Chinese Mothers – Strawman Arguments

Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the “Chinese Mothers” debate – which I think makes a very different point, ultimately…

Maternal battles pander to cultural stereotypes, as the Global Times (where you can also read it) headlined it.

Or go on reading here:

The Wall Street Journal article about Amy Chua’s recently released Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has caused such a back-and-forth over the right way to raise one’s children that only a few commentators have started to see the real lesson.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply involved in issues of education and think that they are a very worthwhile field of inquiry. Really, though, the acrid debate only shows how modern communication tends to fall for the extremes and completely forgets to try and understand what the other side really wants to say – or even overlooks what it is actually saying.

What it looks like is this: One side appears to have Chua in support of the “Chinese Mother.” These women don’t even have to be Chinese, but they have to know exactly what they want from their children, because it is the best for them. And they have to push, or punish their children to achieve.

The “stereotypical success” of Asian (and Asian-American) children seemingly proves the point. There seems to be something to it, too. The argument that children don’t really know what they want and will only get good at something if they are made to persevere seems only too true.

The other side, of course, can’t even admit to that. Or at least, not without arguing that the parents need not necessarily know what is best for their children and may in fact destroy them. Suicide rates, social inaptitude, lack of creativity – whatever criticism you may have heard of overbearing parenting, it has been brought to bear on Chua’s thesis.

What shall I say? I can understand both sides.

A friend of mine went back to Austria for the teaching of her half-Chinese children because in kindergarten, they were already being punished for the slightest breach of discipline. In Austria, she promptly put them into a private school because the public schools were so lax about discipline that no real teaching was possible.

Of course, not all children will be the best, and that works against a “Chinese” parenting focused on getting the best grades. Of course, you need social interaction at school, but even a “Chinese” parenting that forbids it cannot prevent children from finding ways to interact and have fun.

Of course, not all learning is fun, and thus a “Western” education that wants any and all schooling to just capture the children’s attention and let them have fun is doomed to fail. You need to learn to persevere, but that can come from outside pressure or be broken by it, come from intrinsic motivation and personal interest, or never have a chance to develop against the allure of video games and fashion magazines.

The problem is that parenting is a problematic exercise in which people are often confident that they are doing everything right or that others are doing everything wrong. They’d be wrong either way, but as a result, each side fails to show any understanding of the other.

Even the way people talk about “Chinese” parenting versus lax “Western” parenting shows that straw men are being erected. All the normal and natural diversity is denigrated in favor of these stereotypical extremes.

It does not even do justice to Chua’s book. Even just reading the book description, the subtitle of which says “… and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old,” one should start to notice that something about its utter conviction may not be quite as it is described.

The book is not telling you how to produce a “Harvard girl” or the next Bill Gates. It just describes one mother’s particular struggle being of Asian heritage in a Western context, wanting the best for her children who have their own ideas of what that would be, and struggling, like everybody else, with what she hopes is right.

What is definitely not right, however, are those arguments that always jump to the extremes, push the flames higher and higher, and never stop to think if maybe there’s something to be learned from each other.

“That’s the way we do things” is equally as bad as “you can’t do that.”

Progress, whether it is in getting and letting our children become better or in understanding each other better, only comes when we stop letting our stereotypes be the guide and really listen.

Feel free to contribute