Why The ‘Chinese Mother’ Method Is Bad For Kids

Uh-oh Good Enough Mother is fired up again!

What’s got my goat? Well over the weekend I read an article by Yale professor Amy Chua, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” and it’s got me steaming! Take a read and see what you think…

Chua contends that the no-nonsense, take no bull/prisoners method of parenting often employed by Chinese mothers (and other non-Westerners) is the reason their children are academically superior. After I read it (and picked my jaw up off the floor) I thought I’d put together a little list of my own. Sure I’m no Yale professor – just a state school graduate who paid her own way through college and barely made it out on the five-year plan (thanks to that evil math tripping me up).  So, with that obviously limited background, here’s my list, “The Five Things My Slacker Kids Will Learn From Their Good Enough Mother”. (Obviously my kids are not slackers but they do just about every single thing that is on Chua’s no-no list)

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HOW TO BE SOCIALLY ADEPT: I don’t know Chua’s daughter’s Louisa and Sophia so I can’t really make a judgment about their social skills and whether they are up to par. But I absolutely believe kids need to spend time with their peers in settings without parents hovering about, listening and guiding the conversation. Where’s the best time and place for that to happen? Sleepovers. At 3 am. If you are the mother of a daughter, you know how this typically goes down. It’s a birthday party; there are 6 guests, along with your daughter, which is an uneven number. That equals disaster as soon they will be arguing and taking sides and due to sugar rush and fatigue, tears will be inevitable. Did I mention this all happens at 3 am? But guess what? By 4 am, they have cried, hugged, worked it out and are friends again by the time the sun peers over the horizon. Those problem-solving skills will serve them well into adulthood.

HOW TO RELY ON EACH OTHER: Years ago Casey and Cole went through a phase where they were arguing quite a bit.  I was stumped as to why they were at each other’s throats all the time because up until then, they had been pretty good. Once, out of sheer desperation and exasperation, I told them they had to work it out on their own. But before I closed (and locked) the bedroom door behind me, I used this as a teachable moment. “You two are going to have to learn to work together because there will be a time when mommy and daddy will not be here to help you and you’ll have to rely on each other.” Cole looked up at me with his big, blinking eyes and said, “ You mean when we’re away at camp?”  “NO!” I screamed.  “When mommy and daddy are DEAD!” Of course they worked it out and continue honing that skill to this day.

But Cole was right about summer camp too.  Last year they went to a small, music camp for the second year. Even though it was only seven days, when I picked them up, I was amazed at how mature they seemed to me. But the bigger issue was their relationship with each other had developed more and deepened in the absence of their father and me. They shared experiences and jokes that we didn’t know about and learned to speak a sort of shorthand that we could only wish we were privy to. That would not have happened had they not spent any significant time apart from us.  Learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom; Casey and Cole absorbed a lot last summer, about music, nature, life, relationships, friendships, how to make crank calls and not get caught and much more.

HOW TO ACCEPT THAT THEIR BEST MIGHT NOT BE THE BEST: Another of Chua’s tenants is that Chinese mothers will not accept their child not being the number one student in every subject except gym and drama. Oh brother. So what if every student in the classroom has a Chinese mother? The law of averages means someone’s not going to be the best and God help the kid brining up the rear.

What if you kid has a learning disability? Are you supposed to just keep at them, without making concessions? If you do, is that a sign of weakness on your part? It sounds a little to me, like part of the purpose of having a kid be the very best is so the parents can bask in the glow of their friends’ approval. Yeah, smacks a bit of competitive parenting and you know how we feel about THAT. The point in the article at which I sucked my teeth and shook my head was when she talked about teaching her seven-year-old daughter a piece of piano music. She was having a hard time with it and (surely out of frustration) ripped up the sheet music. Chua taped it together and put it in plastic so that wouldn’t happen again. Then she threatened to take away every toy her daughter had until she played it correctly. They worked through the night on the piece and until she finally mastered it and presented it a few weeks later. Chua says:

When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”

Yes, how lovely, that her daughter was able to perform and receive accolades from friends, neighbors and strangers and her mother was able to bask in the glow of that. And all it took was her threatening to take away all her kid’s toys and work her like a slave through the night. She must have been so proud. Yuck.

HOW TO HAVE A WELL-ROUNDED CHILDHOOD: When I think of the essence of childhood, several things come to mind. Certainly school is the centerpiece of that. But there is a place for sleepaway camp, sleepovers, school plays and extracurricular athletics. Why wouldn’t you want your children to be well rounded? Honestly that doesn’t make any sense to me. We know as adults, life isn’t all about work; there is time to foster friendships and have fun. I would take it a step further and say it is essential for balance. My kids also play video games, eat fast food, text their friends and talk back to me, which I’m pretty quick to nip in the bud. But they have a clear understanding of what’s important. If grades slip, videogames get locked up. If the talk back gets out of hand, I earn a cell phone for a week. But I am going to let my kids learn to be individuals and as such, they will test boundaries. But I’m there to catch them when they call or step out of line as opposed to keep them in place.  A safety net, not a safety harness.

HOW TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS: I think sometimes we don’t understand the true and motivating power of failure. One of the things I get from Chua’s piece is that her daughters will never fail, at least on her watch. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great thing. Sometimes lifes most powerful lessons must be absorbed by every fiber in our being. Guest blogger Rachel Vidoni illustrated this point perfectly when she had to allow her son to get a bad grade for a project he worked on minimally. Do you think that was easy for her to do?  Of course it wasn’t but she taught him a powerful lesson and one that he won’t soon forget. I have had instances like that with my own kids. But you best believe that when Casey and Cole go off to college, they will know what is expected of them. They will know how to meet deadlines and manage their time, all while being thousands of miles away from me. I won’t need to hold their hand or constantly remind them of their grades or their future. The power of one poor grade for a project or test that they know they could have done better on will do that for them.

If the end result is about producing a child who is academically superior, then there’s no arguing with Chua and the Chinese mother method. But is that what childhood is all about? Getting straight A’s to the exclusion of everything else? The pursuit of absolute perfection even though we know that is an unattainable goal? Could that mindset be partly to blame for the fact that China reportedly has one of the highest suicide rates in the world?

When I look at the photos of Chua and her perfectly coiffed daughters, sitting with their instruments at the ready, I try to picture myself there. Here’s how mine would look: I would be in a pair of saggy jeans, messy hair, two kids chewing gum, one with the drum set, the other with a guitar, both wearing wrinkled screen t-shirts and jeans. There would be an old pizza box on the living room table and a rug stained with dog pee in the corner. You might even catch a glimpse of the cat litter box.  But the most prominent part of the picture would be the smiles worn by all. We know, accept, live with the fact that we’re doing our best. It may not be THE best, but we’re okay with that.

What do you think about Chua’s piece? Does she make some valid points or is she living in a dream world? Or am I? I’d love to hear your thoughts…