By Eric Garneau
Amy Chua, the child of two Chinese immigrants born and raised in America, has a message for so-called 'Western' parents: 'Chinese mothers are superior.' That means: don't coddle your children or worry about their self-esteem. Academic excellence is paramount to success later in life. Accept nothing less than straight As (except in drama and gym). Chua argues that children must master every subject from an early age, so that as adults they have their choice of careers and are free to do what they want and excel at it.
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It's Based on Stereotypes.
Chua herself admits that her classification of 'Chinese' parents and 'Western' parents has little to do with geography. When speaking of 'Chinese' mothers, for instance, she says 'I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanian parents who qualify.' Basing the crux of her argument on stereotypical notions of how cultures raise their children seems like a risky move, and has incurred the displeasure of some Chinese educators. Indeed, in China her book was released under the title My Motherhood in the U.S.A., omitting any titular reference to the Chinese term 'tiger mother.'
Chua's Methods Can Border on Cruel.
In this excerpt from her book posted on the Wall Street Journal, Chua makes it clear that she values success above all else. She tells the story of forcing her then 7-year old daughter Lulu to master a difficult piano piece. Chua threatened to donate her favorite toys to charity, withheld meals, and 'wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom.' Eventually, Lulu conquered the piece, and Chua reported that her daughter was thrilled to master it. Such draconian conditions, though, could seriously hurt a human being.
Its Fundamental Philosophy May Be Flawed.
Chua says that in China, every child is expected to get straight As. However, if A grades are the average, are they not as valuable as Cs? 'Average' means that most people perform at that level. Not everyone can be excellent; it's simply impossible.
It's truly chilling to hear Chua say of children that parents need to 'override their preferences.' This seems to treat children as objects, denying that they're human beings with their own agency, limited or misguided as it may be. Perhaps that seems too 'new-agey' for Chua, but it's the very foundation of the philosophy of Immnauel Kant, one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century and beyond, who argued that people are always to be treated as ends-in-themselves, never means.
There are some good points to be taken from Chua's text. She's probably correct, for instance, that true esteem comes from a child accomplishing a difficult task, not via empty praise from parents. There may also be something to her central point that 'nothing is fun until you're good at it.'
Chua's ultimate mission is understandable: to convince 'Western' parents that they should encourage a stronger work ethic in their children instead of filling them with feel-good platitudes. However, by embodying her argument in a vacuum that sucks the life out of children, she takes that premise entirely too far. Surely a lesson as important as the value of hard work is knowing how to accept limitations. To insist that your children are literally capable of anything seems precisely as wrong-headed as accepting that they can do nothing, especially when you deny them basic human needs like food, drink and indoor plumbing to prove your point.