The essay that made me start a blog. Or, the cultural biases of parenting

I just finished reading Amy Chua’s WSJ essay on her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’. The essay is provocatively titled ‘ Why Chinese mothers are Superior’ and as expected, has galvanized a flood of opinion ( it made me start a blog!), with the editors themselves calling it the most commented-on article in the history of the WSJ! As of last look, it had 6689 comments (make that 6690 with this) by the wee hours of Monday morning.

Her essay can be roughly summed up as this: The Chinese/Eastern (she includes Indian, Ghanaian, Jewish, etc. cultures) method of parenting is superior to the Western (read American) style in that, the former breeds a generation of adults who are mentally tough, high achievers as opposed to the latter which fosters self indulgent kids with behaviour bordering on entitlement.

As an Indian (TamBram at that), the importance of a disciplinarian childhood with a strong emphasis on academics is not lost on me. After all, if I still veer towards a book rather than television on a weekend afternoon and if the literary, in all its forms from academia to bookstore cafes, excites me more than anything else; I indeed have my upbringing to thank. Having said that, I am not at all sure that has made me more successful than the other guy. More elitist certainly, but successful? Not so sure. Of course Ms. Chua is not talking about dreamy literary types like me. She might tut-tut her disapproval and pronounce me too focused on self indulgent learning rather than goal oriented achievement and professional success. I must assure her though, that in my case, the fault is all mine. Despite my upbringing having all the right things that she prescribes; I managed to hack a path through the thorny road, less travelled.

The question is: are children really the esoteric, fragile creatures that we tend to treat them as, or are they a more robust species, capable of absorbing the tough love that we would think must be dished out. If the mind is indeed a tabula rasa and children’s unformed personalities haven’t had enough time to throw them a binge party of navel gazing their sensitivities, then tough love might be a good way to go. If, however, genetics has a part to play (and neuroscience might agree) they may well be doomed. As with most things, both play a part. Throw culture and environment in the mix for good measure and the heady cocktail of parenting is ready to be served.

Ms. Chua however seems to eschew the colorful mixture and opts instead for the more one-toned (black or white depends on your point of view) opinion, that the rigid and authoritarian style of Chinese parenting is certainly more on target for achieving success. Although she might well have a case for ‘success’ as she defines it; there are any number of ‘successes’ who cleared none of these parental hurdles and still got where they did and an equal number who despite having had all the requisite parental input, still faltered at the success altar. There are simply too many variables involved to be sure one way or the other. Therefore, while I will acknowledge that there are distinctive cultural differences in parenting; I must disagree that these can be surmounted to a point where one style fits all.

The question also is, what do we want for our children? And also maybe, what do we want ‘from’ our children? We all want our children to do well in life and have secure finances. We all want them to get there the right way and not through illegal means. Even this simple measure of success cannot be achieved without some equal measure of emotional stability. In some cultures like the Chinese and the Indians, that have strong familial backgrounds and large family ties, this is a given and tough love is never taken seriously as TOUGH love. It is always seen as tough LOVE. But in a Western model, emotional stability is not so assured. Many children come from fractured and/or nuclear families with very scanty, if any, familial ties and their only source of emotional succour is the parent; or, if they are lucky, parentS.

And so, if the Chinese tend to view their children as strong rather than fragile there is a reason they do so. That strength that they believe is innate to their children comes from the inherent support of family, cultural identity, social and community networks and stable marriages. The Western parental counterpart many times is struggling in an environment which lacks all this, which is the very opposite of this and is trying hard to beat the odds and be the corrective for their children. Ultimately, the one thing common to most parents world over, is that they try to be the remedial influence for their kids. To imbue their own children with all the things that they feel they lacked in their own childhood. For a Chinese immigrant, that might be opportunity and education. For an American parent used to freedom and its benefits, to the accessibility of education when needed, to never having to worry about visas and residency requirements, other success parameters take over and those are happiness, emotional stability and strong social and filial bonds.

The assumption here is that if a child is emotionally content and happy, it will naturally want to succeed and excel at whatever it chooses to do. As an aside, a strong economy amongst other things also ensures that you can be a handyman or a trucker and still get by with some degree of comfort in the US while falling in that group in a place like, say, India, ensures a struggle for living for the rest of life. This is also the reason for why the profound respect and belief in one’s own self as also civic respect, extends equally across hierarchies in the US. For a migrant however, even if once removed, the fear of falling into the very social and economical depths that they hurled themselves out of, is a fresh memory that doesn’t easily fade. The pressure to hold on to social success is higher. These cultural and economic biases find their way into our parenting styles.

Just like Ms.Chua ‘knows’ that her child can get perfect grades and that it is her job as a parent to ensure that the child does and by so doing, she is preparing it for a better and safer future; Ms Smith (for e.g.,) also ‘knows’ that her child can get to being a strong and capable adult only with the emotional support of the parents. With the other variables being somewhat entitled child Smith by virtue of a Western birth; it is left to Ms Smith to ensure mental strength and emotional stability. After all, unlike Mr. Chua, Mr. Smith left a couple of years ago with the lady next door and Grandma Smith married again last month. As for ‘family’, the closest she has is a cousin settled in Sweden. I am not saying that this is true of all Western families and I use an extreme example maybe; but to ignore the starkly different social and familial circumstances between the two cultures and their impact on child rearing reeks of a naive and superficial understanding of the problem.

Is there something that we can all learn from Ms.Chua’s claims? In a globalized world with jobs coming fewer and far between and with the looming threat of the rising Asian economies; one that has taken away manufacturing jobs and one threatening to swallow the service sector; it is a good idea for the Western parent to accept and absorb the fact that some of the ‘givens’ might erode away in the future and their children must therefore be brought up with the critical skills necessary to cope with that erosion. An emphasis on a college education is a mandatory duty of a parent and it is a shame to see so many American children refrain from absorbing the great learning opportunities that American universities afford them. In no other country have I seen such a dedication to learning at every age as I have seen in America and what’s more creditable, they do without a fuss and never trumpet it. That, to my mind, is a cultural trait worthy of some serious chest thumping. Yet, the youth of America seem unimpressed and are not focused on getting the benefits of a college education as Asians and other races are. This has to change for Americans to stay competitive in the world economy and this is indeed one place where Ms.Chua’s call to stronger emphasis on academics should be taken in stride.

I will agree with almost anyone who says that children should be handled with a little more toughness than many parents do. That however is often easier said than done. I have many a time looked irritably and with exasperation at the wailing kid in the airplane that can only be stopped with a candy bar, the pestering one in the mall that can only be quieted with a toy, the distracted one that never seems to concentrate on its lessons but comes alive when it is dinner time and television is on, the sulky withdrawn one that will stay in a bad mood irrespective of every effort you make to draw him out; I have been witness to all these situations and wondered how much is bad parenting and how much is situational or personality driven. Should we now start seeing Ms Chua in our rear view mirrors each time a child fails and ask if it is us, that actually failed. Do we not do this already? In the face of so much doubt and uncertainty, it is imperative that we strike a balance and maybe fall back on some common sense tips on parenting:

1. Always focus on academics and good grades. A, ‘B’ is not cause for celebration.

2. Always expect more from your child academically and otherwise – they will learn to do it for themselves soon enough. Never settle for less. Always be willing to spend more time with them to ensure those grades are achieved.

3. Always ensure your child plays a sport – failure there will teach them a lot about success.

4. Always allow social relationships and ensure your child has friends that he/she goes out on play-dates with. Ensure that you make friends with their families too and that one family is always chaperoning these dates.

5. Be the puppeteer in your child’s life but be not observed while doing it. Speak slowly but carry a big stick.

6. Let your child have music in his/her life. Whether they turn out virtuosos or simply enjoy it. Music is the soul of life and will indeed row them to safe waters through many a bad time.

7. Do not allow television. It is a wasteful mind numbing activity that is good only for the retired. Nobody learnt anything from television. Ever. No, not even from those documentaries. A book makes your brain think and inspires more creative thought than any audio-visual ‘learning’ tool ever could.

And finally, Yes. Do not allow your child to be ‘villager 6’ in a school play, in preference to academic time. She/he will gain nothing from the experience apart from learning the art of wasting time at a young age.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s