Thoughts on life after the PhD
Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” piece in the Wall Street Journal, nicely timed to coincide with the publication of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has generated an amazing amount of impassioned reaction on the web. Chua’s defenders (some of whom were raised in homes similar to the one she describes) say that she has some good points. “Western” parents have become too permissive, resulting in children who are lazy, unfocused, and unrealistically assuming that the outside world will treat them as “special” just for being themselves. I’ll admit that a small number–a very small number–of Chua’s parenting techniques (mainly, pushing your children to succeed and believing in the possibility of their success) are grounded in good intentions.
Overall, though, I was horrified.
The main reasons for shock and disgust have been well covered by other blogs–the high rates of suicide and depression among Asian-Americans (particularly Asian-American women), Chua’s self-congratulatory tone as she describes what plenty of psychologists would define as child abuse, her graphic descriptions of piano practice that seem to border on the farcical. I personally am not a) Asian-American or b) a parent, and so I won’t be responding to Chua’s article from those perspectives. But I suppose the piece really hit a nerve with me because, while I have never (thank God) experienced the kind of parenting she describes, I have seen its results in my classrooms.
I have seen countless students buckling under the pressure to be perfect–more specifically, to fit a ridiculously narrow model of perfection enforced by their parents. As Cynthia Liu of Technorati points out, this is perhaps the most damaging element of Chua’s parenting philosophy: it defines success in incredibly narrow ways. Are we really to believe that every child who isn’t a musical virtuoso or who doesn’t pursue a career in medicine or science is a failure? Why must the success that parents like Chua violently shove their children toward be defined in such narrow terms?
In the same way that I’m sickened by the slashing and burning of humanities departments at universities across the country, I’m also sickened by a parenting ideology that teaches children that creative talents are a waste of time. Parents like Chua, who pay the tuition at major universities and thus have a lot of power in determining which departments survive, do more harm than they realize when they refuse to pay for arts and literature classes. They contribute to an overall system that sees the creative arts as impractical and unnecessary, resulting in the dissolution of more than a few arts and humanities departments. Amy Chua forces her daughters to play musical instruments, but only, it seems, to instill in them a sense of discipline and the value of hard work–she doesn’t want them to be professional musicians. She boasts that she never let her daughters participate in a school play. Does she really think there’s nothing valuable to be learned from participating in a group creative effort, even one that doesn’t involve three hours of grueling practice per day?
As I’ve written before, it breaks my heart to encounter students who are talented writers, artists, or dancers–but whose parents won’t let them take any of those classes because they’re a “waste of money.” In my adult life I’ve encountered plenty of doctors and business people who desperately wanted to pursue a creative career, but their parents wouldn’t pay for anything other than a “practical” degree. Some of them managed to defy parental expectations and follow their dreams (a goal that Chua derides in an interview with the Globe and Mail), but I imagine plenty of them are still suffering with the reality of being forced into a profession that they never really had any passion for.
I’m happy that Chua’s article has inspired so much rage and indignation, because it’s part of a larger conversation that needs to be had. That conversation concerns parenting attitudes that preach a rigid and narrow model of perfection, that justify verbal and physical abuse of children who don’t fit that model, and that de-value the creative arts. This parenting model, regardless of culture or ethnicity, needs to die.
UPDATE: Chua has done a considerable amount of backpedaling since the posting of the original WSJ article, saying on The Today Show that her book is really more about “her own transformation as a mother” and that “there are many ways to be a good parent.” Still, she seems to contradict herself a lot in various interviews, one minute saying that super-strict parenting is best and the next minute saying that she feels she was too strict. Regardless, I’d say there are still plenty of people who support the style of parenting that she describes in the WSJ article, and I still say it needs to die.
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