Many of my friends are often horrified by articles I send them from the Wall Street Journal — but rarely is the feeling mutual. This weekend a friend of mine, baffled and furious, sent me a link of an essay entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” I would not normally take it upon myself to write a rebuttal to such a claim, but given the fact that it was written by a scholar on our own campus — Yale Law School professor Amy Chua — a response seemed merited. Professor Chua displayed a frightening view of the role of a mother and, at the same time, showed a misguided understanding of western families, the ignorance of which was only matched by its offensive nature.
The essay’s thesis is simple: Chinese parents raise stereotypically “successful” kids using techniques that are superior to western methods of child rearing. These claims fall short on three levels: first, in the failure to establish a defensible metric of success; second, through the fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of western parenting; and third, in a shameful outline of the proper way to raise a child.
As a whole, Professor Chua determines success entirely using external measurements, willingly disregarding the personal, internal development of the child. This all stems from a flawed worldview: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it … Once a child starts to excel at something — whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet — he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction.” The first statement stands without any rational or logical foundation — it simply can be dispelled with an anecdote many of us share from our earliest memories. I quite fondly look back, as I’m sure many of you do as well, at memories of playing catch with my dad, cooking with my mom or doing a crossword with my grandfather, not because I was honing my skills relative to other children, but because of the camaraderie and human connection that was fostered in those activities. I’m pretty terrible at baseball and I still can’t solve even the Times’ Monday crossword, but the experience wasn’t devalued in the least.
Chua also places inordinate emphasis on “praise” and “admiration,” underlining that a child’s worth is determined by communal views. Furthermore, the fact that this may lead to “satisfaction” could, in certain circumstances, be true, but it is far from relevant. There is a vital difference between satisfaction and fulfillment that Chua fails to understand. Satisfaction is temporary and shallow, while fulfillment, the result of personal choice (which is robbed by a micromanaging parent) and hard work, is necessary in the development of a child’s sense of self and identity. The greatest gift of the West is a reverence for reason, whose development must be the purpose of any parent. True success is not the product of outside perception, but the fostering of internal development centered on reason — a virtue that must be learned, not drilled.
To my second point, Chua puts forth a definition of the “western mother” that seems only applicable to some California commune or some VH1 reality show. Chua generalizes the western mentality as weak — lacking discipline, failing to properly mold the child, overly willing to succumb to the kid’s pressures and whims. Chua almost views parenting as a battle in a state of nature, where the parent must stake out unquestioned dominance or all is lost: “Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.” Chua attempts to support her idea that the western mother is crippled by timidity through scattered anecdotes, because only in broad strokes can such an overly wide and unsubstantiated claim survive.
Professor Chua, to her own detriment, is an absolutist — seeing the parent as either the unquestionable sovereign or the quivering hippie. Western mothers do not fail to understand that parents must provide authority, but they, unlike Chua, recognize the consequences of such a tyranny. She advocates a model that will cripple children in the real world, once forced to make their own choices and interact with other human beings. The western mother is not weak (I would love to see her make some of these claims to my own mother), and it is regrettable that Chua fails to distinguish flexibility and frailty.
The greatest flaw of Chua’s parenting model is not her startling rigidity, but her commitment to preventing children from failing. By not allowing her children to choose even their own extracurriculars or defining pursuits, she is robbing them of arguably the most important life lesson in childhood — to understand the consequences of your actions, and move on from failure. One cannot develop an identity, nor understand the surrounding world, through mere coercion.
Chua claims that her “drilling” enforces a work ethic that the child will use for the rest of his or her life. But what is the value of a work ethic when a child doesn’t understand the intrinsic value of work? When he or she doesn’t understand the value of learning except for a grade? When he or she sees purpose in the measurement of dollars and prestige? Professor Chua seems to think that the alternative to this is a society of lazy poets who have been too coddled to work. This is foolish. There is no question that a child benefits from a stable home. However, Chua’s doctrine of overwhelming strictness isn’t any closer to true stability than the weakest of parents, for it creates an internal chaos as familial pressures combat human nature’s desire to develop a pluralism of the mind.
I certainly hold that this manner of parenting is regrettable and harmful to a child. Nevertheless, this is not the impetus for me writing this column. It is the startling arrogance with which Chua proclaims her method “superior” that is so disgraceful. Relying on crutches of generalized stereotypes overwhelmingly drawn from personal anecdotes, Chua looks down from an ivory tower upon a fabricated world, but ignorant of the horrifying realities of her own words.
Harry Graver is a freshman in Davenport College.