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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mothers Superior: Does Amy Chua Have the Secret to Child-Rearing Success?

“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”: this is the startlingly confident title of a piece by Amy Chua in the Jan.8 Wall Street Journal. And, in case you think there’s no cultural conflict at work here, the subheading: “Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games, and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?” In this article, Ms. Chua explains all the things she doesn’t allow her daughters to do, and the fact that she doesn’t allow them to complain about not doing them. She rejects common Western concerns about self-esteem and individuality, and states instead what she considers to be the Chinese philosophy of child-rearing. Here are some important parts of that philosophy:

1. Success comes from hard work. If a child is doing poorly at a task, it is because he or she has not practiced often enough or intensely enough.

2.If someone is doing poorly at an activity, it is not because he or she lacks talent, but because of laziness, and it’s advisable to tell a lazy child he or she is lazy.

3.Activities become “fun” when you master them. Nothing will really be fun until you’ve worked at it enough to experience success.

4.Children owe their parents obedience and behavior that will make the parents proud. The child has to repay the parent for birth and care.

(You'll notice that the "happy children" of the subheading are not mentioned here.)

Chua recounts a knock-down, drag-out fight with one of her daughters about a difficult piano piece, a fight that got somewhat physical and that involved threats that the girl would get nothing to eat, nothing to drink, no Christmas, no Chanukkah, etc., until she got back to work. She did go back, she worked hard, she mastered the piece and was thrilled with her success and later snuggled and giggled in bed with her mother. She was, it seemed, a happy child at that point,and with a kind of happiness that Chua felt would give her a foundation for life-long accomplishment and satisfaction.

So what about all this? Is Chua right and Western parents wrong about how to treat children? I have to say that there are a lot of things that are right in her article!

For one thing, it’s true that the Western preoccupation with unearned self-esteem is useless at best and may even be harmful. There’s a myth that claims that high self-esteem causes high academic achievement, and as a result of this belief both parents and teachers have for some years concentrated on making kids “feel good about themselves” rather than on facilitating learning. The problem, as so often occurs, is that there is a correlation between high grades and high self-esteem, but this does not necessarily mean that the second causes the first. It makes just as much sense, if not more, that getting good grades could improve a child’s self-esteem. It can also be the case that other factors, like good health and good family functioning, can make for both good schoolwork and high self-esteem, especially for elementary school children. We should also keep in mind that there is in the United States a whole “self-esteem industry” providing toys, workbooks, and exercises that are supposed to increase you-know-what (see Humphrey,N. [2004]. The death of the feel-good factor? Self-esteem in the educational context. School Psychology International, 25, pp.347-360), and that industry makes it harder for parents or teachers to step back and take a common-sense look at the self-esteem concept. (It’s hard for people even to remember that 50 or 60 years ago, to say someone had high self-esteem was NO compliment .) I don’t want to suggest that we insult our children at regular intervals, but constructive criticism or instructions are not to be feared as detrimental to personality development. They may not be nearly as detrimental as constant cries of “good job!” and stickers for every accomplishment right down to breathing.

Chua is also right about the Western attitude that “talent” rather than hard work is responsible for success. We easily buy into the argument that someone “just can’t do math” or “just can’t learn languages”, rather than considering whether better instruction or more serious practice might be helpful. Of course it’s true that at the highest levels of performance there are gifted individuals who can do things no one else could do even if they did nothing but practice. Most of us will never win the Putnam Prize, sing at the Met, translate “The Tale of Genji”, or dance with the Bolshoi. But this does not mean that we can’t master the multiplication tables, learn to sing with the children’s choir, memorize French verb forms, or do anything else we have the general intelligence and physical capacity to manage. It’s hardly fair to any child to let her grow to adulthood unable to make change because we think she, a normal primary school pupil, “can’t do math”. Chua, in fact, says that if parents really care about their child they won’t let anything like that happen.

What’s wrong with Chua’s approach, if anything? I’d say that I do have questions about the article itself. Does it really represent family life in Chua’s household? What’s actually the proportion of time spent in hand-to-hand combat, and the proportion of ordinary cheerful family time? Chua writes such a vivid account of the fight over the piano lesson that it distracts us from anything else, but I can only think that if the conflict weren’t pretty unusual Chua would not have made it the centerpiece of her article. There has to be a lot more going on-- the parents’ marriage, the father’s relationship to the girls, Chua’s work, the sisters’ play together, meals, laundry, and all the rest of life. And did Chua really mean the girl couldn't eat or drink until she practiced and learned?

Beyond that issue, I see a couple of concerns. One is simply that brute force and threats are not the only way to encourage a child to do a frustrating task. Dividing the task into parts-- something children are not good at doing for themselves-- can be a great help that parents and teachers can easily provide. The child wails, “oh, I have to write such a long essay about our class trip-- it will take forever-- I don’t know how to do it!”. Rather than yelling at the frustrated child, a parent can suggest one of the steps needed for a beginning-- maybe “can you write a list of five things that you saw?”. Often the real problem with frustration is the child’s developmentally-based trouble with formulating a series of smaller tasks and attacking them one by one. With guided practice, he or she learns that there are ways to do this and develops strategies for cutting a job into manageable pieces.

As for excluding all the social events and school plays that Chua lists, I think that approach deprives children of chances to learn some important social skills, ways of thinking about others, and ways of thinking about themselves. One of the developmental tasks of childhood is to begin the mastery of the social rules that help us work as well as play with others, and although this achievement begins in the home, it can’t end there. Adult life requires us to deal with people other than our nuclear families and to figure out what they think and what they want. We don’t have time to learn how to do this when we grow up and embark on our careers and our own families, and we need a chance for this kind of learning in childhood.

I can’t imagine applying Chua’s whole program as she describes it-- but I’m not so sure that she applies it either. Perhaps the better approach (and maybe what Chua and her husband actually do) is what we might call conscious parenting with plenty of reflection on what we choose to do, and why, and where we and our children are trying to go.

1 comment:

  1. Some of it just seems pointlessly controlling. Why does she only allow her kids to play the piano or violin? What's wrong with other instruments?