophies will result in the ultimate POWER parenting philosophy and in 20 years, publishers will be begging me to write a book on why hybrid parenting is "Superior."  ;)          

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