A certain essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” to which one excerpted reaction from the Journal community itself was “I am in disbelief after reading this article.” The author is a Chinese mother, Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale perhaps best known for writing the New York Times bestseller World on Fire.
The essay affirms that stereotypical Chinese parenting produces stereotypical cases of success for the children raised in that fashion — impeccable grade reports, precocious competence in the violin and piano (but mind you, those instruments and no other!), and fortitude of mind in the child to boot — and it explains how all this can be achieved by drawing on representative episodes from the author’s own experience as a Chinese mother. The most instructive and blood-chilling of these is the story of how little Lulu, Chua’s youngest daughter, was compelled to learn, just in time for her piano recital, how to play “The Little White Donkey” — a most difficult piece, apparently requiring uncommon ambidexterity, and, one would think, rapid and fluent communication between the hemispheres of a seven-year-old’s brain, across its not fully developed corpus callosum:
Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered. … She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. … I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress. … Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
The author beams with pride over this “success story” and seems to consider it a vindication of her school of parenting against all naysayers. And throughout the article, starting from its title, she does little to disguise her scorn for Western parents, their tolerance for underachievement in their own children, and their squeamishness at the sight or report of the treatment other (luckier) children undergo every day in the hands of their Chinese mothers.
Having long been convinced that nothing harms stereotypical Western children more than their parents’ stereotypical laxness, I nevertheless find appalling much of what Chua states and even more of what she implies. Perhaps the foibles of modern Western parenting have grown so obvious and so ridiculous that any criticism of them is allowed to stick and any proposed alternative is welcomed; the more diametrically opposed to the status quo, the better even. But what Chua is prescribing in her article should not be rashly applauded by even the most frustrated critics of modern parenting mores.
What’s right with Chinese parenting? It demands and expects the attainment of competence through perseverance and industry. It accepts no excuses for failure. It discourages trivial pursuits. It desensitizes children to occasional harshness from others, even loved ones. Now, is there anything wrong with Chinese parenting? I’d say plenty. The readiest hint can be found in Chua’s own opening: stereotypical Chinese parenting is responsible for cases of stereotypical success in the children subjected to it. It’s what it’s known for. Nothing more. One cannot imagine Da Vinci raised by a Florentine “Chinese” mother or Beethoven by a German one. Genius cannot develop and flourish when its would-be building materials have been deformed and forcibly molded to the shape of a narrow box designed by stereotypical Chinese parents. John Ruskin developed a singular mind in spite of an upbringing with some Chinese flavor to it, not because of it. And in Praeterita, his autobiography, he looks back with his usual keen discernment on the chief calamities of his childhood:
My judgment of right and wrong, and powers of independent action, were left entirely undeveloped; because the bridle and blinkers were never taken off me. Children should have their times of being off duty, like soldiers; and when once the obedience, if required, is certain, the little creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself; set on the barebacked horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength. But the ceaseless authority exercised over my youth left me, when cast out at last into the world, unable for some time to do more than drift with its vortices. My present verdict, therefore, on the general tenor of my education at that time, must be, that it was at once too formal and too luxurious; leaving my character, at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed, but not disciplined; and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.
What Ruskin laments the want of, in his own childhood, can be roughly summarized as the rudiments of Stoicism, which, if genius does not need them, the well-ordered mind of the upright citizen certainly does. Instilling Stoic values in a child by the Chinese method is a contradiction in terms. And any nobility of soul, grandeur of mind, or genuine self-discipline in man partakes of Stoic values. It is of this tradition of Stoicism — which, however modified, has shone bright in the high noon of every great Western culture — that we are the almost bankrupt heirs today. Only faint shadows of its former glory survive in popular culture. One of them, as it pertains to the upbringing of children, is the notion (sneered at by Chua), commonly accepted though perhaps misunderstood even by its adherents, that the child, as far as it is capable of rational thought, is a free agent, entitled to make its own decisions and deserving what minimal freedom it requires in order to follow the basic dictates of its conscience. The application of this principle in practice today almost always ends up in a grotesque caricature of its intended meaning, but that meaning itself is noble, and not only that, I will go further and say that an understanding of that meaning, whether conscious or intuitive, is necessary to the mental constitution of any citizen of a free society — just as necessary today as it was to the breeding of the English gentleman in the golden days of the Empire or to the education of the likes of Cato the Younger, Cicero, and Seneca.
To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same. The mettle to confront mortal danger, eagerly if principle requires it and always with composure, does not come from yielding in childhood to threats of starvation, corporeal punishment, sequestration of property, and the like. On the contrary, someone who values freedom and deserves it tries to teach himself and his child to be indifferent to such debasing stimuli; whereas a child raised to respond to them — and their lowest common denominator is always brute force — grows up to be a cowardly, obedient serf of his parents, elders, and dictators. The only form of discipline he learns is that of endurance, which is also the main virtue he is expected to practice throughout his life as the subject of an absolute external authority that can’t be argued or reasoned with. But said serf might learn to play “The Little White Donkey” at the age of seven, and that’s worth something, right?
In all earnestness, please consider the premises of Chinese parenting as laid out in Chua’s own words:
a) Children are not allowed to 1) play any instrument other than the piano and violin, 2) not play the piano and violin, 3) choose their own extracurricular activities. (Even Socialist Realism permits greater freedom of expression.)
b) Children owe their parents everything (as do citizens to the State).
c) Parents know what is best for their children and therefore override all their children’s own desires and preferences. (The state knows what’s best for the little people and gets it done against their will, but with their best interests very much at heart. Isn’t this how the Communist Party of China justifies its autocratic rule to itself and to the rest of the world?)
In light of all this, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Amy Chua’s bestseller is subtitled “How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.”