Friday, January 14, 2011

Permissive Versus Demanding Parenting

Amy Tan, whose story "Two Kinds" fictionalizes Chinese parenting and children who experience it.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, writes in the Wall Street Journal that high demands and an emphasis on academic achievement produce happy and successful children in the long run. Chinese parenting, she says, exemplifies this demanding model, which is contrasted with the more nurturing and permissive Western style of parenting:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
At the level of parent-child interaction, the contrast in Chinese and Western parenting styles is remarkable:
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.) Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Chua advises Western style parents to assume their children are strong and behave accordingly, rather than worrying about the self-esteem of the kids:
Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
She also says that "Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children." Finally, she observes that
Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Chua sums up the difference as one of values:
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
Chua does not hide that she feels Western parenting is kinder but ultimately allows children to fail as adults. Western parenting leaves children vulnerable and bereft in a brutal world.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Chinese style parenting is as successful and superior as Chua claims. At The Last Psychiatrist, the writer criticizes Chua confusing awesome for crazy:
You/she'll say that the Chinese discipline is what makes the kids successful, but that's silly.  Given that her husband is a Jewish American equivalent to her Chinese Americanness, why isn't their daughters' successes the result of Jewish fathering? Chua would say that she's the one who made her practice, but she's at work all day just like he is, right? I get that she yells more, ok, mission accomplished, but as a technical matter she's not there all the time, the kids have to be self-motivated, and that self-motivation came not just from the mother, but from growing up in with those parents. Unless she's arguing that the father is pretty much irrelevant? Oh, that is what she's arguing. Sigh.

What Chua believes has made her kids succeed isn't just that she makes them work hard, but that she is allowed to yell at them.
And the money quote:
That's why it's in the WSJ. The Journal has no place for, "How a Fender Strat Changed My Life." It wants piano and violin, it wants Chua's college-resume worldview. Sometimes it has no choice but to confront a Mark Zuckerberg but they quickly reframe the story into the corporate narrative. "The Google boys were on to something, but to make it profitable they had to bring in Eric Schmidt..." The WSJ is operating well within the establishment, right wing, artists-are-gay and corporations-are-not context. It wants kids who will conform, who will plug into the machine (albeit at the higher levels), it wants the kind of kids who want the approval of the kinds of people who read the WSJ.

Amy Chua thinks she wrote an essay and published it. Wrong. The WSJ wanted this kind of an article and they chose one from the thousands available.  They chose hers-- a woman's-- because if this same article had been written by a man it would have been immediately revealed as an angry, abusive, patriarchal example of capitalism.

Which is where this comes full circle. Amy Chua thinks she's raising her kids the Chinese way, but she is really raising them to be what the WSJ considers China to be: a pool of highly skilled labor that someone else will profit from. On second thought, that is the Chinese way.
I'm mixed on the Chua article. In the abstract, her philosophy makes a lot of sense and I wonder if my parenting shouldn't take a more Chinese approach. On the other hand, the specific parenting and spousal behavior she describes is rather abhorrent to me. I'd be pretty pissed if my wife mimicked me sarcastically.

Ultimately, the article and the strong reactions to it touch upon many issues of modern parenting. But with parenting, as with most everything, there's no help but self-help.

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