Why Chinese Mothers are Crazy

Jan 18, 2011
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The WSJ spin aside, there is some truth to Amy Chua’s account of Chinese parenting. George Ding, a “survivor” of Chinese parents and a teacher in Beijing, lives to tell the tale.

Naively, the author conflates and confuses achievement, success, and happiness. She doesn’t seem to understand that not everyone measures life by rankings and resumes. The fact that the “vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be ‘the best’ students” is not only a mathematical error (as it is statistically impossible), but also a philosophical one – everyone has a different definition for “the best.” It is not that Western parents don’t want their child to be the best—it is that mature parents do not measure their children by such a simplistic metric. Not everyone will be accomplished, and not everyone can or should be.

The author doesn’t understand that a parent cannot control what their child will become, as much as they may try. The only thing a parent can and should do is provide love and security. I think it’s poignant that for all the talk about grades and achievement, Chua offers no emotional or moral standard by which to measure her success as a parent. Do her children love her? Are they thankful for her? Are her children moral human beings? These questions do not seem to enter into Chua’s parenting philosophy.

In fact, her children’s opinions are hardly mentioned. I can’t help but wonder what they think about their own lives. Does playing at Carnegie Hall make Sophia happy? Did she realize her own dream or her mother’s? Do the Chua children love what they do or fear the consequences of not doing it? And where is the kept husband in all this? In the end Chua is no better than those domineering white parents who force their children to become little league sluggers. It’s not about race; it’s about being a terrible legal guardian.

The author is also blind to the arbitrariness of her definition of achievement and success. She forbids her children to play “any instrument other than the piano or violin.” What’s wrong with all the other instruments? In Chua’s world, the New York Philharmonic would contain only violinists and pianists. And why instruments instead of chess or Olympic math? If the author is trying to make her children a stereotype, all she needs to do is make sure they drive poorly. Chua requires her children to be “the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama” but offers no explanation why gym and drama are inferior to other subjects. There are no reasons for her predilections other than an atavistic and deep-seated belief in things she has not examined personally.

What Chua doesn’t understand is that it doesn’t take skill to be a parent like her. Being an autocrat is not hard.

What Chua doesn’t understand is that it doesn’t take skill to be a parent like her. Being an autocrat is not hard. Forcing powerless human beings who are totally dependent on you to do your bidding, then bragging about the results should not impress anyone. It is not parenting—it is bullying, and anyone can do it, provided a requisite lack of intelligence and humanity. I am not arguing for laissez-faire parenting. Parents should serve as guides, but there is a fine line between encouragement and browbeating; between caring and control; between education and indoctrination. Chua seems to believe that nothing short of constant vigilance is necessary to ensure that children succeed and Western parents who “are concerned about their children’s psyches” produce feeble human beings. What she doesn’t get is that parenting is not a binary system. There are ways to encourage, motivate, and support your children without spoiling or pampering them and there are ways to teach your children the value of hard work and practice without sending them to a labor camp. Parents care about their children, but that doesn’t justify anything. You can curse, beat, berate, and abuse your child in the name of love but what good is love if your child can’t feel it?

The fact that Chua equates her own personal, sociopathic anecdotes with parenting advice is frightening. The “story in favor of coercion” she offers where she forces her child to learn a song on the piano through verbal abuse (“I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic” which Chua calls “motivation”), explicit threats (“I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents…”), and physical torture (“I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.”), which leads to eventual success and a conciliatory moment between mother and daughter, would be criminal if she weren’t genuinely insane. Does she truly believe that results are the only thing that matter? Does accomplishment really justify physical, emotional, and psychological abuse? Even if it did, is it worth it? Chua’s pathological lack of sympathy is matched only by her paucity of logic, which leads me and others to believe that this is an extremely well-disguised satire. She outlines everything wrong with overbearing parenting, then does it anyway. I sincerely hope that no one treats her article as advice; it is not a parenting fable but a cautionary tale. In fact her article, an excerpt from her book, reads like a bad standup routine: Chinese parents are like this; Western parents are like this. I have not read her book, and can only hope that in the other 250 pages Chua details her journey toward discovering that her idea of parenting is morally and ideologically bankrupt and then profusely apologizes to her children.

What I want to see is a follow-up 10 years from now, checking in on the Chua progeny. If they don’t hate their lives and resent their mother; if they don’t become suicidal or depressed when they realize that they never had a choice (besides violin or piano) and that their childhood has served as nothing but bragging rights and a book deal; if they don’t rebel once they discover freedom in college or beyond; if they don’t become untethered and lash out against inculcated rules by engaging in dangerous or irresponsible behavior because have not developed a personal moral compass, then perhaps Ms. Chua is onto something.

Her ideas are a distillation of generations upon generations of feudal Chinese thinking.