Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why I'll never use Chinese parenting with my son

Everyone is talking about Amy Chua's provocative essay in the Wall Street Journal, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior and it's easy to see why.  In this excerpt from her upcoming book, the Yale Law professor paints Western mothers as namby pamby pushovers who let their kids do whatever they want and fail miserably while Chinese mothers and a select group of mothers of other ethnicities enforce a strict regime to produce straight A virtuoso children who will take care of them in their old age.

When I first read it, linked from a friend's Facebook page, I just skimmed it and it still made me sick to my stomach.  Having just read it in full, I think I want to throw up.

Writes Chua:
If the child comes home with a B on the test, some Western parents will still praise the child. Other Western parents will sit their child down and express disapproval, but they will be careful not to make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child "stupid," "worthless" or "a disgrace." Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child's grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher's credentials.

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
All I can think is:  What in the world would a Chinese mother do with a child with an attention deficit (with or without hyperactivity)?

I've thought of this in other contexts.  Reading accounts of the pioneers when children were an integral part of life on the farm and good behavior was expected and enforced, I can't help but wonder about the little daydreamer.  A 10-year-old kid gazing off into the sky while the team plows right through the crops; a 12-year old girl trying to sit still and sew but completely unable to stay in her seat.  How did those parents - who surely knew nothing of disorders - react?

Chua describes being called "garbage" as a young girl, and repeating the cycle with one of her own daughters.  She says it proudly, as a badge of honor.  She describes 3-hour piano practice sessions, including one where she dragged her daughter to the piano, forcing her to play.

I saw this same type of parenting first hand when visiting a friend in my early 20s.  Her mother constantly berated her.  Later my friend told her that her mother felt it was her job to do so; that complementing her was tantamount to telling her she had done "enough" and wouldn't "encourage" her.  It was painful to be in the room when her mother was there, and I avoided her as much as possible.  

I won't deny the precision the Chinese display in areas such as gymnastics, ice skating, piano, and so forth.  But at what benefit.  Okay, so you are among the top five in the world who can do X.  But you spend 16 hours a day at it, have utterly no social life, and can't really have a dynamic conversation about a new book, a trend, or hot button topic.  A child with ADHD would not thrive in this type of world.

My son may never play violin like Joshua Bell.  He may not compete as a gymnast in the Olympics.  But I have no doubt that he will be able to talk your ear off on any one of a number of subjects.  He'll be able to describe beautiful images and create amazing inventions.  All because he has been encouraged and because we have worked with and not against his ADHD. 

One final note - I think the worst part of Chua's argument is that it paints parenting as either/or.  Permissive or strict.  Easy or authoritarian.  Personally, I believe most of us - from all cultures - use a blend of techniques depending on what we've seen, what we've experienced, and who our child is.  At least I hope we do.  One blogger, Wendy Sachs, seems to agree.

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