It’s taken me a while, but I finally got around to reading Amy Chua‘s article in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The piece has generated a lot of discussion, much of it angry. (Although that’s to be expected with a headline like that.) A lot of other blogs have discussed the article with an eye to ethnic stereotyping and cultural sensitivity. (I really liked this piece at Jezebel.) I don’t want to re-hash the same arguments here; instead, I want to look at Chua’s argument about parenting styles, stripped of its cultural and ethnic essentialism. When I read Chua’s article ignoring the assumptions and generalizations about “Chinese parents” vs. “western parents,” I found that I didn’t find her arguments about parenting offensive, but interesting and eerily familiar.
The parenting style Chua attributes to Chinese mothers is one in which the parents push their kids to excel academically and in chosen extra-curriculars, valuing success and achievement over self-esteem. As a juxtaposition, she attributes a style to “westerners” that values self-esteem and a child’s happiness over success and achievement. While I do believe that there is some truth to stereotypes, I don’t think it’s fair or wise to argue that these parenting styles are representative of an entire cultural or ethnic group. Regardless, these contradictory styles are interesting and worth looking at more carefully.
A lot of people have made the comparison between Chinese mothers and Jewish mothers, and probably for good reason. I do not want to make the same mistake as Chua and stereotype Jewish parents or suggest that my upbringing was typical of the Jewish kid, but there are definitely similarities in my personal upbringing to the style Chua describes and I do believe some of them are related to my Jewish identity.
My parents (especially my father) are the type that value achievement over self-esteem. I was expected to get straight A’s, play a musical instrument, and participate and excel in extra-curriculars. Unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t told to “do my best,” but to “be the best.” I’ll share a few anecdotes that illustrate what I mean. (Sorry Dad, I still love you!)
My dad was forced by his “Jewish mother” to play the violin. He hated it. While he still forced my brother and I to play a musical instrument, he gave us the luxury of choosing which instrument. I chose the flute, and after a week or two I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Excited, I went to show my dad. His response? “Come show me again when you don’t sound like a beginner.” As a kid, I was never that great at math. So, my dad created “Chocolate math nights” where he drilled me on fractions and long division (in addition to my regular homework) and threw in a little chocolate to sweeten the deal. Another memorable moment was in high school, when I came running home waving my test for him to see. I got a 99 out of 100! A+! His response? “What, you couldn’t get that last point?”
Chua describes two different belief systems that perhaps explain the difference between the two parenting styles. One style is based on the belief that your kid can be the best, or can achieve excellence with enough practice and hard work. Alternatively, some parents believe that their child “just doesn’t have the aptitude” for a particular subject or skill, or chalk bad grades up to inadequate teaching or unfair circumstances. The second belief is that children “owe” their parents everything, where alternatively, some parents believe that they owe their children everything, including happiness. The third is the belief that ultimately, the parent knows what is best and their opinions override the child’s desires or preferences. Alternatively, some parents believe in giving their kids the freedom to find their own way. Chua believes that both types of parents love their children equally; “It’s just an entirely different parenting model.” Of course, considering the title of her piece, its obvious which style she thinks is better.
Thinking about how I want to raise my own kids one day, I often wonder if I will follow in my parents’ footsteps. The reality is that I may not have a choice considering that, like most kids, I have internalized my parents’ values. Remembering how much pressure my parents placed on me, and how much pressure I now place on myself, I am uncomfortable with the idea that I’ll put that much pressure on my children. I don’t think it harmed my self-esteem, per se, but it did fuse my idea of self-worth to achievement and I often (still) struggle with the feeling that I will never be “good enough.” On the other hand, it did get results. I was a straight A student, got into a great college, and I’m on my way to getting my second Masters degree.
Oddly enough, Amy Chua’s article actually made me feel better about my own future as an overbearing, achievement-pushing parent. I thank her for getting down to the beliefs underlying the style, particularly the belief that your kid can be the best, get straight A’s, etc. Telling a kid that B’s are not good enough may seem like a put-down, but for these parents, it really means “I believe in you. I believe you can do better.” Understanding this puts my parents’ actions in better perspective. While I still feel pressure to accomplish great things in order to make them proud of me, it feels really good to know that they believe I am smart and capable enough to accomplish these great things.
My dad tried to be a little less overbearing than his own parents (adding chocolate to math drills, letting us choosing our own instrument, etc). Like him, I know I want to give my kids a slightly more balanced upbringing than I had. I know I will be a little more concerned with things like self-esteem, but I also don’t want to abandon the achievement-based values my parents instilled in me. Despite the pressure that may result, I know that I too will believe that my kids can do anything and everything with enough hard work, help and support. There are lots of different kinds of love and while I’m not going to say that this one is “superior,” it makes a lot of sense to me.