Chinese Mothers and Self-confidence

In this article, a highly successful Chinese mother and yale law school professor argues that raising children with high expectations is the best way to parent, a way she labels as a the “Chinese” way. Though her choice of racial association is likely to draw a lot of criticism (and she does qualify the claim that this is the Chinese way, it’s recognizably Jewish and many other “ways”), I’m not that concerned with it.

But this article does concern me for another reason, which is that it comes very close to espousing something that I think is a deep truth, but it tarnishes that truth with a misunderstood elaboration along with some language that I think is deceptive and sometimes downright crude.

The idea of the article is that parents should feel free to be very demanding and in fact, unrelenting about making their kids achieve. In a sense, I agree with this thesis because I believe that people flourish when they are put under strain and when they face challenges. I also think that aspiring to excellence is one way to respect oneself and others and breeds confidence and happiness. The tricky part about this way of life is that there is always a tension between the state of confidence and competence that characterizes happiness and the difficulty and struggle that is needed to earn that position; in fact, to continually earn it and to sustain it.

In this article though, Amy Chua mistakes hardship and overcoming for arbitrariness and just plain meanness I think. But before getting to a deep philosophical point, I want to just make some ad hominem attacks and point out some passages that rubbed me the wrong way.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

Really? Is this the example you want? I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to challenge her sincerity; maybe she really did not feel abused, but you wonder if maybe this author (now a yale professor) was just hard-nosed in a way that allowed her to profit from that kind of parenting; a type of parenting that I, being a “westerner” in her lexicon, would call abuse.

Then there’s this:

By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

And again, this is amateur psychoanalysis on my part, but I think this paragraph really reveals more about the author than any general trends of parenting. I don’t think many parents with “mediocre” kids really do have regrets about their kids in that way. In other words, most parents are proud of their kids, even when their child is in fact very poorly skilled or very disturbed, or even mean or flawed in a variety of ways. Yet these parents, quite sincerely I think, are proud of what their kids are and do.

For instance, parents of serial killers often proclaim that they still love their kids, and in all of this, maybe that is what’s missing. If you search this post, the word “love” does not appear a SINGLE time, and the above quote makes me think that Ms. Chua is projecting her own interest in her child’s objective success by claiming that western parents obsess about this. Again, things are tricky, because I am sympathetic to the point that parents have to ask for more to get more when it comes to their children, but there are bigger problems.

The main one in my mind is that I think Chua is working with a defective and shallow view of what counts as self-confidence. She gives an example (you really have to read it; it’s eye opening) in which she forces her child to learn a violin (some instrument) piece by threatening all sorts of sanctions. The child eventually gets it and Chua pats herself on the back for having the gumption to keep pushing her child even in the face of resistance. The lesson is that force is met with success, and ultimately — and this is Chua’s big argument — an iron core of self-confidence that can never be taken away. Here are Chua’s words

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

To me this seems to get things exactly wrong. Self confidence and trust in oneself does not come from finding that one can achieve under duress WHEN ANOTHER PERSON forces you to succeed. One only gains confidence if one overcomes hardship BY ONESELF. Having someone push you to succeed merely to have you succeed doesn’t teach confidence or boost self-esteem (except, and this is interesting, indirectly by breaking the child down). What really promotes confidence is when a child encounters a problem and works through it on their own and in the process comes to trust his or her instincts or toughness. Anyone can do extraordinary things when a gun is put to their head, what is much more useful and much more difficult to master is the ability to set a goal and then respond to new situations (setbacks) as they pertain to that goal’s attainment. In Chua’s example, her child was happy to be playing the piece right, but how sustainable is this feeling? What happens when another difficulty comes up? The confident child would replay past successes and think “if I did that, I can do this.” But Chua’s child may have to wonder how to motivate herself or train herself. She will think “I better call my mom to scream at me until I do this.” That’s why sometimes the most “hardcore” type of control is just neglect; forcing the child to rely on his or herself. In my mind, self-confidence is the most exhilarating type of freedom, but on Chua’s analysis it feels very cramped and restricting. It also feels imposed or exported from another person, and freedom that is exported is not freedom.

The trick is, as always, to find the middle ground. Chua seems to think it’s a victory to get a child to play the violin well just to say that the child can play the violin well, and she paints western parents as taking a “do what you want to do attitude” toward everything. Both are wrong. Instead, the trick of parenting is not to hone the child’s skill at any one thing (even school) but rather to hone an attitude or a “way of seeing” — something much more ephemeral and abstract — that lets the human being that the child will become determine her ends for herself and then act on them.

Confidence is autonomy unfolding itself, and I think Chua misunderstands its value by placing it in the hands of an arbitrary parenting strategy. Kids should pursue what they want and the trick is to show them that what they want isn’t necessarily want they want AT THIS MOMENT but rather a process of overcoming or character development. That lesson can’t be learned by giving them a list of accomplishments that they must check off before reaching age 16.


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