tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I think most of us agree that you don't have a debate with a two-year-old over whether it's OK to put butter on the cat. You take away the butter. A two-year-old is not at a developmental stage where that debate is feasible -- that comes later. In the meantime, you stop children from hurting themselves or others (whether it's butter on the cat or running into traffic) because that is your job if you're a parent or even just an adult who happens to be nearby.

You as an adult do not use physical violence against a two-year-old, ever, because a two-year-old is incapable of posing a physical threat to an adult -- we're capable of picking up two-year-olds and physically moving them somewhere else (or at least of asking another adult to do that for us), and you don't use physical violence against someone you can do that to. Just to be super clear about what I'm advocating and not advocating, it is never okay to hit a child.

You as an adult do not use physical violence against a 16-year-old, either, because of the unequal power dynamic that exists between adults and people legally classified as minors. Except... it gets tricky, since you probably can't physically pick up a 16-year-old and move them somewhere else, and a 16-year-old is old enough to pose a physical threat to an adult. I refuse to draw a line that says "here's the age where it becomes okay to respond with violence", but I think most of us would agree it's OK to use self-defense against a 16-year-old who is actively trying to harm you, in the same way that it's OK to do the same against a 23-year-old who is actively trying to harm you. I'm talking about self-defense here, not discipline.

If we're parents, at least if we're good enough parents, we teach our children how to emotionally self-regulate because we're aware they aren't born knowing how to do that and it's a skill they need to be taught. The reason you stop a two-year-old from running into traffic is that they need to survive to get to be old enough to learn how to cross a street. You stop a four-year-old from pulling their brother's hair because they're not yet old enough to learn that they're capable of hurting other people and why they shouldn't. If you expect more than a two-year-old is developmentally capable of, that's going to be bad news for you, the child, or both. (People who know more about child development than me can argue about the specific ages, but hopefully you see the point.) Since a very young child can't understand or set boundaries either for themselves or others, we do it for them until they can do it themselves.

Then the question is: in society, what do we do when we meet adults who never learned those two-year-old or four-year-old lessons, or who did learn them and choose not to apply them because they think they will get something (usually money or power) by ignoring boundaries?

This is what we do:

Very young children can't reason on the level of "if I do X, Y will happen", which is why we have to act directly to protect children we're responsible for, rather than letting them learn for themselves what happens when you run into traffic.

Young children can reason on the level of "if I do X, Y will happen", but can't yet internalize the principle of "I shouldn't do X because I don't want to be a person who does X", which is why practices like time-in work: if they know that acting a certain way results in a parent temporarily withholding attention, they will learn not to do it.

Older children can understand the difference between right and wrong, which is why we can explain to them why hurting other people is wrong and they shouldn't do it, rather than just showing them there will be consequences if they do something wrong.

Adults can understand all of this and choose to suspend their own ability to differentiate between right and wrong in order to operate on a more child-like level of "I do this because I can." Unlike very young children, they're capable of organizing genocides to show just how powerful they are and what they can do.

It is imperative not to use violence against children, for a multitude of reasons. We have no such imperative to protect adults who pose a threat to us. You must never hurt a child because you're angry. Likewise, you must never hurt an adult only because you're angry. It's very reasonable to be angry at someone who threatens your life, and in those cases, you react to the threat to your life and anger is just a side effect. We can solve problems posed by young children without hurting them. Sometimes, adults pose problems to us that rule out the option of not hurting them. We are not their parents, and do not have the power over them that a parent has over a child. We are not obligated to act as their parents, though when there is mutual consent, we can do some of the work parents do for them in a situation-specific way (we usually call the people who do that work "therapists").

In situations where we cannot enforce laws or other boundaries, we must set norms instead. It's usually preferable to set norms with words rather than fists. But words aren't magical, and the limitations of language do not require us to sacrifice ourselves and our friends on the altar of nonviolence. Every piece of available evidence shows that words are insufficient to protect each other from organized groups of adult humans attempting to recruit more humans for Nazism, ethnic cleansing, or genocide (pick your preferred term).

That was the theory; here's the practice:
comic by Master Randall Trang on proper punching technique

Thanks to [personal profile] staranise for this post, and [personal profile] siderea for comments on that post, which sparked this idea.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
CW: discussion of abuse, gaslighting, and silencing of abuse survivors
"I feel like a thing non-queer ppl seem to often not get is the importance of protecting children from their parents" -- [twitter.com profile] mcclure111 on Twitter
I was glad to read this tweet by [twitter.com profile] mcclure111 because it's a truth that's deeply known by many of us who are queer, or abuse survivors, or both. It's a truth that's as rarely stated as it is deeply known.

But the tweet provoked as much discomfort in others as relief in me. This reply is a representative example of the things people say to survivors speaking uncomfortable truths:

"(kids definitely need protecting from parental harm, but many parents I know, including my own, are Really Good)"

"Many parents are good" is a statement devoid of denotation. When somebody utters a sequence of words that say nothing, I have to ask what they are trying to do by saying those words. Are they trying to take control of the conversation? Are they putting the speaker in their place? Are they expressing discomfort at having their belief in a just world disrupted? Whatever the motivation, direct verbal communication isn't it.

"Many parents... are Really Good" may seem shallow and obvious, but when I ask what those words do rather than what they mean, there's a lot to unpack. Ultimately, "many parents are good" has little to do with the character of the unnamed individuals being defended and much to do with defending the practice of authoritarian parenting.

Read more... )

Thanks to the people who read a draft of this post and contributed feedback that helped me make it better, particularly [twitter.com profile] alt_kia.
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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Content warning: Discussion of abuse, apologism for abuse, abuse culture, rape, rape culture, criticism avoidance.

I was reading a thread on a friend's Facebook profile when I saw a comment on it consisting of an image with the same text as this one. The text is: "I often worry about the safety of my children, especially the one that is rolling their eyes at me & talking back right now."

Somebody made the choice to introduce an image like this one into a space containing people they did not know (our mutual friend's friends-only Facebook post). Let's unpack the assumptions behind this choice -- but first let's try to figure out what the image really means.

The speaker in the image -- along with the person who shares it in order to communicate their feelings -- wants to harm their child, presumably physically, because the child has "talked back". This desire to harm is unmistakable -- whether it will be acted on is unclear, but what is clear is that the speaker wishes to distance themself from their desire through the use of linguistic indirection. It's a verbal trick that furnishes plausible deniability just as it communicates perfectly clearly: "I want to physically assault my child because the child used words that displeased me, and maybe I will... nah, of course I really won't, I'll just think about it! *wink* *nudge*"

Let's talk about the assumptions implicit in a choice to share this image:

Assumption 1: The desire to physically assault a child (as opposed to the actual act) is a plausible or reasonable reaction to the child's verbal insubordination.

All feelings and reactions are real, and sometimes we have feelings we don't like, such as the desire to hurt somebody we love. It's okay for a parent to admit that sometimes they want to hurt their child. It's okay to admit that we feel that way, but honesty and vulnerability are very different from jokes like this one. "It's just a joke" is a defense mechanism and is disingenuous discourse.

Assumption 2: The speaker would, of course, never really hurt their child; they're a good person who wouldn't abuse, and you're supposed to know that.

This assumption is predicated on another assumption, that abuse is a character trait rather than a behavior. Assuming "abuser" is a fixed category, or that in other words, only monsters abuse and good people can never commit harm, is a prerequisite for assuming that it's easy to tell who does or doesn't abuse.

This is part of how jokes create unsafe spaces: Why should we trust you, exactly? This is part of the reason (see assumption 1) why such discussions should perhaps be saved for therapy sessions. If you don't have friends who abuse their kids, you almost certainly have friends whose friends abuse their kids. In a Facebook discussion, you don't know who the real abuser is and who's just joking about it. The presence of these jokes in a group makes it harder to trust people in it. They continually remind group members that there are abusers their midst and some of them will use "I'm only joking" to disclaim responsibility for their actions. It's a reminder to stay on guard, even for adults, because let's be real, people who abuse their kids aren't people who are safe to be around (especially not if you're a survivor of childhood abuse) -- they may not pick on people their own size physically, but they don't usually hesitate to do so emotionally.

Even if you accept this assumption (and why wouldn't you, except for people you know very well?), something else happens if someone who's listening is an abuser: that person will interpret the joke as further evidence that their behavior is acceptable, that it's socially approved of enough to make knowing little jokes about. Just as rape jokes serve the function of telling rapists that their behavior is the norm, that anybody would do it, child abuse jokes serve that same function for abusers.

Assumption 3: "Talking back" (failing to accept a parent's authority unconditionally) is something that should be punished.

Alice Miller has written extensively about the enduring popularity of authoritarian parenting and the intense harm that it does to children, even in the absence of physical violence. I just wonder what kind of child you're trying to raise if you want to teach somebody to accept authority at all times, no matter how arbitrary.

Regardless of whether the speaker actually wants or intends to commit physical violence against a child, the joke doesn't make sense unless you agree that "talking back" by a child (or really, by any subordinated person to their subordinator) is unacceptable.

Assumption 4: Parents need a "coping mechanism" for dealing with their children.

It was suggested to me that jokes like this are a "coping mechanism" to let off steam. But coping is something that you have to do when you're in a situation you can't get out of -- when you're powerless. Parents have near-absolute power over their children. If you are a minor, your parents have the legal right to hit you without your consent. Under some circumstances, they can deny you medical care and education. They're legally entitled to money you earn. You don't have the legal right to run away until you become a legal adult.

Parents, on the other hand, choose every day to continue caring for their children. It may not seem like a choice, but it is. Every parent has the option of abandoning or surrendering their child to someone else's care. These options have serious consequences -- potential emotional ones for the parent, legal ones in the case of abandonment -- but parents have the privilege of choosing between facing these serious consequences, and continuing to accept responsibility for a child. Children don't have the choice to leave; they are subject to the coercive power of the state in returning them to their family of origin, except in cases of very severe abuse that can be substantiated. Even in those cases, the state has the right to place the child with other substitute parents without regard for the child's wishes, so the child still has no power.

Joking about hurting someone you have absolute power over isn't a coping mechanism; it's a threat. Parent/child relationships exist at the pleasure of the parent and without regard to the child's consent. You could hurt your child if you don't like their "talking back". Who's going to stop you? Why stop at joking about it? Why should anybody assume that you will stop at that, if you're joking about that?

A more extreme version of the "coping mechanism" line of reasoning is that autistic children are a burden their parents must cope with. I think there's a continuum between the assumption that a child is something to cope with rather than the result of a constantly-renewed choice to continue being a parent, and the assumption that a disabled child requires extra-strong coping mechanisms.

Assumption 5: Children have power over parents

Similarly to the idea that women really run the world or that married men just do what their wives tell them, the idea that children control parents is a reversal that helps people collectively deny inequality. One hears parents talking about kids manipulating them, about throwing tantrums to get their way, but children don't have total control over their parents' lives and bodies that is reinforced by the state. Parents do, over children.

Assumption 6: Survivors aren't listening

Even ignoring assumptions 1 through 5, I would think that most people would realize it's in bad taste to joke about child abuse when adults who have survived child abuse are listening. So there's an assumption being made that survivors don't participate in society, or at least aren't in your social group, or if they are, they will stay silent in shame about their survivor identity.

This assumption is similar to the widespread contempt shown for the provision of empathetic metadata (aka trigger warnings or content warnings) that's part of the ongoing moral panic about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of trauma resulting from widespread, structural violence. Anti-empathy thinkpieces declare: survivors don't exist, or if they do, what they say about their own experiences is false, or even if it's not, they have no right to complain about not being heard. Stop making the rest of us uncomfortable!

Assumption 7: Of course everyone knows it's just a joke.

Related to assumption 2.

Well... no? I mean, it's like those "ironic racism" jokes where a white person says something racist and you're supposed to know they're saying it "to make fun of racism". Maybe us white people should be working to dismantle racism rather than using it to score laughs, but I digress. In both cases, the jokiness is contingent on child abuse, or racism, not being a thing that really happens anymore. Or maybe being a thing that happens in communities very far away from your own. Another Facebook friend-of-a-friend recently expressed shock about student protests over racism at Ithaca College, stating that Ithaca isn't "Mississippi." In reality, racism is fundamentally woven into the fabric of all of the United States, and child abuse is common everywhere, in every region, in rich families and poor families. Parents of every gender abuse their kids. People with Ph.Ds abuse their kids. Maybe ironic child abuse comments will be funny when all of the abuse has stopped, but that hasn't happened yet. Authoritarian, emotionally violent parenting is even more common than outright abuse. In a way, it's the norm. How often have I read somebody on a "childfree" forum saying the equivalent of, "If I had behaved that way in public [where 'that way' amounts to being a child], my parents would have tanned my hide"?

Interpersonal violence is a thing that has happened to your friends, that is happening to your friends right now, and is something that your friends are doing to other people. It's not something that the Other does in some distant place.

Assumption 8: Joking about beating or killing your child is different from a man joking about beating or killing his wife.

The latter kind of joke was more acceptable at one point but seems to have mostly fallen out of fashion. Given how much more power parents have over children than husbands have over wives, you would think that the former joke would be less acceptable than the latter, not more.
It's interesting that people react differently if you ask them:

"Why is it socially acceptable to joke about hurting your child?"

than if you show them this specific joke. Maybe people assume that it's normal and natural to "worry about your child's safety" when the threat to your child's safety is yourself, or more to the point, that this is funny rather than something to bring up with a professional counselor. People see that the abstract concept of joking about child abuse is disturbing, but fail to recognize concrete instances of the abstract concept for what they are.

As with all jokes, the joke-teller expects to get a laugh. People tell jokes to get approval, validate their beliefs, and increase social cohesion. Jokes make a space less safe when they function to remind people in that space that it's natural, normal or necessary to subjugate others. Child abuse jokes serve the dual function of signalling that a space is already tolerant of abuse, and reinforcing and recreating tolerance of abuse. They're not so much a barometer of emotional danger as a thermostat for it. The audience's reaction to a joke provides feedback that determines what else might be acceptable to say or do; that's how jokes make a space unsafe. It's no different from how sexist jokes in male-dominated professional spaces make a space unsafe for women. In the same way that sexist jokes are primarily signals to other men, simultaneously checking that sexism is still acceptable and reminding men to accept and promote sexism, jokes about harming kids aren't directed directly at kids -- they're reminders to other adults that it's okay to be authoritarian and requests for approval from those adults that your authoritarianism is okay. The approval can be as simple as a laugh.

Next time someone tells a joke like this in your presence, don't laugh. Disapproval can be simple as a raised eyebrow, and it sends the message that jokes like this aren't okay to make around you. Online, disapproval can be as simple as typing the words "not cool" or "that's not funny." Online, the onus is on people who aren't survivors, who don't need to protect themselves by immediately blocking people who make jokes that suggest their lack of safety, to express disapproval. Few people are willing to admit to having been wrong immediately, but saying "not cool" can make an unsafe space a little safer; can let silent onlookers know that not everybody thinks this is okay.

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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)

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.


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Tim Chevalier

December 2018

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