January 25, 2011

Tough love

There’s more than one correct approach to parenting

Recently the Wall Street Journal published Amy Chua’s essay titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” With a headline like that, it’s no wonder that it has generated more than 7,000 comments—more than any article in the history of WSJ.com—ranging from praise, to disbelief, to fury. Like any controversial issue born on the Internet, the essay has attracted bloggers of all ages and backgrounds looking to voice their own opinions on parenting, success, and happiness.

In the essay, Chua suggests that her daughters’ successes were brought about by a strict upbringing filled with denials and insults. In her system, her children were not allowed to, among many other things:

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade lower than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

Yes, Chua is clearly being tongue-in-cheek when she writes about her methodology, yet that does nothing to change the reality that this is how she raised her kids; her daughters really weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers, or to not play the piano or violin. When her daughter Lulu was seven years old, Chua threatened to donate her dollhouse to the Salvation Army piece by piece until Lulu had perfected “The Little White Donkey” on the piano. Some readers, parents and children alike, no doubt, were perfectly aghast at this particular story. It worked, though—Lulu finally, and proudly, mastered the song, and Chua’s eldest daughter played in Carnegie Hall at age 14.

But of course, this brings up many questions. What exactly constitutes “success”? And is happiness, as one “Western” mother insists in her response to Chua, the great human quest? By “Western mother,” Chua means liberal, weak-willed, and over-praising parents who don’t do enough to bring out the best in their children. In the wake of the article, many of the self-professed “Western” parents have defended their parenting styles, arguing that many Asian students are not “happy” even if they are “successful.”

Needless to say, it’s created a buzz on this campus as well, which is to be expected considering the extremely high percentage of Asians and Asian Americans that comprise our student body. It’s interesting to see what my fellow students with “Chinese mothers” like Chua have to say, and to hear, in contrast, what those raised by “Western” parents believe.

Growing up with my own “crazy” (as I often found myself saying, half-jokingly, half-seriously) Chinese mother, I have to say I’m incredibly ambivalent about my childhood. On one hand, I recognize that I was pushed to reach potentials that I wouldn’t have realized otherwise; on the other hand, a large portion of this same childhood was spent being resentful and bitter about being forced to practice the piano, take ballet lessons, and watch my weight, even at age six.

Throughout these formative and angst-ridden years, my Western friends were alternately appalled and enthralled at the stories of things my mother said or did to me, which were never inappropriate, simply unconventional by contemporary American norms.

Now that I’m in college, though, I find that the discipline and confidence in my own abilities (you can always, always do better if you are willing to push yourself) instilled in my childhood has enabled me to use the freedom of college—where our parents are largely absent—in a way that best realizes the potential of my future. And no, I did not become a robot, and although I played piano and danced for many years, I eventually quit in favor of painting and writing.

In the end, I figured out my own aspirations without losing the essential truth of my mother’s parenting: as Chua matter-of-factly states, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

This is not to say, however, that Western parenting is useless or that you can’t be successful if you don’t have your own Chinese mother. Some of my friends have exactly the type of parent that would be shocked by Chua’s tactics, and some of my friends’ parents are entirely laissez-faire in their approaches, and still others are somewhere in-between.

My Western friends have all been very successful, but success, ultimately, is a personal measure. I strive for those little letters that amount to a certain GPA not because I will be a failure otherwise, but because I believe I can do it.

While I don’t agree with the mother who claimed that happiness is the great human quest, I do agree that the only way to cultivate the right amount of self-respect and independence, essential qualities for every college student, is to have something that is one’s own to develop, something unique and “special,” if I may use the language of the Western parent, to counteract the relentless pursuit of being the best.

College is a time in which we realize how our parents raised us has had profound implications for how we face challenges and how we eventually overcome them on our own, because it’s the first time we’re left to raise ourselves, to simultaneously set limits and push beyond them. No one’s left to chastise you for that missed problem on the Calc test, or praise you for that A on the history paper. Chua’s point, and mine: Every time you think you’ve reached your “best,” dig deeper.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.