I saw an article by Amy Chua, the Chinese-American academic, in which she proclaims herself a “tiger mother” and tells the world that Chinese mothers (or maybe she means mothers from a particular group of immigrant Chinese Americans, I’m not sure) are superior to others. She admits that not all “Chinese mothers” are actually Chinese at all — some are actually Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish or Ghanaian — so it’s more of a style of parenting than the way a particular ethnicity raises its kids. It refers to a particularly strict, hothousing style of parenting in which kids are not allowed “frivolous” things such as sleepovers, computer games, TV, “playdates” or school plays, and have to master a musical instrument, specifically either the piano or the violin. And they have to get straight A’s, all the time. Note: an A- is a failure.
The article (extracted from Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) was published in the Wall Street Journal, and an interview with her was published in yesterday’s Guardian, in the Family supplement. It actually reveals that one of her daughters actually rebelled (in public), leading to Chua back-pedalling on some aspects of her parenting methods.
The article made me smell a rat from the beginning, actually. Where are all these Chinese math whizzes and musical prodigies? I’m sure they exist, but they exist in other ethnicities as well. It’s no secret that the Chinese minority in this country has among the best academic results, but the idea that they always get A’s is ridiculous. After all, if it was that easy to get an A, then not every A would be an A. And there is the small fact that there are plenty of Chinese in Europe doing menial jobs, or running restaurants (OK, it’s a skill, but you don’t need to be an academic to run or work in a restaurant). Go to any Chinatown and you won’t find lots of Chinese playing violin concertos, you’ll see them selling food. And if you value playing a musical instrument, why must it be the piano or violin, rather than the cello or the oboe? You can’t have an orchestra only composed of pianists and violinists.
Other writers in the WSJ (including parents and children who were brought up by Chinese immigrant parents) have pulled apart Chua’s arguments better than I can. Hanna Rosin, in an article on WSJ titled Mother Inferior, counters that although people hothoused to master an instrument may achieve technical mastery, that doesn’t mean they will learn to enjoy listening to music — even the Chua women, she says, “rarely express pure love of music; instead they express joy at having mastered it”; one friend who had been raised similarly to the Chua daughters (albeit by German parents) came to hate classical music and has not picked up a violin in a decade. Another mother notes that her dyslexic daughter put herself a punishing programme so as to learn to read, against her parents’ advice, so Chua’s thesis that nothing is fun until you can do it, and kids will not learn on their own initiative but only because of parental bullying, is shown to be groundless.
Then there are the other issues, such as what exactly is wrong with kids staying the night with a friend, or having one over to play? I didn’t have sleepovers, as far as I can remember, as a kid (I hated staying at other people’s houses, even my aunt’s) but my sister did, and it didn’t do her (or her friends) any harm. There can be some embarrassments such as if they wet the bed, but as long as it doesn’t stop them doing things they actually need to do (it’s actually possible to make friends with your kids’ parents, you know, such that you can arrange that they will do their homework there), I fail to see why it’s something to be avoided altogether. Kids have to have fun, rather than spending every waking moment learning to do something they will never particularly enjoy.
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