review by Walker Rowe
My kids walk all over me. It’s not their fault. It’s mine. Since their mom and I split up some 11 years ago I decided to let her be the disciplinarian and I would be their friend. That did not work too well. At times I wish I been more like a Chinese parent.
Americans fret that they have lost their standing in the world. Our economy is built upon a hollow shell of derivatives trading. Our manufacturing has fled to other countries. There are no jobs for our kids. Having defeated the Soviets and officially out of Iraq, we look towards the next threat: China.
It was not too long ago that distant and isolated Chinese were known for manufacturing paper umbrellas. Now they manufacture iPhones and iPads. Their immigrant and expatriate kids seem to thrive in our education system–at least among the Ivy league and top public schools like Berkeley and The University of Virginia. My own kids complain to me that their advanced placement and honors classes in high school are dominated by Chinese kids. They complain that their mom says “Why can’t you make good grades like these Chinese kids do?”
The Yale Law school professor Amy Chau has stepped squarely in the middle of the debate over which culture is superior at least with regard to parenting. In her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” she talks bluntly of ethnicity and cultural differences that the politically correct are afraid to mention.
Chau is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She is married to a Jewish law school professor, a combination she says is quite common in academic towns. They have two children Lulu and Sophia which they raised decidedly in the “Chinese way”. How they educated their children and why she believes the “Chinese way” is the best way to raise kids, is the topic of her book.
Amy is herself a product of the Chinese way of educating children which demands straight A grades. She graduated from Harvard Law school while her sister graduated from Yale law school. Another other sister got a PHD from Harvard.
If you think her a typical one dimensional Chinese study-all-day-work-no-play automaton she might have been that at first. Excelling at academics at Yale law school her social skills might have been lacking. She was terrified when the teacher called on her in class saying, “I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it.” Graduating from school and wishing to avoid confrontations with other people she headed for corporate law instead of litigation. But now she has found her footing. With this book and the numerous television appearances she has made in the aftermath of its publicity she has become eloquent. Just this week she spoke on CNN International with poise saying that, yes, indeed Americans do fear the rise of China.
What Amy Chau says in her book confirms what the round-eyed gainjin has long suspected. Chinese kids do study all day long and do not participate much in sports and social activities. Among the things her daughters were not allowed to do were:
- attend a sleepover
- have a playdate
- be in a school play
- watch TV or play computer games
- get any grade less than an A
- play any instrument other than the violin or piano
Many of us have run into the Chinese affinity for classical music first hand. I took my oldest son to Suzuki piano classes when he was a boy. He squirmed on the piano stool, refused to practice, and generally was not prepared for lessons when we arrived. The piano studio was filled with Chinese girls who behaved like angels, sat up straight, and played the piano note perfect. My son and I quit the class and I crawled away feeling somewhat humiliated. I believe the teacher was glad to see us go.
Chau says western parents are “weak willed and indulgent”. She explains that, “Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you’re good at it….This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning which is where Western parents tend to give up.” Yes, that is why the piano I bought sits gathering dust.
She says, “For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day…For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.”
The Chinese approach to discipline is brutal. When her daughter would not obey Amy simply made her stand outside in the freezing cold. She then thought that no Westerner would do that and moreover could go to jail for doing so. She says, “In the west obedience is associated with dogs and the caste system, but in Chinese culture it is considered among the highest of virtues.”
She says, “In Chinese culture it just wouldn’t occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy talk back and independent streaks.”
The Chinese parents she says follow these rules:
- school work comes first
- an A- is a bad grade
- your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math
- you must never compliment your children in public
The weak willed Western parents are unable to control their kids because, “They will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice.”
Amy says that Westerners do not understand and are even offended by the Chinese approach to raising kids. She says, “I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self esteem.” If a Chinese kid is, for example, fat the parent will say so. “Hey fatty lose some weight. By contrast western parents have to tiptoe around the issue talking in terms of health and never mentioning the F word.” Amy said she once called her kid “garbage” for acting disrespectful. “When I mentioned I had done this at a dinner part I was immediately ostracized. One guest named Marcy got so upset she broke down in tears and had to leave early.”
Explaining the Chinese approach to grades and derision Amy says, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parents assume it’s because the child did not work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child.”
While the Chinese approach might produce straight A’s it does not address all of the problems and difficulties associated with raising children. Not all kids of course are equal in their abilities. Aristotle said some people were born to be slaves and others to lead them. We could translate that to say that not all of us can be doctors and lawyers because without carpenters and electricians there would no one to build the hospitals and courthouses. As for kids with disabilities Amy says one of her sisters, Cindy, was born with Dow Syndrome. She says, “In much of Asia, disabilities are seen as shameful …some of my relatives encouraged us to send Cindy away to an institution in the Philippines.” Fortunately her mother did not do that and “Today Cindy holds two international special Olympics gold medals in swimming.” In the Chau family even those with disabilities have gone on to excel.
(3) Readers Comments
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