Jan 12, 2011

Are Chinese mothers really superior in raising kids?

Dear Filipino,

Hey, thanks for sharing with me that Wall Street Journal article about "why Chinese mothers are superior."  I'm torn about it because there are definitely merits to both "Western" and "Eastern" styles of parenting, and of course, there's a wide spectrum of sub-styles under each.  Personally, I just hope that we keep working and trying to be good parents so that our kids will grow up to be happy, healthy and successful individuals. 

But what about you -- what do you think of the article? 

The Filipina

Dear Ina Ng Aking Mga Anak,

I shared that with you because in all my years reading the Wall Street Journal online, I've never, ever seen an article which has garnered as much comments as it has in such a short period of time.  So I'm glad you found it thought-provoking.

(From WSJ.com: Amy Chua with her kids.)
But let's not overlook the obvious:  The author, Amy Chua, wrote that provocative title and big teaser of an article because she's looking to sell her latest book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."  And despite the withering criticisms engendered by that article in the comments section, it definitely has some gems, especially because she seems to be successful at everything she does.  I mean, she's a Yale Law professor who writes books and spends that much time with her high-achieving kids too?

In any case, one thing I know is that it's really tough to be a parent.  It's particularly more difficult for me: I didn't grow up with a father because, as you know, he died when I was just a baby.  So, yeah, it's very difficult.  I mean, you're always wondering whether you're doing a good enough job for the kids, being there enough, preparing them well enough for life, shielding them enough, exposing them enough, letting them find their own selves enough, educating them enough, disciplining them enough, pushing them enough, hugging them enough, showing them we love them enough, etc.  And that's just for starters! 

So you're right: We can only try to do our best.  And I'm just actually thankful that you're there to serve as the Ilaw Ng Tahanan, among the many other things you do for our family. 

By the way, I think the following poem on parenting by Kahlil Gibran, the third best-selling poet of all time behind only Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, is instructive:
On Children
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at askthepinoy@gmail.com.

NOTE:  This is still a developing story so I will be posting updates on this topic in the comments section.

Here's Prof. Chua in her appearance at The Today Show:

Q: How do you know you've achieved global immortality and rare celebrity status?
A: If you've had an animation clip made about you by Taiwan-based NMA.

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at askthepinoy@gmail.com.

The Filipina's Take
(15 January 2011)

After reading several articles that discussed the essay, I was left with a very ugly feeling about our very sensationalist American media which obviously put together controversial parts of a book in order to get increased readership by portraying a very explosive angle, regardless of how different it is from what the author originally intended.

The huge number of comments is obviously caused by so many factors. One thing I noticed though is that the most passionate comments came from females. Maybe some will say that women are catty by nature, but it’s obviously more than that. (Actually, without having to open her mouth or write, I’m sure Chua was already making a lot of women feel much less accomplished and small. After all, she’s a fit, good-looking working mom, an Ivy League graduate with a great career as a law professor, who writes books on the side and claims to spend a lot of time with her kids; now, she's also portrayed as having a “superior” parenting style, too?)

It's tough to be a woman in today's modern world.  As discussed in an academic paper entitled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, a study found that “[t]he increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions [for women] have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one’s life is not measuring up.” In other words, women today are faced with ever-increasing pressure to do well across several fronts, which leads to additional stress and unhappiness. Whether intended or otherwise, Chua’s article, despite her subsequent disclaimers, actually makes things worse for some women because it now introduces a purported superior parenting standard that they somehow need to measure up to.

Without reading the book and just judging from the articles and blogs I read, I can say that Amy’s story actually shows the challenges of a parent who was raised with a different set of values ("Chinese") and was faced with the choice of embracing the values of another culture, i.e., those of the larger American society. And by writing about the stark differences of the two “competing” philosophies, Chua, through the article, may have inadvertently hit women belonging to several camps: the stay-at-home moms who now have to contend with another “role model” whom they feel they will inevitably be compared to; the working moms who already feel guilty that they are not doing enough by their kids or spending more time with them; the Asian women who hate their Asian mothers for subscribing to similarly strict parenting techniques; the permissive moms who are already tired of being lectured to for being unable to control their kids; and the other so-called Western moms who are now probably feeling some pressure to rethink their fundamental values. And with China having an economy growing blindingly fast and seemingly accomplishing modern feats which shame the US, Chua’s timing could not be worse for these women. It’s almost like being in a kindergarten playground with a kid sticking her tongue out saying, “See, you’re not good enough!”  It's almost not surprising that Chua is getting death threats!

Because each culture comes with its unique traits, passions, values and set of priorities, stereotypes are legion. But these stereotypes, by definition, are not entirely unfounded. Personally, I’ve seen Korean parents, known for being hard-nosed when it comes to academics, shuttle their children to after-school learning centers so that their kids can do extra assignments and stay ahead of the curve. I’ve witnessed a white suburban father, who, to many Asians, represents that baseball-obsessed Caucasian, yell at his 5-year-old in little league, calling the boy an ‘a--’ because the child appeared to have a very low attention span on the field.  I’ve seen African American parents, thinking of sports scholarships and pro careers for their kids, shuttle their pre-teens between basketball and football, as well as travel across the country to watch their sons play in tournaments. I’ve seen parents who choose to coach just so they can dictate the number of practices and have better control over picking the team rotation so their kids are paired with the better players. In other words, I’ve seen parents of different colors bend over backwards for their kids because they valued something which they wanted to impart to their children, hoping, like all parents do, for their children to get ahead of their competition.

I do see merit in being strict and teaching your children the value of hard work and perseverance. I also subscribe to the notion that there is no skill that cannot be learned over time; with enough practice, one born without talent can match someone with inborn talent.  And I don’t think it helps parents when we take our kids to, say, baseball and at the end of the season, all the kids get a trophy just for participating, ostensibly so that they don’t lose their morale. Whatever happened to giving trophies only to the most valuable player and certificates of participation to the rest?

As a parent, if you don’t teach your kids that it’s not good enough to get a B, what happens when they get their first job and realize that rating, ranking and pay are dependent on their performance?  Do you just sit back and encourage mediocrity and hope that they will always just fall in the middle of the pack? Or worse, see them come back home to you because they got fired for underperformance?  At that point, it’s already too late.

My point, of course, is that you can’t expect to do well without putting in any effort.  Of course, I don’t subscribe to the extreme techniques because I think that at some point you have to strike a balance. Of course, there’s room for creativity and allowing the children to explore other activities. After all, if you want to instill the passion for music, piano and violin are not the only instruments; if they were the only ‘right’ instruments and everybody only played them, none of us will ever enjoy the orchestra. If no one was allowed to go to school plays, none of us will enjoy West End or Broadway musicals.

In any case, being a mom is very difficult, period, and no matter what parenting technique you subscribe to, there will always be a criticism that you will find.  We all want the best for our kids and to a certain extent there is a tendency (knowingly and unknowingly) to mold them in our ‘own image and likeness’. In some cases, there is also the burden and hope that they can improve on our lot.  The fact that we bother reading about other people’s parenting styles indicates that the topic is important to us, at least enough to look at the debates out there, perhaps hoping to gain a nugget or two from them or get some validation that we are doing something right.

When I was pregnant with my first child, everyone and her grandma were quick to share their opinions about everything, and somehow the advice just never stopped coming, even well after the kids were born.  The best advice that I got was to listen to what the other person has to say, think about my personality and own unique ways, and then decide to use or discard the information received as necessary.  Because at the end of the day, decent parents will indeed do what they think is right to care for their kids' needs and equip them with the tools and skills they will need for the future.  Beyond this, parents can really only just hope that they will end up fortunate enough to have raised happy, healthy individuals who have a good sense of moral, ethical and social values.

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at askthepinoy@gmail.com.


KaiWen said...

Why is everyone ranting about this story!?

The Filipino said...


There are several reasons I think. Here are just a few:

First, the title is provocative. Although Prof. Chua claims it was not her wording (maybe it's WSJ's or the publisher's?), the article's thesis really struck at the hearts of many parents (American or otherwise, but esp. moms) who espouse a different parenting philosophy. Already, there's a tongue-in-cheek essay response entitled "Why American Parents Are Inferior."

Second, it brings up contentious issues involving happiness vs. success, tough love vs. soft love, permissive vs. prohibitive cultures, etc.

Third, it's perceived by professionals who've studied this field and related fields as an attack on their credibility. Here I'm talking about child development theorists, psychologists, psychiatrists, trainers.

Fourth, it's a substitute for that grand debate: Who's got the "better culture" -- the West or the East? Against the backdrop of a surging China and a Western world enmeshed in a crisis, the debate all of sudden takes on greater prominence because it brings to the fore feelings of insecurity, sense of superiority and what-not.

Fifth, coming from a highly accomplished Asian-American immigrant, the essay was almost a slap in the face of many "native" Americans who've been "out-hustled" in getting the choicest spots in colleges and grad schools as well the most plum jobs. In other words, it's stirring a lot of resentment because Asian Americans are seen by the general American public as over-represented in Ivy League universities and what-not.

Sixth, even among Asian-Americans, this essay was shocking because many who grew up in the parenting environment being advocated by Prof. Chua rebelled, chafed, cracked -- to name just a few. Others committed suicide, according to an essay in Quora.com.

Prof. Chua has already come out to say the book is much more nuanced than the article, so I'm looking forward to actually reading the book. I guess in that respect, Chua & her publisher got the desired response from someone like me.

Hope this helps. What's your take?

The Filipino said...

Also, there's a "Filipino connection" to Prof. Chua. According to Wikipedia:

Amy Chua's parents were academics and members of the Chinese ethnic minority in the Philippines before emigrating to the United States. Amy's father, Leon O. Chua, is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley and is known as the father of nonlinear circuit theory and cellular neural networks. Amy was born in 1962 in Champaign, Illinois and lived in West Lafayette, Indiana. When she was eight years old, her family moved to Berkeley, California. Chua graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in Economics from Harvard College in 1984. She obtained her J.D. cum laude in 1987 from Harvard Law School, where she was an Executive Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Her first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by disproportionate economic and political influence of "market dominant minorities" and the resulting resentment in the less affluent majority. World on Fire examines how globalization and democratization since 1989 have affected the relationship between market dominant minorities and the wider population, including examining her own Filipino Chinese culture.

Her second book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall (2007) examines seven major empires and posits that their success depended on their tolerance of minorities.

The Filipino said...

The story of Amy Chua continues...

The following are direct quotes from Jeff Yang of San Francisco Chronicle, who interviewed Prof. Chua:

"I was very surprised," she says. "The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."

While the Journal article was unquestionably good for sales and awareness of the book, which has already hit #7 on Amazon and is only headed upward, it has been painful for Chua. "I've gotten scary messages. Death threats. All from people who haven't yet read the book," she says. "And while it's ultimately my responsibility -- my strict Chinese mom told me 'never blame other people for your problems!' -- the one-sided nature of the excerpt has really led to some major misconceptions about what the book says, and about what I really believe."

She points out that while she uses the term "Chinese motherhood" as shorthand for her neotraditionalist style of parenting, she states early on that many people of Chinese background don't subscribe to such methods, and many non-Chinese do. She also asserts that this is meant to be her own tragicomic story, and not a recipe for others to follow.

The Filipino said...

Prof. Chua responds to Wall Street Journal readers.

Some excerpts follow:

"There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach (I don’t believe, by the way, that Chinese parenting is superior—a splashy headline, but I didn’t choose it). The best rule of thumb I can think of is that love, compassion and knowing your child have to come first, whatever culture you’re from. It doesn’t come through in the excerpt, but my actual book is not a how-to guide; it’s a memoir, the story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother. Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict “Chinese” approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13."

Here's a very touching paragraph:

"Jokes about A+s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think! It’s about believing in your child more than anyone else—even more than they believe in themselves. And this principle can be applied to any child, of any level of ability. My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a PhD! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits. Today, my sister works at Wal-Mart, has a boyfriend and still plays piano—one of her favorite things is performing for her friends. She and my mom have a wonderful relationship, and we all love her for who she is."

The Filipino said...

According to Tom Brokaw:

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the book we’ve all been waiting for—a candid, provocative, poignant and vicarious journey through the Chinese-American family culture. It will leave you breathless with its bluntness and emotion. Amy Chua is a Tiger Mother, a greatly gifted law professor and, ultimately, an honest, loving woman with a lot to say.”

The Filipino said...

Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, the daughter of Amy Chua, wrote an
article in the New York Post in defense of her mother and addressed to her mother

Here's her opening paragraph:

"You’ve been criticized a lot since you published your memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” One problem is that some people don’t get your humor. They think you’re serious about all this, and they assume Lulu and I are oppressed by our evil mother. That is so not true. Every other Thursday, you take off our chains and let us play math games in the basement."

The Filipino said...

More notable commentaries:

From David Brooks's column: Amy Chua Is a Wimp

From Lisa Belkin's blog: Raising Happy, Imperfect Children

From Lac Su, author of I Love Yous Are For White People:
My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother

The Filipino said...

My fellow "Ask" blogger, The Korean, writes the most impressive, most compelling piece yet in favor of Tiger Parenting. Long but a definite must-read.

The Filipino said...

In her article entitled "The Roar of the Tiger Mom," Annie Murphy Paul of Time magazine writes about how Amy Chua's parenting memoir raises American fears.

The Filipino said...

According to the SF Chronicle, in China, Chua's book is being marketed differently. The title of the Chinese edition that hit stores in Beijing translates to "Being A Mom in America," or "Being an American Mum.

Also, Tiger Mom's hubby is claiming he agrees with 99% of her parenting.

The Filipino said...

Two of my favorite Filipino columnists weigh in:

Rodel Rodis:
The Chinay Tiger Mother

Ben Pimentel: Why Pinoy dads are superior.

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