Yesterday, an apparent attempt to assassinate US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left her gravely wounded and several other people dead. The accused, a young man named Jared Loughner, evokes the Time Cube guy for many of us who know our Internet crackpots. Of course, Loughner has not been convicted of any crime. But folks like him are quite convenient for the political cabal that marked a map of the US with gun-sights to denote the locations of Democrats who they wanted gone. If Loughner hadn't been born or hadn't grown up to be who he is, then the right wing (let's not waste adjectives like "radical" or "violent", as they're wholly redundant) would have to invent him. If you can blame an apparently unstable person and claim he acted unpredictably, you can escape responsibility for creating an environment of violent discourse that finds work for the idle hands of the unstable. The advantage of blaming acts of political violence on random, unstable people is that random, unstable people will always be with us. Hence, nothing need be done, and no guilt or blame assigned except to people who were marginal to begin with. The problem with that argument is that if it were sound, political violence would be just about equally common in every culture and at every historical moment, yet cross-cultural differences show that some cultures encourage erratic people to turn to violence, while others might steer them towards, say, collecting bus transfers. (It might make a difference whether it's easier to get a gun or a bus transfer, for one thing.)
I felt similarly after reading a Wall Street Journal article that a friend linked to, deliberately-provocatively titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". It's written charmingly and with a certain amount of irony. I admire the author, Amy Chua, for being willing to state controversial opinions in plain language that makes her intent clear, free from weasel words. I also think her opinions are wrong and destructive; not so much for how she describes raising her own daughters, but for the kinds of behavior she's rhetorically endorsing in other people.
I'm not really qualified to address whether there's something intrinsic about Chinese culture that produces what I'll call, along with Chua, "Chinese mothers". She acknowledges that various people who are not Chinese exemplify the same paradigm. My mother, who grew up in Indonesia with a Northern/Western European background, was one of them. I am qualified to talk about my life, and the effect that being raised with some of Chua's "Chinese mother" behavior characteristics had on it. So that's what I'm going to talk about.
(By the way, there is a discussion to be had here about racism, or about cultural generalizations, or about attributing personal pathologies to larger cultures or vice versa, or all of the above. But I'm focusing on something else in order to emphasize what I have experience with rather than to ignore racism.)
Do you ever read something in a non-fiction piece that makes you think that the author wouldn't believe you existed even if they met you, as they are so invested in a certain point of view and your own subjective experience undermines their point of view so much? So I did when I read this paragraph in Chua's article:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something---whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet---he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
Chua's claims here are so stunningly counter to my own life experience---and she states them with such certainty---that I nearly started to wonder whether I am just a figment of my own imagination. My mother, similarly to the "Chinese parents" Chua describes (among whom Chua counts herself), started me on violin lessons when I was three. I was finally allowed to switch to the cello when I was a few years older. Playing the violin was physically painful for me; the first hundred times or so that I said so, my mother ignored me, but eventually I was allowed to play the cello if I would continue with both instruments, and even later I was allowed to stop playing violin. My mother, and most of the music teachers I had that I can remember (there was a succession of them, especially I got older and showed less and less willingness to be present in mind as opposed to body), emphasized the value of "discipline" and would ask me why I didn't have any, when I was eight and nine and ten. I learned that "discipline" is a word adults use when they don't know how else to get you to do what they want you to do that serves their needs rather than your own. I had a teacher when I was 12 who was more honest than most. I said it hurt me to sit up straight while I played. He said, basically, that life was pain and you had to suffer to be great. (Later it turned out I had scoliosis.) I don't remember the joy or fun of playing an instrument being talked about much. I hated lessons and I hated practicing. My mother thought intonation was all-important, so both to stress that, and to make sure I couldn't escape, she would accompany me on the piano while I practiced. I don't mean that she would play the accompaniment part that the composer wrote for piano---she played the solo line in unison with me. So she got to set the tempo and I'd think about the book I wished was reading as my hands moved mechanically. The main thing I learned from enforced music practice is to get really, really good at doing one thing with my body while my mind was somewhere completely different. I learned that skill so well that I use it all the time even now that I'm thirty, involuntarily, whether I'm having sex or trying to listen to a lecture.
I never started to enjoy playing music, the way Chua claims all children will if they're coerced initially. Maybe that's because she's right about how you can't enjoy it unless you're really good at it, and maybe you can be passable---like I was---but not good if you're not paying any attention to what you're doing. The question remains as to how being forced to play could possibly ever have caused me to enjoy it, given that all evidence suggests I was either born with the kind of mind that doesn't allow me to take pleasure in something I'm being forced to do, or developed that kind of mind at a very young age because of the environment I was in.
I quit taking lessons a little bit before I started college, and although I played some chamber music in college, it was out of a hope that maybe it would magically start being fun. It wasn't. I stopped. That was eleven years ago. In the past two years, I tried again. I played in a community orchestra for a couple of months. Playing cello had become physically painful the way that violin once was, and I just couldn't make myself sit down and practice enough to feel good about what I was contributing to the orchestra. I quit. I tried singing, because that was something I was never coerced into as a kid (my mother didn't think as highly of voice as of instruments when it came to ways to make me someone she could use to impress people, I get the impression). That was more fun, but I still couldn't practice. When I tried, I felt the way I'd imagine a claustrophobic person feels if locked in an Amtrak restroom.
Being forced to practice for what in retrospect seems like hours a day (although it was probably more like half an hour or an hour) not only didn't give me the ability to do that freely as an adult, the way Chua claims it does. It destroyed my ability to do that, to enjoy playing music, and to some extent to enjoy listening to classical music. It makes me angry that although I still retain some technical skills that might make me a serviceable amateur player, the chance to use those skills for my own pleasure was taken away from me. I had to turn off the Spike Lee movie "Mo' Better Blues" after about five minutes because it shows the protagonist, a jazz musician, being bullied as a child by his mother into practicing the trumpet, then cuts directly into him giving a great performance as an adult, implying a causal relationship between coercion and excellence. That isn't my life: if coercion worked, I'd be the next Pablo Casals by now. (If you asked my mom why I'm not a successful musician now or even an adult who enjoys playing for fun, she'd probably tell you it's because I never had enough discipline.) And I suspect it isn't the life of any of my friends who are professional or serious amateur musicians, either. I suspect nobody could have stopped many of them from making music, on the contrary.
As an aside, it's interesting that Chua picks music as an example, because human beings have made music for about as long as we've been human beings, so far as I can tell, and contrary to the tale she spins in which no one ever enjoys music unless they're perfect at it and no one ever gets perfect at it without a bullying parent behind the chair, it seems to be something that you need violence to stop people from doing. Why have a number of repressive religious movements seen fit to proscribe music and dancing? You'd think it would be easy to keep people from doing something that requires that much preparation and discipline. You might as well say that kids will never enjoy peeing unless they're good at it, and that someone has to force them to be good at it. I wonder about the connection between a social climate in which her example looks reasonable, and the one in which we've been taught that nothing is valuable except that which we buy and pay for, so that we have to listen to recorded music produced by expert musicians rather than making music for ourselves. If that's the premise, it might look reasonable to conclude that becoming one of those experts is the only way to glean any happiness. What are people trying to sell you when they tell you that you can't satisfy your own needs, that (whether you're 5 or 85) pleasure isn't something you can create for yourself, but something that you have to depend on someone else to give you (whether they're a parent or an advertising agent)? But I digress.
The only things in life that I've ever truly enjoyed are things that nobody wanted me to do, nobody initially asked me to do, that in some cases my mother actively tried to stop me from doing: reading, writing, and computer science. She hated that I read all the time and would unscrew the light bulb from a walk-in closet in our apartment so I wouldn't hide in there reading late at night (I had bad insomnia as a kid, and she thought I should lie in bed awake rather than read). When I got interested in computer science, she kept telling me I should study neuroscience instead, because that's what she wanted to do. I got interested in computer science in the first place because I read about the Internet in books or magazines that I got from the library, so I got Internet access through classes I was taking, so I took an intro computer science class so I could understand hacker culture. While I had supportive teachers later on in college and grad school who encouraged me, nobody had to coerce or push me to get interested in it in the first place, and I have never been as enthusiastic and motivated about computer science (or anything, really) as I was in the first two years, before I matriculated, before I'd even been seriously evaluated on that work or paid to do it. I've never worked as hard on programming as a grad student or as a professional programmer as I did when I was 14-16 years old and doing it almost entirely for pleasure.
My point here is not to complain about what a rough life I had, because that would be the whining of a privileged youth. My point is that I'm dismayed that people like Chua are advocating harmful and borderline abusive parenting practices in a forum---the Wall Street Journal---such that some people will take her seriously. Moreover, my experience shows that her claims about what's good for all children cannot be substantiated.
Okay, well, you say, what is good for all children? All children are different, so there's no advice that will be helpful for raising all of them. So what's wrong with Chua giving her particular perspective? Let a thousand flowers bloom, right? What I think is harmful about Chua's perspective---and about the legitimacy that her position as a university professor writing in a highly respected publication, rather than just another mom on the playground, lends her---doesn't have to do much with music in particular, or any other of the pastimes people foist on their children. What I think is harmful is the hidden curriculum of the "Chinese mother", or of my own: the lesson that adults know what's best for you because you're a child, so you must let them do to you whatever they want. That's what kids really learn when they get told that adults get to decide how they spend their time and their life. An adult who uses their child to live out vicariously all the things they wanted to do when they were a kid themselves, or who uses their child as a status symbol to brag about to other adults (my kid won the concerto competition at age ten! Well, mine won the science fair when she was seven! Well, mine joined the NBA when he was four!) is using their child to satisfy their own needs, just as an adult who sexually abuses their child to satisfy their own needs is doing the same. The main difference is that the latter is illegal. And if you're a kid who's been taught to allow yourself to be used for one purpose, you'll also allow yourself to be used for the other, should anybody ever take advantage of the opportunity.
What other kinds of needs might an adult use their child to satisfy? Chua writes:
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable---even legally actionable---to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty---lose some weight."Chua goes on to write that being called a "fatty" is acceptable---nay, helpful---to Chinese daughters because it means that their parents see them as strong, rather than as weak: "They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." Frankly, I find this statement mind-blowing. And this is the sentence that seems to inspire quite a bit of sympathy from young, American-born readers. You hear quite a bit about the alleged "self-esteem" movement, like you heard more recently about the movement to institute "death panels", in which children (which ones? We were never sure) were allegedly taught to believe in their innate self-worth---obviously, a terribly subversive thing. I hear quite a few of my peers blaming whatever's wrong with "the kids these days" on the idea that these kids allegedly believe that there is something inside them of worth that's not contingent on their achievements or on the approval of others. Apparently, name-calling is the healthy alternative to nurturing self-esteem. And what's the excuse for calling your kids names that you yourself were called when you were a child and too frightened to fight back (Chua herself talks proudly about calling her daughter "garbage" because she was called that by her parents when she was young)? The excuse is that you believe your kids are strong, strong enough to endure your abuse. It's a little like the argument I've heard some Christians use that God only inflicts pain and suffering on you because you're strong enough to endure it. Well, if there is a God, then that's a God with a limitless capacity to behave self-servingly. And when parents set themselves up like gods, they rely on nobody pointing out the conflict of interest inherent in telling you "I'm only hurting you because I believe you're so strong that I can't break you."
The ways in which this makes no sense are manifold. Among the same people who don't believe that people other than themselves should have self-esteem, the canard that children ought to "respect their parents' authority" is popular. Okay, so---you're teaching your child to respect your authority, which presumably entails taking what you say seriously. Yet at the same time, you call your child "garbage" or a "fatty" and... expect it'll just bounce right off them? Because they don't take you seriously, and thus don't respect your authority? What's with that?
The other problem with the concept of "treating your kids as if they are strong" is that its acceptance necessitates willful ignorance of the power disparity between parents and children. Again, there's some rather blatant doublethink involved, since the same people are saying in the next breath that parents get to use their power to determine that the kids should spend 3 hours a day practicing piano rather than having friends. But if you do acknowledge that the relationship between a child and their parent(s)---parents being the only people legally empowered to assault the child physically for any reason they choose, and being the only people legally required to see to the child's needs for food and shelter---is wildly unequal, then how in the hell can the stronger person in the relationship countenance treating the weaker person "as if they're strong"? I'm going to punch a kitten in the face because I like to treat kittens as if they're strong, not fragile; it doesn't matter that I weigh about 90 times more.
The conspiracy of silence in which Chua participates, and which psychologist Alice Miller (for example, in her book For Your Own Good) has written about, involves perpetuating this myth: What adults do to you is for your own good. Be grateful for it, and suck it up, cupcake. It's a politically useful myth. Kids who internalize it turn into obedient workers (bosses naturally replace parents) and into supporters of authoritarian politicians. They also tend to turn into bullying parents themselves. And the cycle goes on. But people like Chua aren't helping break it. Read Chua's essay while asking: "What is it doing for her to treat her children in all of the ways she describes?" This is a question she never seems to ask herself. But it's a question that would decenter her perspective and show that claiming that coercion is "for your own good" is the act of psychological coercion that enables all others.
There is a lot of noise about how one oughtn't to criticize how other people raise their kids. I, by the way, don't speak from experience raising a kid, but I do speak from experience having been raised, which gives me exactly as much credibility as anyone else. Anyway, the argument goes, "everybody has their own way of being a parent, and kids usually turn out fine, so it's all good." Well, many kids aren't fine. Some of us spend most of our lives dealing with depression, and some find that becoming an adult isn't enough to escape their childhoods and have to escape using the only method that's left to them. Even so, it's probably a good rule of thumb to avoid critiquing your friends' friends' parenting habits during dinner parties. But I believe that a person with a lot of middle-class credibility, like Chua, can actually influence what kinds of behaviors are considered acceptable. And I think that when she uses a bully pulpit (no pun intended) to advocate coercion, that contributes to an environment in which coercion is a socially acceptable tactic to deploy upon your children.
Chua herself talks about attending a party where some of her friends were horrified to learn she'd called her daughter "garbage". Like many such arguments, that one appears to have changed no one's mind, but aided by sources of cognitive authority like Chua's article, the next round of dinner-party arguments about parenting might do more than just keep yuppies off the streets. I do think that whether people in the mainstream media talk about---say---hitting your kids in a way that's approving, or disapproving, influences whether people hit their kids. It's not that parents read the manual first before making any decision about raising their kids---it's that as social animals, the approval or disapproval of our peers matters to us, whether it comes to how we treat our kids or whether we drink artisanal water. So I do not think that critiquing this article puts me in the same bucket as those ladies who talk about how if your baby isn't getting breastfed and wearing cloth diapers until it's five, you're a terrible parent. Ok?
Finally: I can imagine someone responding to this with, "well, Chua wasn't saying that the 'Chinese style' of parenting is better, she's just describing two different parenting cultures and the different sets of assumptions and actions involved in each." Perhaps so, although personally it's quite clear to me that she's advocating her way (just read the bit about the American daughter who felt horrible that her father called her beautiful and talented---it's interesting that Chua didn't look for any Chinese daughters to quote who are in therapy dealing with their mothers calling them "fatty"). But given the number of people who apparently read this article and came away nodding with approval for the "Chinese style"---even, in some cases, wishing they'd had parents like that!---I think that's a moot point. By expressing pride over having called her daughter "garbage" (and not spending a word interrogating herself about whether by using a word that her parents used against her when she was a child, she was using her daughter to satisfy her own psychological needs), Chua locates herself squarely in the Dan "Kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them... metaphorically" Savage camp. It's the camp that gives aid and comfort to abusers in their quest to make more abusers. It's the camp of being worse than an abuser, because many abusers act in the thrall of their emotions and lack the ability to reflect on their own motivations intellectually. People like Savage and Chua do reflect on their own actions in the cool light of day, and decide to justify the path of violence, of emotional manipulation, of taking out your anger over how you were treated when you were small and powerless on a new set of small, powerless people, by rhetorically recasting selfishness as selflessness.
Won't somebody please, please think of the children? It's remarkable how often the question is asked and how rarely anyone actually does.
ETA: According to an SF Chronicle story, Chua feels the WSJ misrepresented her book by giving excerpts without context.