I wanted to write about some fantastic Chinese documentaries I’ve seen over the past year, but instead I’m going to have to write about the debate raging over Amy Chua, of Tiger Mother infamy.
I’ve received enough emails from people wondering if her approach is really typical of “Chinese” parenting or my own upbringing (God forbid!) that I want to reply once and for all here, and then I’ll refer everyone to this blog entry.
First, Chua’s super-controlling style of parenting is not “traditional Chinese” for many reasons, most obviously the fact that most Chinese have had no opportunity to parent the way Chua does. She takes one grain of truth–that Chinese traditionally have emphasized the importance of education–and then manages to conflate that with her own hyperbole to promote her book. Controversy sells. But let’s get a few facts clear. Chua is American. Her parents were ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. (I guess the title “Battle-hymn of the Imelda Marcos Mother” just didn’t have the same ka-ching to it.) However, Chua is exploiting current fears of a rising China, stereotypes about Chinese (and “Westerners”), the “model minority” stereotype, and almost every mother’s own conflicted feelings about her parenting in order to sell books.
Secondly, there’s been a lot written already about the harmful effects Chua’s abusive language and control-freak style may actually have on children. I will refer everyone to several of the myriad articles about this subject, including this CNN report showing that Asian American females, ages 15-24, have the highest suicide rate of anyone in the U.S. in that age group. This beautiful essay, \”My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother\”,by memoirist Lac Su, explains how he would give up all his current success if he only he could erase the psychic scars caused by his parents’ abusive behavior, which in some ways dovetails with Chua’s name calling. This article written by Betty Ming Liu, Parents like Amy Chua Are the Reason Why Asian Americans Like Me Are in Therapy, describes her critique humorously while this Quora post by Christine Lu explores how her older sister’s efforts to fulfill the pressure to be “perfect” and “successful” resulted in her sister’s suicide. (Meanwhile, a good round-up of bloggers critiques as well as thoughtful analysis is provided by Cynthia Liu.)
Finally, I’d like to address the fundamental problem with Chua’s thesis: she oversimplifies a complex issue with a simple binary of Western indulgent v. Chinese strict.
In fact, this issue is about class not ethnicity. How many people can afford the nannies, tutors, special camps, private schools, etc. that Chua and her husband have paid for? Yet Chua’s book and PR do not emphasize this class privilege or all the people who have contributed to her children’s academic successes. No one woman could do everything, or seriously spend as much time as Chua claims that she did micromanaging her children’s every rehearsal and lives, as Janet Maslin points out in her review in the New York Times.
Chua’s parents were from very wealthy families. (See Chua’s first book, World on Fire, for anecdotes about her relative’s stash of solid gold bars.) Chua is also extremely wealthy. (For example, her daughters attend the private Hopkins School, which charges $30,000+ per year for tuition for grades 7-12.)
Money buys many wonderful opportunities. For example, want your kids to have a recital at Carnegie Hall, too? Anyone can pay to rent one of Carnegie Hall’s many venues. Current cost for a recital at the smallest of the halls (capacity 268, Weill Recital Hall) is about $4,500 for a weekend evening or Sunday afternoon. How do I know? I emailed Carnegie Hall\’s \”Hall Rental\” page on its website and asked.
So what’s wrong with spending a ton of money to raise your kids to have a great education and a lot of special opportunities? Nothing, in and of itself…if you’ve got the money. But it’s alarming that the issue of money and privilege is being obscured in this debate, and the focus in the media is solely on the efforts of one person–the mother–as though it doesn’t take a village (or an incredibly wealthy community) to raise a child.
This refusal to acknowledge privilege and the greater role of community in helping to raise successful children reminds me of The Atlantic‘s cover story, The Rise of the New Global Elite, about the new wealthy who relate to each other around the world but feel little to no obligations to the societies in which they grew up. (See especially pp. 6-7.) According to the article, the new elite believe that solely through their own hard work and merit did they rise to the top. They don’t recognize the privileges of growing up in a largely middle-class society without crime to worry about, with good schools, and with access to jobs. They do not acknowledge the role of luck in their own success or being in the right place at the right time in history. For example, most of the American elites featured grew up in an era that did not have a universal draft, which would otherwise have required them to serve in America’s two ongoing wars, rather than continue their educations uninterrupted and to travel freely to make money for themselves and their companies. The fact that others–generally poorer and less educated– make these sacrifices of going to war for the nation, and thus for them, does not apparently translate to gratitude.
We used to recognize in America that having a strong middle class made us a strong nation. But according to The Atlantic article, we are creating an entitled class (yes, they are smart, they go to good schools, they work hard, but they also have the opportunity to do so) and an underclass, who cannot get ahead no matter how hard they work because they simply do not have access to the best education, connections, and opportunities that the elite enjoy. This divide is dangerous.
We as a nation need to look for real solutions that will help ALL OF US as a society, not just a few of us. We need to stop blaming “indulgent Western parents” or unions or teachers or such-and-such ethnic group, and look at the lack of opportunity that a society increasingly segregated by class leads to as well as the declining state of our public school systems, for example. If you can put your kids in a $30,000/year private school, then of course the kids can get a good education and meet many children of influential people who will help them later in life.
But most parents who are working two full-time jobs just to get by do not have the time, which Chua claims somehow that she has, to self-tutor their children. Nor do most families have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use just to put their kid through a private junior high and high school.
Some parents are truly neglectful of their children, of course, but the problems we see in our education system and economy are not simply issues of bad parenting…or “lax Western parenting” to borrow the publicity’s inflammatory rhetoric.
But notice how the debate raging in our media now is solely about parenting styles and not about the class issues or real solutions to the greater gap in educational opportunities in America for poorer or middle-class people.
Perhaps the elite who are able to take advantage of their opportunities and make the most of them feel that’s enough. Perhaps they feel no obligations to the greater good of their societies. Perhaps it’s enough to grab a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. And maybe they truly can convince themselves that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans deserve to have more collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent (Kristof, 1-1-2011). But if they’re wrong, and we really do need a thriving middle class to prevent most of America from sliding into a permanent underclass, if we need a thriving middle class to keep our country stable, to help lift the poor, to nurture people who will think outside the box rather than think merely how to preserve their own privilege, to innovate for the greater good, then we are all in trouble.
I wish the American media would recognize that we need real solutions and a real examination of our growing societal inequity, not stereotypes.