Training Children

Chinese Mother Second only to news about Congressman Gifford, the hottest exchanged link of the weekend was this article in the Wall Street Journal about Amy Chua's pareting philosophy.

Chua makes the distinction between Chinese and Western mothers. She says she using the term, Chinese, loosely to include various ethnic groups that all embrace a common parenting philosophy of demanding high academic achievement for their children and allowing them very few choices about recreational activities.

I know this type of parent very well. My best friend in high school had a mother who conformed to the ethnic and philosophical requirements of Chua. Let me just say that the end result was awe-inspiring rebellion at college, once her mother was out of reach.

In a momentary pause between grad school programs years ago, I taught at any after-school enrichment program for smart kids. The kids were drilled in math and writing for two hours after school. The entire class was Asian. The parents frequently told me that Western schools were too lenient.

Chua is an extremist with an inkling of truth. We could all demand a little more from our kids, teach them to value hard work, and get them to step away from the bag of Pringles and the xBox. At the same time, there is also a place for creativity and free time and dreaming. High achievement comes at a cost, and maybe our kids will be happiest if they don't quite reach their potential.

The best parents can navigate these extremes. It's too bad that the MSM only gives voice to the extremes.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ben for pointing us to this remarkable comment thread on Quora.


30 thoughts on “Training Children

  1. The “Chinese parent” stereotype, if that’s what it is, remains truthful for sons, or at least it has in my observation. Perhaps not to same degree, and not always with the same consequences, especially when you’re dealing with immigrant kids in America (having your personality channeled into a set of academic or artistic expectations doesn’t have quite the blowback on your ability to interact socially when you live in a patriarchal society which grants massive privileges to men in the first place). Still, it’s wrong to say that Chua couldn’t have pulled with off with a boy; many parents do.

  2. And there’s a similar parent in “Overachievers” by Alexandra Robbins whose story ends with the younger child being removed from the home to a foster family. Now the older child finds himself happy and reasonably satisfied at Harvard, with gentle and appropriate rebellion, rather than wild rebellion (and these are boys).
    “High achievement comes at a cost, and maybe our kids will be happiest if they don’t quite reach their potential.”
    Good line, and I think the one that addresses the real question. What are our goals in parenting our children? Mine is basically for my kids to be happy, while being able to support themselves and the people they love, both economically and emotionally, while being moral and making some contribution to society (i.e. no Dexters, even if that makes them happy).
    I don’t think this is incompatible with some of the ideas Chua expresses. I do think there are many things that you don’t enjoy until you’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning and practicing. I think some of those things might make our children very happy, and that some amount of current distress is worth the future gain. I think that children should be praised for what they do, and not uniformly without regard to performance.
    You’re right of course, that it’s the extremes that get published. This essay, though, strikes me a bit like the U Chicago professors’ article about how he feels poor making 400K a year, tone-deaf and foolish. I certainly wouldn’t let my kids spend any time with this woman or her family. Though maybe this is a feature, not a bug, since she doesn’t appear to want her children to have any friends.

  3. “Still, it’s wrong to say that Chua couldn’t have pulled with off with a boy; many parents do.”
    I think that in America, there’s only a subset of children that Chua’s parenting style would result in what she wants, which is high achievement, and not rebellion (including psychological breakdowns, suicides, or mere non-compliance). The same may not be true in other cultures/countries where there’s no comparison point (for example, parents who *don’t* call their kid garbage). Chua’s patting herself on the back because her children appear to be the compliant type, the ones who give in and practice the piano after an afternoon’s rebellion.
    I have children like that, too, one’s who will give in after an afternoon of rebellion and compliance. My challenge is to prevent myself from being Chua, because I don’t want my children to turn into achievement machines, with no independence, friendships, or just pure joy.
    There are lots of children who are more deeply rebellious, though, and want comply after random threats to take away their dollhouses; I don’t know what happens to them in other cultures, but in America they have choices other than compliance. And, that’s before considering the issue of learning/developmental disabilities.

  4. If she’s like this with piano and violin practice, just wait until her children reach SAT age.
    It’s possible to drill, drill, drill to get a high score, I suppose. I know the evidence is not entirely clear, but for argument’s sake let’s assume that. As academic work gets more complicated, working hard is necessary–but the kid who’s spent a childhood memorizing word lists can be overshadowed by the student who scores really highly on the SAT without any prep. You know, someone who’s had sleepovers, and played sports other than tennis, and has participated in school plays.
    In some ways, this style of parenting aims to create children with narrow and obsessive interests, but without social skills. What happens when these kids reach college, and mom’s not at hand?

  5. “What happens when these kids reach college, and mom’s not at hand? ”
    Well, again, it probably depends on the kid. There’s a story in “Overachievers” by Alexandra Robbins about a Chua-style mother The mom in the book is portrayed as actively abusive, which I hope Chua is not. But, again, I believe Chua is able to make the parenting choices she does, without becoming abusive because her children are basically compliant.
    In Overachiever’s the moms’ younger son gets removed from the home and put in a foster home after sufficient rebellion. Her older child (“AP Frank”) goes to Harvard, where he learns to fit in, enjoys the fruits of his high achievement, but learns to follow his own dreams.

  6. “I don’t want my children to turn into achievement machines, with no independence, friendships, or just pure joy. ”
    I was raised in a home that heavily stressed achievement in music and academics, with fairly high pressure and expectations though never with Chua’s extreme methods. It was a close and loving family. That environment worked very well for me and all my siblings, and I’m raising my own children in a similar environment.
    What I’ve learned as an adult is that my greatest sources of joy, independence and fulfillment are built on the foundation of mastery that I achieved as a teenager. Flow and joy come *after* mastery is achieved, and you only get there with hours and hours of practice, much of it rote.

  7. Oh, I was also raised in a house where high achievement was expected (though, frankly, not stressed). I also agree that hard work can pay off with joy (though the hours or rote practice required for different fields is different).
    I’m also raising my children in a similar environment. But, where I disagree most strongly with Chua is when she says that kids won’t do the work required for mastery. I think they often will. If they will, if they’re self-driven, why can’t they choose to play cello instead of violin (or even saxophone)? Chua is describing a worlds where children are not permitted to make choices and that’s not a world that encourages the behavior I want my children to exhibit as they grow older and make their own choices.
    Frankly, I even think that her methods work because her children are, largely, self-driven. She’s able to threaten to get the extra piano practice because it does not actually require her to withhold food. Witholding food would be abusive, and would indeed be legally actionable and would get her kids taken away, if she had to do it on any regular basis in order to teach her child to play a piano piece. I think she’s patting herself on her back about her parenting choices which depend heavily on her own children and their abilities and personalities.

  8. Why should we assume that she has been honest about the full extent of her parenting methods? If she’s willing to make the sort of threats she outlines in the exerpts, I think it’s at least possible that there are practices she has not admitted to in print.
    Many (western) child actors have published autobiographies as adults, in which they reveal how poorly they were treated as children. It’s possible for parents from many cultures to lose all perspective about performance when a child does well. It’s very hard to step back and allow a child to find her own way.
    A successful academic is not necessarily a kind and loving parent. I wonder how the dinner party guests would describe the incident in which she called her daughter “garbage.”

  9. “If she’s willing to make the sort of threats she outlines in the excerpts, I think it’s at least possible that there are practices she has not admitted to in print.”
    Well, I was presuming not, because if she actually documents practices that would be considered abusive, she might expect some action. If I were her husband, I’d certainly be taping these interactions for future custody battles, even in the form that they’re described, since the threshold there would be lower.
    I understand what she’s getting at. I believe that children can be pushed to their benefit, that a lot of happiness can come as a result of hard work.
    But you need to know where to draw the lines, and think hard about the best interests of the child. I’m arguing, since she’s writing the book, and because I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt in actually believing that she’s working in the best interests of her children, that her pushing works, that her children have sufficient ability and drive of their own because I think they would have escape hatches if they were actually being abused.
    One of the things I don’t understand is how the parenting style she describes can be compatible with being employed.

  10. On the pushing kids to excel thing, I’ve seen it work with boys, but only for getting them to throw/catch/run very well. I think it only worked because peers would also respect that kind of accomplishment. I suppose other areas may have more varied peer options.
    And “awe-inspiring rebellion at college” is a great phrase.

  11. Some of things that bring me the most joy are activities in which I possess no natural talent and have never worked at. Singing, for example. By all accounts I’m a god-awful singer, but it brings me a lot of joy. Conversely, I possess great ability in some activities, have been elaborately educated in those matters and yet, they bring me no joy, because they bore the crap out of me. The joy was driven out of those activities a long time ago.
    I saw a lot of very driven kids burn out before college. It’s important for my kids to get a good education, but I also want them to have a sense of humor, kindness, imagination, spontaneity, and a taste for adventure.

  12. re: awe-inspiring college rebellion. You know that it’s very hard to get kicked out of Harvard. You have to really work at it and be committed to that end.

  13. Keep in mind this is an excerpt from a book to be released soon; it is meant to be controversial to attract buyers. The essay is intriguing enough to make me want to read the book and find out “the rest of the story”, or how does she blend the Chinese method with American culture. As my 17 year old daughter said, “at what age does she let the kids start making decisions for themselves? That’s a huge factor in how controlling she really is.”

  14. I challenge Ms. Chua to parent a 9 year old boy with gifted intelligence, ADHD, a speech impediment and hand writing that can only be classified as “early serial killer.” Oh yeah, and he has knock knees.
    Let’s see then how her cookie cutter approach works. Perhaps she’d succeed or perhaps one of them would commit harikari.
    What she wouldn’t see is that he is hilarious, loving and obsessively interested in space, fish and Albert Einstein. No, she’d spend hours a day trying to get him to write him clearly and not be impulsive and distracted while practicing piano.

  15. One thing that jumped out at me is that each child being trained under the “Chinese” method is supposed to be #1 in their class. That’s all very well if there is only a handful of such children in each class, but what on earth happens when most of the children are? (It’s quite different to demand mastery of particular subjects.)

  16. After a little (probably over-obsessive) searching on Amy Chua, it’s pretty clear that she’s marketing a book with hype. The book does describe her parenting style, and we might disagree with it in various forms, but she’s not unaware of the difference among children and what they can do.
    Interestingly, has a sister with Downs. So, my suspicion is that the practice of this parenting sounds worse than it really is.
    I thought the #1 thing was kind of funny, too. I wondered if it meant that she had to search around for classes where all the kids were mediocre compared to her own. ‘Cause, you see, there’s no one kid in my kids’ school who is the best at everything (even if we exclude gym and drama). I think that if her kids were twins, they would have to be in different classes, so that they could both be #1.

  17. i.e. Amy Chua has a sister with Downs. And, the family brags about that daughter, too.
    I think that Chua is purposefully drawing a caricature, to draw interest in her literary output (as do Hirshman, Tsing Loh, Roiphe, and that other woman whose name I can’t remember right now). I have to remind myself to think about the ideas the people inspire and not the people themselves (who aren’t who they say they are).

  18. The funny thing is, while she calls herself a “Chinese mother,” her daughters may not self-identify as Chinese. As adults, they could choose to see themselves as Jewish mothers, or American mothers of Chinese and Jewish ancestry.
    The family’s already exchanging Christmas and Hanukkah presents. The mother’s identity doesn’t necessarily determine the daughters’ identities.

  19. I didn’t know until this morning that Chua had a book out, which she is obviously promoting. And, obviously, you don’t sell books with conformity and understatement.
    My guess as to the backstory is that Chua is a bit over-the-top, like many mothers I know, and also quite full of herself, and that her husband or one of her friends told her, half-admiringly and half-ironically, “You should write a book.”
    Now if I were writing a book, my competitiveness would probably manifest itself in trying to ensure that it had more, and more Turabian-esque, footnotes than anyone else’s, but Chua obviously wants to write a bestseller, so she portrays herself in a rather extreme light. Probably she has chosen the most extreme episodes in her child-raising history to highlight.

  20. I mentioned the article to my daughter this morning (she’s nearly 10) and she told me she thought that the 4th grade Asian kids were discussing it at lunch yesterday at her school (I think it might have been in the context of piano practice). She might have been wrong, though and just thought the same topic was being discussed (’cause she hadn’t read the Chua article yet).
    She read the article, and then said that she thought the main point was that “you have to work really really hard at something before you can have any fun.” She had to leave for school at that point, so I didn’t get to follow up. But, it’s interesting to get her insight. That’s one of the things I love about seeing my kids get older.

  21. Turns out that the WSJ article was pulled out of her book not by Chua but by WSJ staffers.
    Fascinating article by a Chinese-American journalist Jeff Yang

    I decided I had to connect with Chua herself to learn firsthand what she was really trying to say through her book — and why that message ended up getting lost in its newsprint translation.
    Chua responded to a brief message I sent her introducing myself and asking for an interview bysaying that she was glad to hear from me, as she’d been looking for a way to discuss her misgivings about the Journal article. Apparently, it had been edited without her input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it.
    “I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

    So. Yes at one point she was a tiger, and grew enough (with the help of her children) to adapt her parenting.

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