The World According to Keitho

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Nurture vs torture

Posted by keithosaunders on January 12, 2011

Yesterday I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that is among the most provocative I have ever seen.  It is written by a Yale professor named Amy Chua, a first generation American whose parents are ethnic Chinese who grew up in the Philipines.  The article is titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior and serves as the thesis for her latest book, Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother.

Chua’s thesis is that Chinese parents produce successful children because of hyper-strict discipline which is instilled in a stern, yet loving environment.  Here is the reader’s digest version:    

1) Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.  To that end hours of practice is required at the expense of leisure time.  (playdates and sleepovers are not allowed)  Parents demand good grades from their children because they believe they can get them.

2) Parents believe their children owe them everything.  The parents have sacrificed much, putting in long hours tutoring, interrogating, and even spying on their kids.  Their children, in effect are born into debt.

3)Parents believe they know what’s best which therefore overrides their children’s own desires and preferences.

The article has to be read to be believed.  My brief synopsis does not do it justice.  Chua’s parenting is so humorless, totalitarian, and unforgiving, that at some point I began to wonder if whether I was missing the point.  Could the article be satire? 

She begins with a series of bullet points detailing activities that are forbidden to her children.

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

 • play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

It is a list worthy of a Simpson’s episode.  The article has a surreal quality to it and it straddles the line between pursuit of greatness through endless repetition and a sardonic nightmare from which there is no escape.

Chua states that Chinese parents can get away with things that Americans cannot.  As a child she was called “garbage” by her father when she misbehaved.  She in turn directed this same epitaph at her own daughter.  Chua, however, sounds surprised that after recounting this anecdote at a dinner party she was immediately ostracized. 

For me this does not add up.  Chua, an American, must have known this story would be offensive to most people.  She also must realize, that on some level, her method of parenting borders on abuse.  I have to wonder how much of this book is a testament to narcissism and/or an effort to justify her abuse. 

The article pushes buttons and it opens several cans of worms, not the least of which is racism.  Are we to believe that the Chinese are a super race possessing super-human amounts of concentration and talent?  Or are we supposed to be repelled and feel superior in some way?  Either way it is unsettling and I have to wonder what Chua hopes to gain

As a pianist I was offended by Chua’s badgering of her daughter to practice.  Her seven-year old girl, who clearly had no inclination towards music was frustrated with a difficult piece. 

“Get back to the piano now,” I ordered

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

Even Chua’s husband tries to intervene, taking Chua aside and asking her not to insult their daughter.  Chua persists, threatening her daughter with no lunch, dinner, and Christmas presents.  Finally she  threatens to give her doll house away to charity and this, she proudly recounts, does the trick.  The girl learns the piece and Chua puts another notch into her parenting belt.

I’m filled with a mixture of admiration and revulsion.  I admire her conviction and courage.  Right now, with the article having gone viral on the net, she is public enemy number one among parents.  I have read dozens of comments rebutting her screed, most of which are thoughtful and well written.  I have read very few that I would consider ‘flames’ and none that are racist.  I have to give it up to her for having the guts to  lay herself open for attack — she must have known it was coming.

On the other hand, perhaps she is courageous like a fox.  Everyone is talking about this article and book.  This can only translate into one thing…sales.

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