Amy Chua: Model Chinese Parent or Insufferable Elitist?

January 10, 2011

Amy Chua and her perfect kids. The smug, it burns!

I’m going to have to go with “insufferable elitist” on this question. Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua has a new book out on parenting, and her PR piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” is about 90% crap.

Don’t get me wrong. I also think that lots of Western parents are lazy and don’t push their kids and that culturally, the Chinese have placed a great value on disciplined learning, which is generally a good thing. However, Professor Chua’s WSJ article goes to great length in holding out Chua’s daughters as shining examples of her (Chinese) parenting skills, complete with embarrassingly cliched photos of them playing the piano and violin. Seriously cringe-worthy stuff.

Not only is Chua saying that Chinese parents are superior, but she is also using her own family as evidence that supports her thesis. You with me so far? Because Chua raised her kids in a certain (mercilessly Chinesey) way, they turned out better than their fellow Westerners — note that Chua, and her kids, are Americans.

So what exactly should we be emulating? Well, in addition to the usual stuff (forcing kids to study and practice piano/violin 23 hours a day) and simply disallowing failure of any kind, here’s a short list included in the WSJ piece of what Chua never allowed her kids to do:

  • 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

I’m not really sure how seriously to take all this, so I’ll just assume Chua wasn’t exaggerating here. Just a couple comments:

1. Obviously Chua’s math skills leave something to be desired, but then again, she is a lawyer. I’m not quite sure what would have happened if at least one of the other parents of a child in one of her daughters’ schools had also been Chinese. Let’s face it, if more than one parent requires her kid to be #1 in everything, someone’s going to lose. In other words, it’s kind of difficult to scale up Chua’s standard regimen of never accepting failure.

Perhaps Chua was merely saying that this is the expectation, even if it is unachievable for everyone. That would be more acceptable, but I didn’t really get that impression from that list. I get the feeling that if one of her daughters had failed in some way, the results would have been extremely nasty. For example:

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion.

I just finished grading exams last week, and you might be incredibly shocked to know (actually, you better sit down) that not all my students received A grades. In fact, some of the students did not even get B grades. How that happened, I don’t know. It must have been some sort of cultural pollution from the American kids in the class.

Chua seems to revel in this macho parenting fantasy. Apparently she called one of her children “garbage” at a dinner party after the kid fell short of expectations. She was genuinely puzzled by the negative reaction she got from her Western guests. I remember when my mother called my sister and I “animals” when we acted up, but I somehow fail to recall how that turned us into better people. In fact, the memory just makes me pissed off at my mother. I don’t think calling your child “garbage” shows that you are a great parent who is “motivating” her child. It might, on the other hand, show that you are an asshole with a short temper.

2. What’s with the piano and violin, anyway? I must admit that I went through the same thing when I was a kid. I was thankfully exposed only briefly to both instruments before my parents relented and allowed me to switch to the trumpet in middle school. I guess that explains why I am human refuse and don’t teach at Yale.

Seriously, I think all kids should be exposed to music, but mandating a certain instrument is bizarre. The only explanation that makes sense is that it is pure irrational elitism at play here. Rich kids play classical music on pianos, poor people play the blues on brass instruments in smoky clubs.

3. More elitism on display here. The stuff about games and TV is classic cultural snobbery that has nothing to do with Western vs. Chinese attitudes. I have friends who were not allowed to do those things when they were growing up either. Instead of watching TV, they read Dostoyevsky; instead of playing football with their friends (of which they had none), they were tutored in French.

The value we place on Shakespeare over, for example, Stephen King, is ludicrously arbitrary. Shakespeare was a “popular” writer/entertainer of his time. I would guess that if Professor Chua were resident in Elizabethan England, she would have looked down on Shakespeare with utter disdain, and obviously her daughters would never have been taken to the Globe for a performance.

Sure, Stephen King is no Shakespeare, admittedly, but as someone who developed a very large vocabulary at a young age from reading Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke (among others), I would say that there is value in a wide variety of activities, not just ones deemed culturally worthy of attention like playing the piano or learning ballet.

I note from that list that Chua’s kids were not allowed to be in a school play. This tells us something about the value she places on the theater (see my Shakespeare comments above). Apparently Beethoven and Bach are worthy of attention but Tennessee Williams, or for that matter, Sophocles, is not. I don’t get it. Note that Chua’s kids are allowed to perform poorly in drama class — this is how much she disdains this stuff, which I’m sure was communicated clearly to her kids.

3. The sleepover and the playdate. In addition to cultural snobbery, perhaps this is just outright snobbery? What on earth could be the problem with allowing your kids to stay over at a friend’s house, or even engage in supervised playtime with a friend? My goodness, even the most socially paranoid Chinese parents that I know don’t go that far. Perhaps she’s worried that one of her kids will get ahold of Grand Theft Auto for an hour, forever tainting the child and ruining all her hard-fought manipulations.

OK, I think you get the point. All of this is supposed to show us that because her kids are successful, this somehow validates everything she did as a “Chinese parent.” Gimme a break.

Quick reality check. I would argue that her kids’ success owed a lot to factors that had nothing to do with whether their Mom is of Chinese extraction. Let’s count the ways:

  1. Mommy is a famous Yale Law School professor.
  2. Daddy is a famous Yale Law School professor — not Chinese, but a {gasp} Jew.
  3. Mommy’s parents were both academics. Grandpa was a Berkeley professor.
  4. (Assumption) Mommy and Daddy have plenty of money.

Does Chua really believe that all kids, no matter their background or DNA, can get straight ‘A’s and be at the top of every class as long as they try hard enough? Does she believe that her kids did not start off with some very substantial advantages in life that simply aren’t available to everyone else?

Why do I can care about this? Two reasons. First, I’ve seen a lot of kids here (some are my students) pressured unmercifully by their parents to the point where it is unhealthy. Shit, kids commit suicide from this kind of stuff when they can’t measure up to unreasonable expectations.

Are Western kids lazier than Chinese kids? To some extent maybe they are, and Chinese parents in general certainly push their kids much harder. Chua’s concept of parenting is brutal micromanagement; they should play the piano, stay away from their peers and popular entertainment. Studying 10 hours a day will indeed improve your grades, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a price to be paid for this as well.

Second, having a Neo-Calvinist elitist lecture everyone in a self-help book about how their lazy kids could be kicking ass in school if they were just pushed harder reminds me of Republican arguments against social welfare programs. They say that everyone has a chance to succeed in the economy. If you are unemployed, then obviously you are just not trying hard enough. Why should we (society) enable lazy people to shirk work by giving them a handout?

The WSJ editorial folks must love this bootstrap sort of thesis. It validates the lack of social mobility in the U.S. — hey, those poor kids just aren’t trying hard enough!

Should Western kids be pushed harder? Yes, certainly; a lot of parents are not doing a good job in this area. But will that transform American students into a bunch of replicas of Amy Chua’s kids? Ridiculous.