The Mommy Wars Go International

Amy Chua at Wall Street Journal:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, 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.

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

Maureen O’Connor at Gawker:

This weekend, I came across “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” by Amy Chua. Since I have a Chinese mother, I assembled my face into a self-righteous smirk and began to read. But—woe is me!—my Chinese mother’s a fraud.For Amy Chua revealed that my Chinese mother (maiden name: Lily Chua) failed her ethnicity by failing to slave-drive me with the “screaming, hair-tearing explosions” necessary for raising a superior child. Consequently, I am not a math genius who performs open heart surgery and violin concertos simultaneously, but a blogger who spends her days contemplating Katy Perry’s breasts. I learned arithmetic not by “every day drilling,” but the way every red-blooded American does, by typing equations into my TI-86 during marathon sessions of Drugwars. (Maybe I got the “sneaky Chinaman” gene instead of the “obedient Chinese daughter” one?) And my mother and I never had showdowns like this:

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. […] When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

“The Little White Donkey,” just like Amy Chua’s husband, a stupid caucasian ass named Jed who lacks her superior Asian childrearing skills:

“Everyone is special in their special own way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated.”

Reading Amy Chua’s article, I am sad as a broken fortune cookie. If only my Chinese mother had humiliated me in newspaper articles that would plague my dating life forever—maybe I, too, could have performed piano solos in Carnegie Hall, like Amy Chua’s daughter did, according to Amy Chua. How unlucky I am: I have never hated my mother.

My only solace: that Irish-American father’s inferior academic genes came packaged with superior genes for drinking.

That said, Amy Chua appears to have absorbed a few American parenting skills, like the incessant upper-class need to one-up every other upper-class parent in the tri-state area. Mommy bragging: The virtue that unites us all.

Ann Hulbert at Slate:

Chua’s mindset and methods—bolstered by faith in Chinese family tradition—pose a useful challenge for an era haunted by a helicoptering ethos as hard to shake as it is to like. Here is an alternative to the queasy hypocrisy of typical hyperparents, buffeted by shifting expertise that leaves them anxious about overpressuring even as they push. Chua breaks through all that. She is a crusader invigorated by practicing what she preaches: the arduous work she believes necessary to do anything well, child-rearing included. Her exacting program is incredibly time-consuming and burdensome, for her as much as her kids, and is bound to look outlandish to others. (While teaching, writing her second book, and traveling constantly, Chua types up elaborate practice instructions, which freak out one of her law students when he stumbles on them—and which are to be found on pages 163-165.) But precisely because Chua slaves away as hard as her girls do, one thing her program is not is guilt-inducing. In the end, her ordeal with Lulu teaches Chua humility and proves her daughter’s very healthy autonomy—and inspires next to no regrets.

Let’s hope a furor over the book doesn’t change all that. Boris Sidis lived to regret his boastful diatribe, or at least his wife did, lamenting poor Billy’s interlude in the spotlight, which complicated an already rocky transition to adulthood that ended in a lonely retreat. “Educators, psychologists, editorial writers and newspaper readers were furious” with her husband, Sarah Sidis wrote. “And their fury was a factor in Billy’s life upon which we had not counted.” Norbert Wiener, who battled depression to become the future founder of the field of cybernetics, was devastated as a teenager when, browsing in a magazine, he learned that his father, Leo, had claimed his son’s successes as his own, while blaming failures on the boy. Proselytizing and prodigy-raising are a fraught mix.

In a coda to her book, Chua loosens up, describing how she gave her daughters the manuscript and welcomed them as collaborators. The wise girls are wary about getting roped in. “I’m sure it’s all about you anyway,” Lulu says. As they hunker down to criticize, and make her revise, revise, revise, Sophia, now 17, issues a warning well worth keeping in mind if, or when, the mommy wars erupt over Chua’s provocative portrait. “It’s not possible for you to tell the complete truth,” Sophia tells her mother. “You’ve left out so many facts. But that means no one can really understand.” Let’s not forget that it’s only how the girls themselves understand their mother’s methods that really counts in the end.

Blake Eskin at New Yorker:

It did not escape my attention that “Jewish” was not on Chua’s list, and furthermore that her softie foil in the essay was her husband, who is identified as Jed—and is presumably why their daughters can be intimidated with threats of withheld Hanukkah presents. (Minimal Internet research reveals that Jed is, like his wife, a Yale Law School professor and a published author; his last name is Rubenfeld.) Most American Jews are comfortably assimilated, although Chua could probably forge a Sino-Soviet alliance with a few Russian-speaking recent arrivals. But even in the early twentieth century, when Jews were known for toughness (see Siegel, Bugsy; Rosenbloom, Slapsie Maxie) the stereotypical Jewish mother used what Joseph Nye would call soft power, wrapping specific and restrictive ideas about her children’s future in a nurturing bosom. This blend of stubborn guidance and smothering affection has produced successful doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It has also inspired characters from Sophie Portnoy to Estelle Costanza (who, though technically not Jewish, qualifies, too), envisioned by creative children scarred by their childhoods.

Some children, Chinese and otherwise, may respond well to “Chinese mothering,” and I hope for their sake that Chua’s two daughters are among them. But it’s simply not possible that every child becomes “the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” And not every child is well served by forcing them to try. Some children will fail with tragic consequences, others, if we are more fortunate, with literary ones, finding humor and meaning in stories of suffering. In a perfectly plotted world, one of Chua’s girls will, according to plan, become the concertmistress of a world-class orchestra, and the other will avenge herself by novel or memoir—and sell more books than her mother and father combined.

Julianne Hing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place:

Chua’s tone is arrogant but filled just the same with bullseye observations, and I spent a long time trying to untangle the sincere from the deadpan. So much of the piece is an accurate reflection of a specific brand of hard-ass Asian parenting. But would other people be able to sense the gleeful embellishments in her piece, the way she seems to relish insulting and threatening her kids to get them to perform? And then I doubled back: was I being too charitable to read it as exaggeration?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Internet, one of my aunties sent the piece around to other women in my family last night. “Thought you might enjoy this,” my auntie wrote to other mothers. “Were you raised by a Chinese mother … or are you perhaps one yourself?”

My mother was horrified at the piece, called it embarrassing and terrible and outrageous, said that she resented the fact that Chua used the term “Chinese mother,” even with the disclaimers at the opening that not all Chinese mothers deserve the title, and some non-Chinese mothers could be admitted to the club of harsh, ultra-strict parenting.

Like Chua, my parents sacrificed a great deal to raise me and my siblings–they make for great stories now that we’re all adults. My mom would hand us math workbooks to occupy us during car rides the way other parents hand their kids Pop Tarts or carrot sticks. She, like Chua, packed our violins in the trunk of the minivan so we could practice even while we were on vacation and forbade sleepovers and weeknight television well into my high school years. I struggled mightily with math and science and my mother would wake me up at 6 am on weekends so we could go over math drills together for hours. Letting me fail was not an option to her, though I occasionally wished she would have. Thanks to her, I didn’t.

All of this I recognize as love.

Tom Scocca at Slate:

There are many, many bizarre and debatable notions in the memoir extract that Yale law professor Amy Chua published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, in which she argued that screaming at one’s children to do drill work and depriving them of entertainment or social contact with their peers are the secrets to why Chinese people raise smarter and more successful children than regular decadent Americans do. A working-class Jamaican-immigrant mother, for instance—who would be an honorary “Chinese mother,” according to Chua—might be surprised to learn that good, hard parenting means spending a week at the piano, going “right through dinner into the night,” threatening and yelling at a seven-year-old girl to force her to learn a difficult piano part. Not everybody’s boss gives out flex time as readily as Yale Law does.

But mostly, as with so many child-rearing success stories, the biggest question Chua raises is: what makes you so sure you’ve succeeded? God bless Chua’s daughters, but according to some simple arithmetic and the pictures accompanying the Journal piece, they’re considerably younger than, say, 60. Or 40. Or even 25. There’s plenty of time yet to find out what fruit all those years of rigorous “Chinese” alpha parenting—no sleepovers with friends, Chua brags, no personally chosen extracurriculars, no musical instruments other than piano and violin (sorry, Yo-Yo Ma; your parents weren’t Chinese enough)—will really bear. Marv Marinovich wouldn’t let his son eat Big Macs, either. Discipline and high standards, all the way. “I don’t know if you can be a great success without being a fanatic,” was how he put it

Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic

Kate Zernike at The New York Times:

In the week since The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of the new book by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Ms. Chua has received death threats, she says, and “hundreds, hundreds” of e-mails. The excerpt generated more than 5,000 comments on the newspaper’s Web site, and countless blog entries referring in shorthand to “that Tiger Mother.” Some argued that the parents of all those Asians among Harvard’s chosen few must be doing something right; many called Ms. Chua a “monster” or “nuts” — and a very savvy provocateur.

A law blog suggested a “Mommie Dearest” element to her tale (“No. Wire. Hangers! Ever!!”). Another post was titled “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian-Americans like me are in therapy.” A Taiwanese video circulating on YouTube (subtitled in English) concluded that Ms. Chua would not mind if her children grew up disturbed and rebellious, as long as she sold more books.

“It’s been a little surprising, and a little bit intense, definitely,” Ms. Chua said in a phone interview on Thursday, between what she called a “24/7” effort to “clarify some misunderstandings.” Her narration, she said, was meant to be ironic and self-mocking — “I find it very funny, almost obtuse.”

But reading the book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” it can be hard to tell when she is kidding.

“In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme,” she writes in the book after describing how she once threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she did not play a piano composition perfectly. “On the other hand, they were highly effective.”

In interviews, she comes off as unresolved. “I think I pulled back at the right time,” she said. “I do not think there was anything abusive in my house.” Yet, she added, “I stand by a lot of my critiques of Western parenting. I think there’s a lot of questions about how you instill true self-esteem.”

David Brooks at the New York Times:

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

Laura Donovan at The Daily Caller:

In a letter to the New York Post, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld responded to the critics of her mother’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which details the numerous restrictions Chua imposed upon her two daughters during their childhood. Among many other things, Chua has been blasted for forbidding her daughters from attending sleepovers and calling one of her girls lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic for playing a piano piece incorrectly.

In “Why I Love My Strict Chinese Mom,” Chua-Rubenfeld says outsiders don’t know what her family is actually like.

“[Outsiders] don’t hear us cracking up over each other’s jokes,” Chua-Rubenfeld wrote. “They don’t see us eating our hamburgers with fried rice. They don’t know how much fun we have when the six of us — dogs included — squeeze into one bed and argue about what movies to download from Netflix.”

Though it was “no tea party” growing up under all Tiger Mother’s rules, Chua-Rubenfeld claims to be more independent as a result of her rigid upbringing.

“I pretty much do my own thing these days — like building greenhouses downtown, blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ with me over and over — as long as I get my piano done first,” Chua-Rubenfeld wrote.

Chua-Rubenfeld may have thicker skin than her mother’s critics think. Chua has received lots of flak for rejecting the “not good enough” birthday cards her daughters made, but Sophia writes that she wasn’t all that offended.

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