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Finish That Homework!

Chua Family
‘Lulu and mean me in a hotel room (with score taped to TV)’; from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

To impart these advantages takes a lot of parental—usually maternal—time. Here is Chua’s description of supervising Sophia’s piano practice:

I broke the Rondo down, sometimes by section, sometimes by goal. We’d spend one hour focusing just on articulation (clarity of notes), then another on tempo (with the metronome), followed by another on dynamics (loud, soft, crescendo, decrescendo), then another on phrasing (shaping musical lines), and so on.

The child suffers through these hours, but eventually receives praise, admiration, pride, and indeed enjoyment when she gives a great performance. It doesn’t escape us that, unlike most of us, Chua herself has boned up on piano phrasing, and how to shift from first to third position on the violin, and probably entrechats and pliés and calculus and The Return of the Native—whatever in the way of special knowledge it takes to help the children excel. In other words, Chua (despite having a job on the law faculty at Yale) is putting in major time and effort herself.

It’s here that self-interest possibly sullies the convictions of those who object that Chua’s kids don’t have any time to develop, to mess around, to “individuate”—only a few of the objections to Chua’s mothering. You can’t get around the fact that to let kids individuate by themselves is a lot easier on you, and since, like Ayelet Waldman, most parents don’t even have time to put in the required hours, Chua gets a lot of grudging points for her stamina and commitment.

Are there studies comparing the results of commercial preparation—paid tutors, cram schools—with the results of parental tutoring? No doubt it’s more emotionally complicated to have your parents urging you on. And is it efficient for society to depend on the unpaid labor of parents who are also highly trained professionals, who could be spending their time at their professions? These are unanswered questions.

If we’re old enough, we’re aware that parenting philosophies swing from authoritarian to permissive and around again with the decades. Shifts in parenting orthodoxies are roughly related to political climate—the Sixties, with its general relaxation of mores, produced the genial and trusted Dr. Spock, whose counsel was directly opposed to China: “too often parents make poor tutors…because they care too much and become too upset.” People who during the same period disapproved of hippies blamed their loose morals on either the repressive parents they were rebelling against or permissive parents who “let them get away” with things. The whole business of blaming parents for the flaws of the children also dates, more or less, from Freud, as we know; in antiquity and Shakespeare, people were responsible for their own characters, unless some god intervened.

American unease or outright discontent with teachers and educators is another factor propelling the debate around the Tiger Mom. If there is ire against Ms. Chua, it is also related to widespread unhappiness with the American educational system, especially its teachers. Why are our kids falling behind? We have a system that is not educating them the way we want it to, and not up to the mark we used to expect; but we lack the political ability to change it and the energy to substitute our own time for it, and the will to pay more. And we’re alarmed at the suggestion that education is a do-it-yourself enterprise—what are we paying the teachers for? Though the US spends a slightly larger percent- age of its GDP (7.6 percent) on education than any of the other countries with which we are compared except Iceland (7.8), we get less for our money, and are average or below the average of OECD nations, around twenty-fifth in most subjects, but not so far behind England, Germany, and France.

Most of us know that whatever we are doing is probably wrong and that the parents of our children’s friends are also inevitably too lenient or too strict. Many of us eventually fall back on instinct, hopefully improved by resolve, to emulate or refute the practices of our own parents, probably with the results predicted in Philip Larkin’s poem, but with some results to be proud of too, when your kid gets a prize or does something handsome for someone else or speaks politely to your guests, surprising you with some evidence of his good upbringing.

If Chua sees parenting mechanically, as a sort of physics of behavior—work + time = score—we would like to think it isn’t as simple as that. But she’s worth attention. Studies of why Asians do better in school find that the leading factors are parental involvement, study habits, and time spent. Chua makes a case for parents getting some credit, but anyone who has raised children also knows that despite whatever parenting they’ve received, their individual natures count for a lot.

Chua, however, has a wider subject, the one that probably really accounts for much of the anxious reaction to her book: America—its decline in power, its degenerating character and resolve, its new second-rateness. Chinese Tiger Mothers are emblematic of the rise of China itself, and enforce our sense that our response to it is probably inadequate; and, moreover, China stands for the rest of the world too, everywhere that we are slipping behind and others are rising.

In two earlier books, Chua has given her views on American decline a fuller treatment, with a brisk, clear-eyed, somewhat superficial, but convincing analysis of its causes and probable consequences—she is sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of geopolitics. Some people do see things in clear, binary terms. Though Chua does not speak Mandarin, they say that the Mandarin language tends to put things that way, as in yin and yang, or with sayings like you fan chi (有 飯 吃), meaning you have rice or not, meaning you have a livelihood or not, you got an A or not.

In her view, besides being naive about its situation, America is doing a lot to make its situation worse. Her first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), holds that “market-dominant” minorities in every culture incite the resentment of the poorer majority with sometimes bloody consequences (Rwanda-Burundi); and because the US is the ultimate market-dominant minority (for the moment), it is the most widely hated. Her thesis is supported by a lot of examples, beginning with the murder of her rich Chinese aunt by the native servants in the Philippines, where Chinese own a large percentage of the wealth. The cure is to keep a lower profile and be more generous with money and know-how in helping other economies to rise.

More recently, in Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fail (2007), she argues that empires grow and dominate in periods when they are tolerant of religious and ethnic diversity, and doom themselves when they become sectarian and exclusive. There are many examples to support this thesis also, for instance the Dutch in the seventeenth century, whose famous tolerance did not extend to their imperial subjects, or the Ottoman Empire, generally assimilative until outside menaces and the incompetence of Suleyman’s successors drew it into religious schism.

Chua’s warning for the US is that without a means of forging a common political identity to bind other peoples to us, “the United States would be better off following the formula [of inclusion] that served it so well for more than two hundred years.” “America pulled away from all its rivals by turning itself into a magnet for the world’s most energetic and enterprising; [and] by shrewdly avoiding unnecessary, self-destructive military entanglements,” she writes, in favor of remaining the City on the Hill and trying to infuse others with a sense of shared identity and common purpose.

Her ideas can be reduced to pithy sound bites, and the remedies boil down to just doing the right thing, in the moral sense; and remembering that even if an action is in one’s own self-interest, this doesn’t mean it isn’t right. The trouble is, there is no broad agreement on such matters as immigration policy, a key ingredient of being a “magnet”; meanwhile we are shutting out graduate students from other countries and deporting talented people, adopting sectarian and intolerant attitudes that signal our decline.

The analogy of child-rearing to our national situation is clear enough: just as American parents are too concerned with “self-esteem” without basing self-esteem on an actual accomplishment that would take too much personal parental input, time, and money to acquire, so our entire culture operates on some notion of natural rights that is no longer realistic. Chua’s point is that a delusional culture based on unearned self-esteem can’t for long be a realistic player in global competition for influence, power, and resources. Is it possible that we should mind our Tiger Mother?


How Good Are China’s Schools? October 13, 2011

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