Chinese mom vs. American dad

Quick note: this post talks more about my father than mother, but I want to make it clear that I owe them both a great debt for the way they raised me. My mother was full of life lessons and wisdom of her own, it’s just that this post deals with a topic more applicable to my father’s words of wisdom.

At first glance, the parenting method espoused by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal seems completely cruel and unbalanced. She describes her parenting method as “Chinese”, and opens with this list of things her kids were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

About half of these aren’t the worst thing in the world. But she seems to have a personal vendetta against any form of creativity or self-expression that isn’t classical music on piano or violin. And you’d think that someone so smart would realize that millions of Chinese mothers insisting that their kids be #1 in every subject isn’t really a workable plan, unless they happen to be the only Chinese person in the class. More troubling, however, are her methods of enforcing the above list of rules, which in some cases are downright abusive. She asserts that calling her children “garbage” is a legitimate form of motivation, as is berating an overweight child with taunts of “fatty”.

To be fair to Ms. Chua, there are reports that her book is much better and more nuanced than the article that appeared in the WSJ. I haven’t read it, but it may be worth your time.

The blogosphere has been humming with posts by Asian-Americans who were raised in similar ways, as well as those who weren’t. I’m not Asian, but I thought I’d share the way I was raised, because I think it offers a valuable counterpoint to Ms. Chua’s portrayal of typical American children as spoiled and lazy.

I can remember three relevant lessons that I heard over and over growing up, primarily from my father:

  • A job worth doing is a job worth doing well. (so do your best at even the smallest and most menial tasks)
  • Winners concentrate on winning. Losers concentrate on getting by. (strive for excellence, not adequacy)
  • You can do anything you set your mind to. (believe that you’re capable of what you want to accomplish, and don’t give up)

It’s taken me a long time to realize the unique value contained in each of these lessons, as well as the degree to which I’ve internalized them. Not that I’m perfect at them (they’re hard!), but I believe them all to be true, in a deep way.

But even putting these lessons aside, the other thing that my parents both taught me, through example, was that chasing “success” and “achievement” is not what life is about. This is the hardest lesson of all for me, and one I struggle with daily. Aside from all the issues I listed above with Ms. Chua’s parenting style, the thing I dislike about it the most is the enormous emphasis placed on external validation and achievement. Don’t get me wrong, there’s great value in playing piano or violin, going to Harvard, getting straight A’s. But to limit your definition of excellence to those pursuits that have been deemed “acceptable” is a great tragedy. It produces automatons with brains but not heart, with accolades but not soul. (Ironically, Harvard knows this and only takes so many of these cookie-cutter applicants each year, opting to also fill the class with vagabonds and adventurers who have spurned the common path for the one less traveled.) One wonders how many people raised this way are now in their thirties and forties, Harvard-educated, accomplished at piano, and utterly dead inside.

These are hard questions, and I sympathize with parents everywhere who wrestle with them. But ultimately, as with most things in life, I think that a balanced approach is necessary. Specifically, it seems that there are three things that great parents do:

  1. Give their kids freedom and space to discover their interests and aptitudes
  2. Provide structure and discipline to teach and encourage kids to work hard within the areas discovered in #1
  3. Avoid screwing up the kids before they’re adults via abuse, divorce, etc.

Note: Love isn’t on that list, not because it doesn’t matter, but because almost all parents love their children. And those that don’t could hardly avoid breaking rule #3.

Ms. Chua focuses on the lack of #2 with American children, a concern that I share. There will always be a struggle between #1 and #2 on that list, but I think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of #1 in America right now. There are too many kids in America playing on sports teams that don’t keep score and getting trophies just for showing up. This is fundamentally stupid, not because self-esteem is bad, but because life just doesn’t care about you and you’ll find that out once you graduate and there are no more trophies and participation points.

But judging by the outpouring of bitter emotion by Asian-Americans raised by parents like Ms. Chua, her parenting method focuses only on #2 and is thus hardly better than the one she dismisses. She would be well-advised to drop the verbal abuse and switch her focus from pushing her kids to do things she cares about, to pushing them to do things they care about.

What do you think? Comments from parents are especially appreciated.