Sunday, January 16, 2011

Amy Chua on 'Educating' Children . . .

Chinese Mother?

I'm behind the curve in posting on this article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," by Amy Chua, but I did read it when it first appeared in the The Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011. Ms. Chua explains how Chinese parents produce such prodigies among their children. Here's the good side:
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.
Sounds good so far, but in practice (practice, practice!), this means:
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough. That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)
That sounds less good to me . . . though I guess that it can work. Sometimes. But what happens when it doesn't work? As I noted over at the Marmot's Hole:
Is Ms. Chua serious . . . or ironic? I caught some irony and even self-parody in her article, but she seemed, deep down, to be utterly serious.

I showed the article to my wife, who as a Korean mother pushes our kids to study, and she was appalled by Ms. Chua -- though sharing my question as to how seriously to take the article.

On one point, I would agree with what some have said, namely, creativity is also not easy and requires great effort and a lot of knowledge. But I doubt that Ms. Chua's method nourishes creativity.

Balance is necessary. Require children to study, and expect good grades from them, but let them play, too, and definitely allow them to have their own interests. Their interests can be incorporated into education.

For instance, my son, En-Uk, is currently a fanatic about soccer and is always asking where some country or city is located. I showed him how to use Wikipedia, and he’s now looking up countries, cities, and teams on his own, so he learns spelling, reading, and geography, among other things.

I could say much the same about my daughter, Sa-Rah, who’s passionate enough about music to enjoy reading together with me a New York Times article on the rage for melisma in pop music and its recent decline. She was fascinated.

I have always tutored my kids in English and had them reading from a young age, and I expect their best, but I don't expect them to be the best. That approach leads to children who will always consider themselves failures if they aren't the best . . . which will be almost all of the time.
Some of those failures end up committing suicide. This certainly happens here in Korea, where mothers raise their children by Ms. Chua's principles. Korea has a very high rate of teenage suicide, and a number of graduating seniors kill themselves every year for not having done well enough on the college entrance exam. An earnest application of Ms. Chua's principles will have the same results, and the full article is so extreme that I have to wonder if it's self-parody. But she seems to be describing with approval, and by implication prescribing, the following sort of reaction by a Chinese mother to a less than optimal grade:
If a Chinese child gets a B -- which would never happen -- there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.
If a child doesn't measure up, Ms. Chua thinks that the parent is justified in calling the kid "garbage," "stupid," "worthless," and "a disgrace" as a means of motivation -- or so I infer, but go read the entire article. For criticism of Ms Chua's views by other Chinese, as well as by non-Chinese, see the website Quora. Or for something completely different, see my other take on the article, from over at Kevin Kim's blog, where I weigh in on whether or not Ms. Chua is serious or ironic:
Chua's article was too difficult to figure out, so I gave up and stopped reading.

Like I like to say, "If something's too hard, you can always just give up."

That helps make life easier.

I hope that every reader will take my philosophy of life to heart.
In short, learn my philosophy by heart, i.e., memorize it!

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At 5:43 AM, Blogger Clarissa said...

This woman is simply a child abuser who is trying to exploit the current wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in North America in order to make a quick buck.

At 6:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I couldn't decide for certain if Ms. Chua is sincere or ironic. She seems to want to be both, but I had the impression that underneath the surface irony lies deep conviction.

I haven't looked at her book, though, so she might be less extreme than her article implies.

As for anti-Chinese sentiment in North America (do you mean the US?), I hadn't realized that there is any. I've lived outside of the US since 1989, so I'm not personally awash in the waves of feeling that sweep over Americans, nor do I know the current trends.

There's certainly a lot of discussion in newspapers on China's rise in the world and its intentions. South Koreans are definitely worried since they live in the very shadow of a rising China. So are Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other nearby countries.

I suppose that we'll see how that concern expresses itself among people.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:18 AM, Anonymous KGJ said...

To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same. The mettle to confront mortal danger, eagerly if principle requires it and always with composure, does not come from yielding in childhood to threats of starvation, corporeal punishment, sequestration of property, and the like. On the contrary, someone who values freedom and deserves it tries to teach himself and his child to be indifferent to such debasing stimuli; whereas a child raised to respond to them — and their lowest common denominator is always brute force — grows up to be a cowardly, obedient serf of his parents, elders, and dictators. The only form of discipline he learns is that of endurance, which is also the main virtue he is expected to practice throughout his life as the subject of an absolute external authority that can’t be argued or reasoned with. But said serf might learn to play “The Little White Donkey” at the age of seven, and that’s worth something, right?

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ms. Gjermani, for the eloquent statement.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:50 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

Reading the article, I got the impression that Ms. Chua was sincere, but was picking examples and phrasing things in such a way as (quite deliberately) to shock readers.

What strikes me is primarily the sheer extent of parental involvement and attention that is required to parent as she suggests; and it may well be that that much involvement and attention, where the children can see that the parent loves them, is what really does the trick, regardless of whether they're a rigorist or a laxist about the details.

Certainly, as a non-parent with lots of friends who are parents, I've noticed that most of the details of their parenting style have absolutely nothing to do with the children -- they may sometimes convince themselves that their parenting is tailored to their children, but almost always it's obvious (to an outsider) that it's just the way that's most convenient for them -- either (in the case of mediocre parents) the way that's the least work for them or (in the case of the better parents) the way that makes it easier to like their children enough to put so much time and effort into them.

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One thing that I realize from tutoring my children each evening is how much time and energy this requires.

Ms. Chua seemingly has the determination to succeed, but the method seems wrong to me.

One other thing that I've learned from raising children is how little I can do to ensure that my kids make the right decisions. That's perhaps due to their free will . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff--I happened to note that you'd commented on this woman's book and sudden rise to visibility and all. This AM in the Denver Post, I saw this article: Tiger Mom in Denver , so thought I'd forward that on to you and your readers. I can't claim to have studied it all that hard so far (call me a "Laissez-Faire Dad" I suppose...), but, it is interesting. Similar content is covered I think in the Gladwell book, "Outliers" (which I suppose in good Lake Woebegone fashion, this lady is trying to assure everybody will be, ultimately...or at least, everybody she's got anything to do with).

At 3:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Pete. I'll check the link. I'm all for everybody being an outlier. Why should life be predictable?

Speaking of outliers, when's Ben's novel coming out?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

RE: Ben's book, the answer is soon, very soon. February 2, and he's in agonizing wait-out-the-clock mode at this point. Given the issues I've had over the past year with...indiscretions, about the thing, I shall withold any more commentary on it until, how about, February 3! But it's still an exciting ride, I will have more to say, seriously. Thanks for asking, I'll make sure Ben knows that the Korean arm of the North-Central Arkansas Army is watching! --Pete

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Discretion is oft the better part of valued parenting . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a question, are any of your kids in Harvard or Yale? Right.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, whom are you directing your question to?

My children are 14 and 11, a bit young for university.

But if you're speaking to Pete, his son Ben Hale just published The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and I doubt that Pete and Leigh followed the Amy Chua method of raising their kids.

Jeffery Hodges

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