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Kate Fridkis

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Will Chinese Mothers Win the Parenting Prize?

Posted: 01/12/11 09:40 AM ET

People like to argue about what's best for kids. And then they like to tell other people what's best for kids. For all kids, usually. People have argued for parenting methods as disparate as locking a crying baby in a room by itself -- to teach it independence -- and literally never putting a baby down -- from birth, until, umm, it can give birth to its own baby. And they've argued these positions passionately, and convinced a lot of other people that if the thing they are arguing for doesn't happen then the child will grow up to be a blathering, pathetic, hopeless failure who is obsessed with collecting tiny porcelain Disney character figurines.

Have you read the latest piece about parenting? It's called "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." It is an excerpt from Yale Law professor Amy Chua's new book, and it was published in the Wall Street Journal, inspiring about 2,500 comments like, "What is wrong with you?!! I don't understand why people are so stupid, and you should be ashamed of yourself for writing this, because you are really a terrible person." But then, as everyone who writes or reads anything on a big site knows, you will find identical comments at the bottom of a piece about why fawns are adorable little animals with sweet round eyes.

Still, we all know this is a cultural hot button. And we all know a lot of people will have a lot to say about this stuff. And I'm going to be one of them. So:

Chua explains that Chinese mothers (and parents from other non-white American cultural groups) think about children differently. They think about potential, rather than protection. They know their kids can accomplish anything, and so they make sure they accomplish everything. No excuses. No play dates. No grades below an A. No TV. She complains that a lot of the (white) parents she knows are constantly worried about their kids. How do they feel? How is their self-esteem? Are they enjoying life enough?

Chua says, you enjoy life later, when you're accomplished. And at that point, you enjoy it a lot more. In the meantime, she is willing to forbid her little daughter from using the bathroom until she perfects a piano piece. She's willing to throw away a handmade card from her daughter, because it's not good enough.

The truth is, well, I can't completely disagree with Chua.

Though, as someone who grew up in a house where the children were all made to practice instruments for at least an hour every day (Amy would probably laugh. "An hour?! Are you kidding me? No wonder you all failed!"), I can say with some certainty that even practicing piano for three or four hours a day didn't do much for me. It's not that useful of a skill, unless you go into music, in which case you will definitely be broke and probably have your soul crushed. It didn't teach me discipline, it taught me that I liked big, dark, crash-y pieces and didn't like playing Bach. I stopped practicing as soon as I left home. The one thing I got out of years and years of classical training is the ability to navigate basic chord progressions easily enough to write my own indie rock songs with keyboard accompaniment. And I'm not even that good at it. Not exactly what Amy would aim for, I'm guessing. I might even suggest that she pick something less arbitrary for her kids to succeed at.

But I do understand her point about being really involved with her kids lives, and not letting them watch TV (it's a waste of time!! It eats your brain!), and pushing them to be amazing at stuff. Because it's true that when you're actually really good at something, it feels awesome. The problem is when you think that the most important thing is being good at everything. I wrote about this here.

And then she says:

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.

And I think about the women I know who can recite back verbatim every comment their mothers made about their bodies. They are still cringing and paying for it. They are still fighting against it. Maybe it's different for Chua's daughters. Maybe they understand things in completely different terms, because of their upbringing. But I'd sort of lean towards guessing that because they are also growing up in the larger context of American society, they are just as susceptible to feeling bad about their appearances as other girls.

Even if Amy Chua is right about everything she says about good parenting, a family is not an island. We live in a society that bombards us with a lot of other ideas about right and wrong and important and unimportant. Maybe some things will hurt no matter what. Like having to hold it in for a long time when you really have to pee. Or being told you're not good enough until the very last moment, when you're finally good enough. You might just remember all the not being good enough.

Or maybe, as Chua suggests, most people are just wimping out.

Crossposted on Eat the Damn Cake

 

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