there’s an essay from the wall street journal that’s been making the rounds on facebook today entitled “why chinese mothers are superior.” it’s an excerpt from the book battle hymn of the tiger mother by amy chua, a yale law professor, about her experiences of raising her children as a prototypically chinese mother.
i have some mixed feelings about this piece (that changed each time i read it, so who knows, this blog might be obsolete in a few hours).
on one hand, it gave me some insight into my own upbringing that i had never previously realized. my parents pushed me hard as a kid because they believed that i could do anything — an idea that i internalized, and one that was reinforced every time i achieved something. as a result, my self-esteem is in pretty good shape. i had never made these connections before, and i think chua articulated them well.
at the same time, the essay made me really uncomfortable. i recognize that it’s meant to be hyperbolic and inflammatory and to elicit some discomfort… but as a therapist at the counseling center of a predominantly asian american university, i see almost every day how this kind of parenting can negatively impact children’s sense of self and self-worth, as well as their relationships with their parents and others. chua writes that “chinese parents can get away with things that western parents can’t” and “chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable — even legally actionable — to westerners” without any damage to their children’s self-esteem — simply because of some magically different mindset between the two groups, as though the children are made from fundamentally different material. but the reality is that the kind of behavior she endorses often causes a lot of damage, especially for chinese kids in america, where life outside of the home is often one giant western comparison group.
i’m not comfortable with the normative tone that chua uses, either. just because insulting-as-motivation worked for her and made her and her children very successful doesn’t mean that it does the same for all chinese kids. unlike chua, i know many asian americans with eating isses and poor body image largely because their parents called them fat; i know even more who suffer from depression and low self-esteem because they internalized their parents’ claims that they were stupid and/or lazy. i work with asian american students who believe themselves to be unlovable or worthless, who see themselves as failures, because they couldn’t live up to their parents’ astronomical expectations. i read in one review of battle hymn that chua “acknowledges that the chinese parenting approach is flawed because it doesn’t tolerate the possibility of failure,” and that’s exactly the problem i have with this parenting method: it can work when the kid is able to achieve, but when he or she isn’t, the consequences can be disastrous. this is what i see at work, and this is why asian countries have the highest teenage suicide rates in the world.
these are just my two cents, obviously deeply biased by my own experiences and my current profession. i would love to hear what others think. many thanks to ray for starting the conversation.