Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, January 31, 2011

What Does Achievement Really Achieve?

Yale law professor Amy Chua made huge waves recently with an article published in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". The gist of the article is exactly what the oh-so-blunt title says; Amy goes on to assert that Chinese children will always outperform and out-achieve Western children for one simple reason: their mothers are better parents. She then goes on to explain using herself and her own mother as the main examples.

In a nutshell, the parenting philosophy of the Chinese "tiger mother" extolled in the article consists of these basic rules:
  1. Children owe their lives to their parents. Therefore, mother is God.
  2. Mother knows best; therefore, mother decides everything.
  3. Children don't know what's good for them; therefore, mother intervenes in everything.
  4. There are only two possible results to everything: perfection or failure.
  5. A child's success is its mother's success; A child's lack of success is its mother's failure.
  6. Success only comes as the result of hard work.
  7. All of a child's spare time must be spent studying or practicing a skill chosen by mother.
  8. Study means rote memorization and drilling, and practice means repetitive exercises; thinking and feeling are irrelevant, and creativity is counter-productive.
  9. Things are only really enjoyable if you're good at them.
  10. Fun is something you have once you've become a successful adult.
Amy, who was brought up strictly according to these principles, goes on to describe the struggles she faced being a Chinese "tiger mother" to her own children. Some of her methods would (and do) widen the eyes of many if not most conservative American mothers; liberal soccer moms would (and do) go into a frothy fury. She tells of dealing out screaming abuse if one of her kids got anything less than an A in any of the academic subjects. (Even an A minus was unacceptable.) She describes eyebrow-raising punishments threatened if not actually meted out if her kids showed any reluctance to keep up their repetitive drilling and practicing for hours. She boasts about how her kids were barred from going to play with their friends or participating in any extracurricular activities (or indeed engaging in ANY kind of social activity outside of school). She also talks about all the pressure to lighten up she kept getting from the people around her, including her kids' teachers as well as her own (Jewish) husband. She finally felt forced to back off a bit, but goes on to offer her kids' accomplishments as proof of the correctness of her ways.

Interestingly, when shown Amy's article, the overwhelming majority of mothers in the People's Republic of China said they were shocked at her adherence to such "ancient" ways. Clearly, the people of the Chinese Motherland have become more like the Westerners Amy portrays as weak, lazy, and indulgent.

And then there's Japan. The "tiger mother" style of parenting used to be the norm here, too (as I've come to see all too clearly in my own family here). However, things started to loosen up in the wake of the bubble economy expansion in the 1980s. The sudden prevalence of wealth led many adults who had grown up poor after the war to indulge their children. Later, when those children came to be parents themselves, their parenting style was influenced strongly by their spoiled upbringing, creating the "monster parent" phenomenon of today. (Be careful not to confuse the terminology here: Whereas a "tiger mother" demands perfection from her children, a "monster parent" demands special treatment for her children from others.) Now it's more or less the norm for children to be raised in a permissive manner. Nevertheless, there are still children brought up in the traditional "tiger mother" fashion, and they are the ones that tend to be regarded as the elite.

Ye Olde Academy, where I've been teaching for the past fifteen years, is a semi-prestigious, private institution with a college-aimed curriculum. It goes without saying that we get our share of kids raised in the traditional manner. They're naturally the ones that tend to get the best test scores, so they're the ones crowed over by both our school and society at large. Frankly speaking, they tend to be the most annoying and frustrating students I have to deal with. I say this because:
  1. They're very good at tests, especially the ones based on rote learning, but put them in a situation where they actually have to think or make decisions, and they're totally lost.
  2. They tend to have a very smug and egotistical view of themselves and their abilities, but since they're only really good at tests, they consider everything else (i.e. life) beneath them. Unfortunately, their parents encourage such an attitude.
  3. They see their parent-driven home study, quite often supplemented with expensive tutors and/or cram school, as the sole reason for their "success", so they dismiss their classes at school as irrelevant. That's why they tend to do very well on standardized achievement tests but start to get increasingly mediocre grades in high school. That's also why they tend to have a contemptuous if not uncooperative attitude toward their teachers.
  4. Saddest of all, most if not all of them get into prestigious colleges after graduating. That makes them the principal measure of our success as a school in the eyes of the public. However, what the published statistics DON'T say is that a very large percentage of them wind up dropping out within two years simply because they can't handle life without mother making all their decisions for them. In other words, it all ends up being for naught. Despite all the hype and self-righteousness, despite all the pomp and posturing, in the end the arrogant test machine quite often winds up being an embarrassment to himself and to us. I'd call it poetic justice if I weren't compelled to share the collective blame. There's also the percentage that make it through: They're the ones most likely to wind up having to make decisions that affect the entire country...even though they weren't brought up to have the ability to make decisions!
I can't deny the merits of the "tiger mother"...which is partly why I put up with the degree of it occurring in my own household right now. However, Professor Chua should be careful not to belittle the Western style of parenting too much. My own experience has shown me that test scores aren't everything. Emphasizing achievement over everything else quite often winds up achieving nothing. And besides...if you're going to compare China and the US in such an egotistically judgmental way, I'd have to counter by asking which of those two countries is famous for its innovation, and which is notorious for its habit of copying what the other one creates!


  • I guess this woman would be disgusted with our approach!

    We encourage our children to do well at everything, but allow them to choose what they study and how they study it. If they need something to help we try to get it - eg my daughter is focusing on music so we bought her a copy of Sibelius so she can compose music at home as well as at school. We do not see the point of forcing our children to over achieve - we have see far too many children crash and burn in the hands of pushy parents!

    By Blogger Rock Chef, at 10:49 PM  

  • Rock Chef
    I doubt she'd be disgusted, just smugly assured of your Western inferiority. In the article she goes on and on about how even strict Western parents still "only" make their children practice the piano for an hour at most (She had hers practice at least three hours) and praise their children if they get at least a B (Hers got punished if they got an A minus). She says that's why Chinese kids get into top universities as a minimum standard and excel at the piano and violin as a matter of course.

    I say, "So what?" So she managed to become a law professor at Yale. As I've seen first hand, a lot of others burn out...and/or develop psychological problems.

    I fully respect what you're doing. Sibelius rocks! (I've found that Finale is pretty good, too!)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:45 PM  

  • Fascinating post, MM. I wondered what your perspective would be and what you've seen as a teacher. I didn't read the original article (nor Chua's book), but rather a variety of articles in response to the original.

    Chua appears to assume kids will respond if moms are tiger-ish, but she doesn't seem to account for differences in temperament or learning styles. One article noted that this is really about the narcissism of the mother who ties her own success with her child's. If she were willing to set aside her own self-interest, she could attend better to the needs of her child. And, no, there's not one ideal way to raise a child. Imagine that.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 2:07 AM  

  • Nikkipolani
    I first read a condensed version of the article that was included in my newspaper. Chua said that her husband often tried to get her to take into account that every child is different, and she greeted the idea with contempt. I remember reading an excerpt of a debate between Chinese and American college professors that took place back in the 1970s; the Chinese were scornful of the idea of individuality, insisting with almost violent passion that human nature can and should be shaped.

    We're going through a bit of this in my home at present. My wife has become something of a "tiger mother" herself, though not quite to Chua's extreme. In my wife's case, however, she openly admits that it's more a matter of her own pride (and, perhaps more importantly, that of the family) than anything else.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:41 AM  

  • Pass this article to your wife have a look or discuss by u2.

    小孩的成长,每个皆段有不同教法。 而每个人天资 也不同。

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:58 PM  

  • Pretty heavy stuff, this one...

    Anyway, you may or may not be pleased, but forgive me for taking the liberty to nominate your blog for an 'award'... please free to reject if it is too troublesome to accept...

    By Blogger Lrong, at 3:57 PM  

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