Why Western mothers are inferior to 'Chinese mothers' (but feel better about it)
I am the child of Western parents. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua, Western parents are mistakenly fixated on tending to their children's fragile psyches, in consequence wreaking more havoc than they avoid. "I ... once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her 'beautiful and incredibly competent,'" she notes. "She later told me that made her feel like garbage."
This makes sense. After years of Western parenting, I spend most of my days and nights in abject terror that I might have done something wrong, tempered only by the sense that I might be fat. True, I have great self-esteem. I frequently walk into doors and I once spent an entire weekend fishing for compliments because I thought those were a rare fish and not an idiom.
So I certainly don't want my self-esteem tied to my performance. That's a terrible idea! I don't always perform well, and I would like to feel good about myself all the time. I have a great relationship with myself. We frequently go out to dinner and occasionally I will buy myself small gifts for no reason.
Surely this isn't a problem. A study just came out that said today's students value self-esteem above, say, food and sex. This makes sense! After all, too much eating tends to decrease your self-esteem, as does, in certain cases, sex. But now people are saying that more self-esteem isn't necessarily good. Because it's ubiquitous, it seldom correlates to performance anymore. Forget sticks! Increasingly, we're left holding carrots with no idea how we got them.
So when I read Chua's "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," I was stunned. Is this how the other half lives?
"Many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly," Chua notes.
"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."
She describes forcing her children to excel -- shouting herself hoarse, looming over the piano, barring them from participating in school plays, and the works. Everyone makes the Mommie Dearest comparisons, but while avoiding wire hangers doesn't give you marketable skills, Chua's process certainly does. In one memorable incident she forces one child to play the piano for hours, amidst tears and screams, until she masters a piece called "Little White Donkey." As a person who was probably in the audience at that piano recital, I say, "Thank you."
Like Chua's offspring, I used to play piano as a child. Unlike Chua's offspring, I was only forced to practice for limited periods. Instead, I spent a lot of time sitting underneath the piano, because I heard this was what Chopin had done. It didn't help my playing much. My teacher came once a week to bridge the gap between me and Mozart, with little tangible impact.
Still, why my outcome should have been any different from, say, Beethoven's continued to elude me. I felt great about my playing! Beethoven felt great about his! Surely we ought to sound identical.
After reading the article, this suddenly made sense. Beethoven had what Chua describes as a Chinese mother, except that instead of being an Asian woman with high expectations, it was an alcoholic father who came home late at night and forced him to get up and play.
Neither of my folks were willing to commit to becoming alcoholics, straggling home late at night and hounding me to play, and as a consequence I slowly meandered through sparse patches of classical music over the course of several years. Eventually my parents noticed that I was becoming better at it and suggested I stop. "I mean, where can you go with all this piano?" my father pointed out. "You might wind up playing jazz in a hotel lobby."
My efforts at piano might best be summarized by a fable my parents read to me about a camel who dances ballet. "You are terrible at ballet," the camel's friends inform her. "Your dancing looks as though penguins are trapped inside your clothes fighting each other." "That's okay," the camel responds. "I dance for my own pleasure."
As a child of Western parents, this was the rationale behind most things I did. It wasn't that my parents didn't want me to succeed. They spent vast amounts of time reading me literary classics and textbooks of art history. This had little impact except to inspire a vague but lasting hatred of art history, but it showed effort on their part. The point was to find something that I would love enough that I would want to do it on my own.
And I think it was worth it.
It's often difficult to distinguish between the things that people dedicate themselves to because they have a natural enthusiasm for them and the ones they do because they happen to be good at them. Chua theorizes a virtuous cycle -- force your child to do something until he or she becomes good at it, and then allow the delight in mastery to handle the rest. Force your child to be good at math, and he'll love math. Force your child to be good at music, and he'll love music.
This is all very well, but it isn't conducive to sparks. You know what I mean. The spark the moment Bill Gates got his hands on a computer, or James Cameron slipped behind a video camera, or Paul McCartney heard his first strains of Rock 'n Roll. How much you value the spark may vary. Are hundreds of lawyers and doctors worth one Picasso?
Personally, I place a premium on the artistic temperament, mainly because it allows you to get out of bed around noon and wander around wearing pork chops as a hat without people thinking you're a dangerous eccentric. "I am waiting for inspiration," you explain to the other people in the coffee shop, as you bang giant tongs together in front of a statue of Yehudi Menudin. "Ah," they say.
In fact, the categories Chua singles out as ones in which she did not require her children to excel are telling -- gym, dance and theater; in other words, the ones that require a natural affinity rather than simple dedication. This seems like a tacit acknowledgment that the Chinese Mother Method only goes so far. It can create competence, expertise, even, but it can't manufacture inspiration.
If musicians and mathematicians are what you value, then this is an excellent system. But it seems to foreclose the alluring possibility of -- well, anything else.
And we put a premium on inspiration these days. Look at college admissions. Increasingly, a benign eclecticism reigns -- maybe as a subconscious excuse to admit more children of Western mothers. Gifted math students and violinists are a dime a dozen, the logic runs, but this particular boy happens to play the Bulgarian Whistle -- and he makes skateboard art! These days, it's all about the extracurriculars! Who's to say whether this is working or not, but it seems to be the system we're trying.
After all, we're in a crisis, everyone says. Our test-scores are squarely middle-of-the-pack. Our students are failing. Our economy seems to have come down with a case of something. What to do? Innovate our way out! How to do this? Don't cultivate competence -- cultivate creativity! Who needs better test scores? We just need a spark of genius to pull us all up out of this rut. Sure, this might be lazy. But it's the rationale we're going with.
And we feel great about it!
| January 11, 2011; 6:02 PM ET
Categories: Epic Failures, Petri, That's awkward | Tags: art, kids these days, science
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