May 23, 2011
Tiger Mother, Burning BrightBy John Barnett
Americans have always been anxious about how their kids are turning out. But at this moment in history -- when that traditional source of anxiety has been joined by growing nervousness about the rise of China -- any writer who hit upon the idea of connecting the two by arguing, essentially, that Chinese parentage is just better would have been guaranteed to strike a nerve. Just ask Amy Chua, whose recent Wall Street Journal piece, provocatively entitled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," became an overnight internet smash.
Indeed, "strike a nerve" is not really an adequate metaphor to describe the impact of Chua's piece, which generated about one million page hits, 8,800 comments on the original page (at last count), a staggering 100,000-plus comments on Facebook, and countless responses around the web and in print. Besides the Penguin Press book that the original piece was drawn from, a movie deal is said to be in the works, and Chua's book tour is drawing crowds. Most recently, Chua started a website and appeared with her husband at the New York Public Library.
Personally, I felt almost compelled to respond to Chua, not only because I frequently write about Asia and have spent much of my adult life living in various Asian countries, but also because I earn a substantial portion of my income from private tutoring. Being a tutor in Asia for more than a decade has given me a highly unusual opportunity even for longtime expatriates in this region: namely, the chance to observe the Asian parenting approach "in the field." I have spent thousands of hours in the homes of dozens of different families of Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and other Asian backgrounds. As for the Chinese parenting approach specifically, I have taught Chinese kids from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, the U.S., and elsewhere.
For readers who missed Chua's article -- there must be at least four or five -- here are the main points. She basically advocates the following:
I know from personal experience, however, that the Chua approach is not fully accurate as a representation of "Asian parenting," if such a thing even exists. Many of my high school-aged students have had active social lives. Also, Chua's drastic anti-TV and videogame stance appears to be quite rare. Parental involvement with school is usually high, but most parents I've known are prepared to give their children more freedom to, say, pick extracurricular activities than Chua apparently was. And I have rarely witnessed verbal abuse, although this might not mean much, since Asians tend to conceal family discord from outsiders. In addition, of course, there are very considerable cultural differences in family behavior between different Asian groups, and as big as those differences are, the differences between individual families, even within the same national culture, can be greater still.
Still, "Chua-ism," or at least something like it, is very recognizable amongst the families I have dealt with. Compared to typical Americans, Asian parents really are stricter and intervene more deeply in their children's lives. They really do have higher expectations and stress hard work rather than talent. And their focus on educational outcomes (like getting into a top-25 university) verges on obsession. So if we grant that Chua-style parenting exists, the key question becomes, does it have any merit? Can Americans learn anything from Amy Chua, or is this controversy merely the latest in the long series of "yellow peril" panic attacks that have popped up in American culture since Asian immigration began in the 19th century?
The good points of Chua-ism...
Probably the most compelling point Chua makes is her defense of the value of rote repetition. As she says, "[w]hat 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 observation is more than just a truism; it displays real wisdom, and few will doubt that many American children would benefit if their parents understood this principle better.
However, this insight is not uniquely Chinese. Personally, I first encountered it in the words of the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis: "Everyone wants to be the hero, but no one wants to slay the dragon" -- the "dragon" being practice. In fact, practice is the key to mastering any instrument, irrespective of specifics; for evidence, read Keith Richards' autobiography, where he recalls spending endless hours obsessively teaching himself blues riffs. My own experience with piano also confirms Chua's view: my piano-playing career survived a tense confrontation with my mother in elementary school when I really, really wanted to quit. She insisted, I got a lot better, and predictably, playing piano has been one of my great pleasures in adult life. Chua's view on practice is also reminiscent of the "10,000 hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which argued that, contrary to popular perceptions of the primacy of talent, the actual key to success in any endeavor is around 10,000 hours of practice at that endeavor, which produces a level of skill that is effectively unattainable to the vast majority of the population.
Chua makes another good point when she asserts that for youngsters, having "self-esteem" is not enough: they have to produce results. Without question, one of the most inane and socially destructive memes in Western culture over the last quarter century has been the uncritical promotion of self-esteem as an end in itself. The result, as others have noted, is a generation of college graduates who are practically unemployable due to a wildly exaggerated perception of their own abilities coupled with an inability to accept criticism. The self-esteem cult has profoundly damaged the lives of countless people shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that they are not really that "special" after all, notwithstanding years of assurances from well-meaning teachers, coaches, and parents. And the damage has not been limited to individuals; the cult has also drained away Americans' motivation to excel, at a moment when the competitive pressure on the U.S. internationally has never been greater.
Arguably, as well, our contemporary culture is characterized by an abnormal fascination with honest criticism, precisely because it has become verboten due to the strictures of self-esteem advocates. This phenomenon has probably contributed to the success of TV shows like The Apprentice or American Idol -- for anyone raised within the self-esteem culture, seeing Simon Cowell coldly inform a tone-deaf contestant that "you cannot sing, and you should stop trying" can be breathtaking. The victims of self-esteem pampering can easily lose touch with reality, like the hapless Idol contestants. But more than that, through no fault of their own, these victims have been denied the benefit of "mastery experiences" -- achieving goals that once seemed impossible via hard work and persistence. As Chua observes, "one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."
Another wise Chua policy is to curtail the panoply of entertainment options available for children, or at least sharply limit the time they spend entertaining themselves instead of working. In modern-day America, opposing TV or computer games for kids is like being an atheist in colonial Massachusetts -- apt to get you burned at the stake. But consider: the TV and computer game (or, if you like, "interactive entertainment") industries are staffed by people whose professional lives are dedicated to one thing -- convincing viewers to keep watching, and players to keep playing, at any cost. Anyone who doubts that they have been successful should review the historical trends for per capita TV viewing hours in America, or the recent success of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which can be so frighteningly addictive as to replace real life even for adults.
Chua's restrictions on her daughters' social lives probably strike most Americans as not merely excessive, but inhuman. What, no slumber parties? Nevertheless, it may be simply an empirical fact that groups of teens together can be dangerous, both to society and to themselves, and the risk increases with the size of the group. Indeed, there has been recent research suggesting why this is the case: a Temple University study found that awareness that peers are engaged in some activity seems to suppress perceptions of the risk of that activity in the brain of a young person. In all likelihood, there is a straightforward evolutionary explanation for this: in a group of starving young hominids trying to bring down a woolly mammoth, it's probably beneficial for the young Cro-Magnon to stand his ground and hurl that spear, even if doing so risks his own skin. The contemporary manifestation of this trait may be the woeful toll of drunk driving deaths and unplanned pregnancies among teens. To be sure, in modern America, it is probably impossible to put the teenage-dating genie back in the bottle, but that doesn't mean that Chua is wrong when she suggests that the downside of adolescent romance far outweighs the upside (especially since, statistically, few high school relationships result in lasting marriages).
...and the bad points
Whether it was because of or in spite of her draconian methods, Amy Chua's daughters apparently turned out all right -- her older daughter, Sophia, became so proficient at piano that she performed at Carnegie Hall. Sophia even wrote a letter to the New York Post defending her mother after the controversy erupted. And Ms. Chua, by her own account, has moderated her approach in recent years. For example, her younger daughter, Lulu, is apparently now allowed to have an iPod and even go to sleepovers.
Nonetheless, parenting is one human endeavor where a one-size-fits-all approach is least likely to succeed. Regarding grades, Chua asserts:
[I]f a child comes home with an A-minus on a test, a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong... 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.
Well, my work experience allows me to tell you with absolute certainty that this account of "Chinese mothers" could not possibly be true in more than a minority of cases. First of all, even after allowing for grade inflation, it is mathematically impossible for every Chinese pupil to be bringing home As all the time, or even most of the time. Second, in every ethnic group, without exception, there are many kids who simply are not capable of straight-A academic performance -- and trying to force them into that mold will only cause enormous pain for both the parents and the child. What about kids with learning disabilities, for example? Responding to Chua's article, many Asian adults left comments describing how their relationships with their parents had been destroyed by impossibly high expectations.
Moreover, intensifying the pressure for high grades can have undesirable consequences, such as increasing the temptation to cheat. Academic dishonesty in its various forms, including cheating and plagiarizing, is now a huge and underpublicized social problem in this country. It is not enough just to reward excellence -- we need to create an environment where it is understood that excellence is worthless if earned by breaking the rules. (It hardly needs to be said that the importance of this principle is not limited to academic undertakings.)
Another, even more extreme consequence of focusing children on school to the exclusion of almost everything else can be seen in the notorious "hikikomori" phenomenon of Japan, in which adolescents unable to cope with the extreme demands of the Japanese education system respond by dropping completely out of society and disappearing into their rooms, sometimes for years, emerging only to eat or use the bathroom. This phenomenon has been mostly limited to Japan, probably because the country combines an extremely high level of educational stress with an extremely indulgent family environment. However, peculiarly Japanese though it may be, the "hikikomori" syndrome does suggest that ratcheting up academic pressure on teenagers may be very harmful for a subset of vulnerable individuals.
As for curtailing TV or computer games (especially the latter), whatever the value of this step, it will be much easier to advocate it than to actually do it. Moreover, the idea that losing time to video games is a problem that happens only to Western kids is about as wrong as you can get. In actuality, for Asian youngsters, who tend to be introverted, the seductive power of computer technology has been an even greater problem than it has been in the U.S. - Google "internet addiction Korea" for some truly hair-raising stories of extreme cases (such as the infant who died of starvation while her parents were at an internet cafe feeding their virtual child). Destructively excessive internet use has become a tremendous social problem everywhere in East Asia, and mainland China is no exception. When I relocated to the PRC several years ago, internet cafes could be found on almost every block; the overwhelming majority of users were under 30, and their favorite internet activities were chat, internet dating sites, and games. Looking around my terminal in these cafes, I was typically the sole person doing anything so prosaic as sending an e-mail. For better or for worse, the internet addiction cat is long out of the bag in Asia, and to suggest that Asian families are somehow immune to this problem is just factually incorrect.
Another Chua error is her dogmatic insistence that certain extracurricular activities are "just better" than others. Speaking as someone who has often, and successfully, advised Asian kids on U.S. university admission, I can tell you that privileging certain extracurriculars over others is wrongheaded. In particular, Chua's antipathy for drama reaches such absurd heights that one wonders if there is some unspoken personal reason for it. In my opinion, if an Ivy League admissions officer had to choose between two evenly matched Asian applicants, one with extraordinary achievement in piano and another with extraordinary achievement in acting, I think he or she would take the actor. After all, Asian students who excel in piano are a dime a dozen, but brilliant Asian actors are rare. Every student is a unique individual with a unique set of interests -- even in Asia. University admissions committees in the U.S. expect to see this uniqueness and will respond positively to it.
In fact, if anything, Asian students, influenced by powerful social pressure to conform, underperform as university applicants precisely because they fail to differentiate themselves from similar applicants. When it comes to extracurriculars, the most important factor is excellence in that activity, whatever it is. The second-most important factor is depth of commitment -- excelling in one or two activities is better than participating shallowly in six or seven just to "pad the resume." And the third-most important factor is to participate in something that is unique or unusual, or shows real leadership capacity.
Finally, there is no question that academic achievement is relatively high in East Asian populations, both within East Asia and in Asian immigrant communities. But tension in inter-generational relationships is also high. And every year, during the national university entrance examinations -- an event all-important to a child's future in most Asian nations -- there is a wave of suicides.
What are we doing right?
Fundamentally, the United States is an inward-looking culture. We are so focused on our own problems that we tend to underestimate the difficulties other societies face. This tendency is greatly exacerbated by media bias and multiculturalism; the former causes the seriousness of American shortcomings to become greatly exaggerated in the minds of the American public (a "muckraking journalist" has a strong professional incentive to make the "muck" sound filthier than it actually is), and the latter causes the very serious issues faced by other countries, which could put our own woes in much-needed perspective, to be minimized or even ignored. Arguably, a writer like myself, who has spent years abroad, has a special responsibility to correct these imbalances.
So is the U.S. under dire threat from a horde of hyper-competitive Asians created by Amy Chua's superior parenting model? Well, no, and here's why. America's greatest and most underappreciated strength as an international player is its incredible capacity to create and innovate. To a far greater extent than any other country in the world, the U.S. is receptive to new ideas and provides a cultural environment, including (crucially) in its education system, that facilitates this. Somewhere in America, the next Thomas Edison or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg is in school. And maybe he (or she) hasn't thought of his greatest idea yet. But when he does think of it, American society is not going to crush him instantaneously for threatening established interests, behaving contrarily to his parents' expectations, or daring to stand out from the crowd.
In most of the world, all three of these things would tend to happen -- and East Asia is no exception to this general rule. In fact, even though the extreme importance of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship is widely recognized in Asia nowadays, it has still been excruciatingly difficult for these countries to accommodate it -- because doing so requires violating cultural habits of unquestioning conformity and deference to "superiors" that have been deeply ingrained for millennia. To some extent, the history of modern Asia is simply a series of attempts to adjust, with varying success, to the never-ending torrent of new technologies and ideas pouring in from the West.
Asia's creativity problem
The cultures of East Asia have many virtues to admire. When the proper economic and political context is in place, they reliably produce orderly, safe, affluent societies with excellent infrastructure, high levels of education, and a diligent, skilled labor force. What they do not produce, however, is a high level of technological or artistic innovation. In fact, East Asia is as creatively impoverished as it is economically wealthy.
I am stepping deeply into politically incorrect territory by saying this, but speaking as the teacher of hundreds of Asian kids, these youngsters consistently display a noticeable deficiency in creative thinking. Brainstorming, for example, is excruciatingly difficult for them. At every educational level, from elementary school to graduate school, generating genuinely original thoughts seems to be virtually an insuperable challenge for these students (which is not to say that it is necessarily easy for other ethnic groups).
"Tiger Mother"-like parenting practices, with their emphasis on absolute obedience to authority, mastering existing knowledge, and mimicking the thoughts of others, almost certainly contribute to this problem. Chua is rightly proud of her daughter's skill on piano, but playing classical piano pieces, admirable though it may be, ultimately consists of duplicating the musical ideas of the composer. There are thousands of classical musicians of East Asian descent, but how many East Asian classical composers are there?
Anti-creative parenting is reinforced by the education systems used in Asia, which focus almost entirely on rote learning, repetition, and memorization. For students accustomed to this environment, coming up with new ideas yourself can actually seem bizarre and unnatural -- like running a footrace backwards. In South Korea, I heard a story that illustrates this: if you show a class of Korean students a picture of a dog and ask them to "draw a dog," almost every student will effortlessly produce a perfect copy. But if you instead just ask them to "draw a dog," without the picture, they will flounder helplessly -- even if they do eventually come up with something, it will probably be inept, and the stack of results will be filled with copies of the work of the few students in the class who can draw from memory.
I do not hold my students, or even their national cultures per se, ultimately responsible for this situation. In fact, it is likely that two specific features of classical Chinese culture are responsible: namely, the character-based written language, and the institution of the imperial examination system.
China's character-based script, which was also used in modified form by Japan and (until the relatively recent past) Korea and Vietnam, requires prodigious memory skills to achieve even basic literacy. This system unified the country because the same characters were used by all Chinese regardless of local dialects, but it also condemned a substantial fraction of the population to illiteracy.
Those who succeeded in learning the characters, however, could aspire to attempt the imperial examinations. For about 1,300 years, high-ranking officials in China were selected from top performers on these exams, which required applicants to memorize vast amounts of text by classical authors. Success in the examinations -- probably the first standardized tests in the history of the world -- provided social mobility in China by allowing talented individuals to rise to a high position, regardless of their origin. However, because the tests emphasized rote memory over innovative thinking, and because those who were successful at them often became the wealthy progenitors of large families, the examinations may have unintentionally, in effect, bred the Chinese population for rote memory proficiency -- a result only amplified by the memory-intensive nature of written Chinese. And because the precursor states of modern-day Korea and Vietnam adopted an essentially similar system, this effect was not limited to China.
To be sure, I am not saying that it is impossible for East Asians to be creative; I am personally aware of a great many counterexamples. I'm saying only that outstanding creativity is rarer, statistically, than it is in the West -- especially in the U.S.
Also, it is obvious that the rote-learning-and-mimicry strategy can be highly successful -- if there is an innovative culture available to mimic. In fact, entire countries in East Asia have based their economic strategy on producing Western innovations with superior quality and low prices. However, at the same time, Japan's economic woes since the 1990s show that surpassing the West is vastly more difficult than catching up to the West. And the limitations of this strategy suggest that Chua-ism may simply be inappropriate for American culture: there is every reason to believe that practices which developed in East Asia may work less well here, and even if they did work, is it really a good idea for Americans to change a culture that has given us such a high level of innovative prowess?
Finally, there is a political dimension to this discussion. Rote learning, with its implication of mindless obedience, simply does not sit well with American culture. This rejection brings a substantial benefit: Americans revolutionize our culture on a regular basis, but we have never had a Cultural Revolution -- and that is a good thing.
Chua-ism in China
Interestingly, the Chua phenomenon met with a skeptical or even hostile reception within China itself. Chinese are certainly proud of their students' high performance on examinations, but they are also deeply worried about the country's underperformance at the highest levels of intellectual achievement. For example, Lu Jun, director of an English school in Beijing, told China Daily: "It is exciting to see so many Chinese kids excelling in math tests, but so far China has no Nobel laureates. By contrast, more than 70% [of] the global Nobel laureates are Americans whose population is less than 5% of the world." Lu added, "A key reason is that the teaching methods of Chinese schools and parents are test-oriented, which fails to inspire kids to use their knowledge in real life."
Many Chinese internet users were scornful towards the "Tiger Mother." One person commented, "Is she brainwashed? She violated her child's human rights! They have a right to happy childhood memories." Another observer also found it hard to reconcile Western human rights notions with Chua's strictness: "To some extent, her behavior can be called child abuse... In her book, Chua says that if her child can't finish their homework, they won't be not allowed to sleep... However, science has demonstrated that if people cannot get enough sleep, brain activity will be reduced. As a university professor, how can [Chua] be so lacking in common sense!" And a Shanghainese friend of the author even dismissed the entire notion that Chinese parents provide their kids with a superior environment, attributing the success of Chua's daughters to "great genes... that's all."
It would be a mistake to take Amy Chua too seriously; she is no heavyweight in the child-development field, and in all fairness, she never really claimed to be one. Her book was intended as a personal account, not a parenting manual, and it reflects the softening of her initially hard-line approach over time. The sensationalized coverage of the book, intended to pump up sales, has had the effect of exaggerating her actual claims.
Having said that, although Chua makes some good points, her approach is definitely no panacea, and it may have limited or no applicability in many family situations. There are also many good parenting ideas from Asia that Chua never mentions, such as the importance of providing a clean, well-lit, and quiet place in the home for studying. However, the "Tiger Mother" phenomenon has undoubtedly produced one useful result: it reminded Americans that the world is not standing still. We live in a competitive international environment, and we need to benchmark ourselves against what others are doing and be open to new approaches -- even if those ideas come from foreigners, and even if they are in areas as culturally sensitive as parenting.
John Barnett is an Asia-based teacher and freelance writer.