Monday, January 17, 2011

Old Racism, New Clothes: Middle Class Child Abuse Is Not An Asian Thing

White women can be good mothers too, Amy!
It isn't news that Yale Law prof Amy Chua has written a book about what she calls her "Tiger Mother" philosophy of parenting.  Most of us would never have known about it if her publicist had not arranged to have an op-ed placed in  the Wall Street Journal called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."  It went viral, at least on academic Facebooks, almost immediately.  Re-packaging the model minority thesis as a tough love philosophy, rather than the genetic predisposition to excellence that ignoramuses talked about for years, it raises a fascinating set of questions about the social construction of race as it intersects with ideologies of parenting.  It has also, according to ABC News, caused Chua to receive death threats from readers who were outraged at parenting techniques that include yelling at her children, forcing them to practice the violin for hours until they get it right (withholding bathroom privileges as an incentive), referring to them as "garbage" when they disappoint her, never accepting less than an A in anything, and not permitting a range of indulgences that might expose her daughters to the wrong influences, make them fat, or cause them to take their eyes off the prize.

I don't find the Chua book particularly shocking, I guess, because terrible things happen to middle-class children that no one talks about.  I'm not talking about sexual abuse, but the forms of narcissism that are not as outwardly abusive as Chua's techniques but can be damaging int eh long term all the same. I'm talking about kids who are forced to apply to fifteen different colleges, when in fact you can only attend one in the end; kids who are raised by alcoholics who can keep life pinned together enough so that no one calls the cops; kids who are forced to conform to gender standards that are unnatural to them because the make everyone else so uncomfortable; kids that are hit in secret; kids that are constantly put on diets; and kids who are academically unremarkable but are pushed to excel in conventional ways when they might be happier devoting themselves to sports, art, dance, cooking or hedge fund management.

And I'm just getting going.

However, the part that really fascinates me is that Chua's desire for rote forms of perfection are being derided in a society that is, in fact, devoted to increasingly unimaginative ideas about what counts as intellectual life.  My generation and the several that have followed have mostly gutted anything that counts for progressive education.  As if that was not enough, we have even taken what used to be fairly standard and unremarkable forms of critical pedagogy and gutted those in favor of a national standardized testing agenda.  Languages, classics, art and music have been stripped from secondary curricula.  Students no longer read for fun; they read to satisfy the AP requirement.  We talk, talk, talk about excellence -- but we can't say what it means, beyond winning admission to a "selective" school.  Although Chua isn't a person I would choose to be my mother (is there a world where you get to choose your mother?) what she describes actually reflects our current winner-take-all philosophy of what education should look like at its best.

What I am also intrigued by is this idea:  if Chua were black or Latina, would what she is doing count as racial uplift?  We don't know, because in the binaries that usually define racialist discourse, mothers who aren't "Chinese" or "Western" aren't part of the discussion.   In fact, it is only when compared with an entirely fictional standard of "white" parenting, in which standards are maintained by silently encouraging children to make the "right" choices, that Chua comes off as cruel.  Author Ayelet Waldman has responded to Chua in the WSJ with an article entitled "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom," in which she 'fesses up to having allowed her children to drop their music lessons because she was too embarrassed when they were outperformed by children who really practiced.  (Take that one  to the couch, kids!) But Waldman is no pushover.  When one report card came home with defects,

I pointed at the remaining two grades, neither a solid A. Though there was not the "screaming, hair-tearing explosion" that Ms. Chua informs us would have greeted the daughter of a Chinese mother, I expressed my disappointment quite clearly. And though the word "garbage" was not uttered, either in the Hokkien dialect or in Yiddish, it was only because I feared my husband's opprobrium that I refrained from telling my daughter, when she collapsed in tears, that she was acting like an idiot.

The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction.

OK, Ayelet.  You are not ambivalent:  you are passive-aggressive.

Subsequently, describing a dyslexic daughter's struggle to read, she describes a daily, self-imposed regimen in which the child's "face would be red with tears, her eyes hollow and exhausted.

Every day we asked her if she wanted to quit. We begged her to quit. Neither her father nor I could stand the sight of her misery, her despair, the pain, psychic and physical, she seemed far too young to bear. But every day she refused. Every morning she rose stoically from her bed, collected her stuffies and snacks and the other talismans that she needed to make it through the hours, and trudged off, her little shoulders bent under a weight I longed to lift. Rosie has an incantation she murmurs when she's scared, when she's stuck at the top of a high jungle gym or about to present a current events report to her class. "Overcome your fears," she whispers to herself. I don't know where she learned it. Maybe from one of those television shows I shouldn't let her watch.

At the end of a grim and brutal month, Rosie learned to read. Not because we forced her to drill and practice and repeat, not because we dragged her kicking and screaming, or denied her food, or kept her from the using the bathroom, but because she forced herself. She climbed the mountain alone, motivated not by fear or shame of dishonoring her parents but by her passionate desire to read.

In my view, Chua wins the battle here, not because she is the better mother, but because she is honest.  What is shocking to me is that we seem to have nothing more interesting to say about educating children at this stage of history than either of these women, or their critics, are able to articulate.


Amy said...

I read the book in one sitting and loved it. I thought she was refreshingly self-aware and honest about what worked and what didn't.

I'm a lazy western mom to three. I'm guilty of most of what Chua accuses my ilk. I'm also a history professor who tomorrow will embark again on trying to convince a class of college students raised by my ilk that their "efforts" are only worth an A if the result of the effort earns it.

Losers shouldn't get trophies. And C work shouldn't earn an A--no matter how many times your mother calls to tell me so.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

What I am seeing in the undergraduates, graduate students, and medical students that I teach at an elite institution (one that is considered a major "prize" to achieve acceptance to) is that they haven't the slightest exposure to the notion that education has intrinsic value as a personal and social process. They see it as purely a means to an end: prestige, career, wealth, power, whatthefuckever. And this is the personal microcosm of our societal pathology of thinking that education matters only to the extent that it is necessary to create "workers" who make us "competitive" in the "global economy".

This saddens me deeply, as I am absolutely convinced that we are raising entire generations of American citizens who are gonna end up nasty, bitter, dissatisfied old people, and then just try to fucke everyone and everything else uppe out of pure bilious spite, like the teabaggers.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I read both op-eds a couple of days ago and had to wonder: where were the dads? We only saw them lurking in the background, an indistinct presence haunting the scene with th possibility that he might intervene to tell mom "You're doing it wrong." But that's it.

What the hell?

(My word verification -- no kidding -- is "twitte." Seems appropriate.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post on the Chinese mother controversy! Like you, I was most interested in the implications for the social construction of race that the excerpt brings up. On the one hand, I think Chua herself is trying to demystify standard racial/ethnic categories, explaining that she uses the terms "Chinese" and "Western" parents "loosely" and that she has known "Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents" whom she would identify as "Chinese."

On the other hand, it is Chua herself who reproduces a binary logic of race ("Chinese" vs "Western") that might undercut some of the more interesting things she could be doing to interrogate identity. It seems like she essentializes difference when she alludes to "tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting."

In turn, the "Chinese" vs. "Western" binary is all that anyone fixates on, which leads to the recycling of some not-so-subtle racialized vocabulary. One case in point was an interview I saw on MSNBC, when Michael Smerconish was saying that the "Chinese mother" model keeps kids from being "assimilated," which definitely taps into the representation of Asian Americans as perpetual aliens.

Thanks again for the thoughtful commentary!

Anonymous said...

In our graduate program we spend a lot of time in the core classes first semester brainwashing our students exactly what CPP says... grades aren't what matters, what matters is how to think, how to both ask and answer questions, and so on.

I hope that's how we're raising our kids too. In preschool all kids have a love of learning just like we want our graduate students to have, and I sure hope our kids don't lose theirs. (And the father in our family is equally if not more involved than the mother!)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Well, apparently Amy Chua originally wrote a great deal about her conflicts with her husband over parenting, but she also gave him veto power over those sections, and when he kept saying that she was putting words in his mouth, she took them out. So I think it's important to remember that what she's writing is highly crafted and not a literal recording of reality.

(Haven't read the book. It seems clear from, e.g. the recent NYTimes piece about it, that the WSJ excerpt was fairly misleading about the overall message of her book.)

(and my word verification is "exalince". Wow, blogger's paying attention!)

Janice said...

Techcrunch ran another article riffing off of the Chua story, albeit taken more from a college-education angle: -- a bit more humorous but wildly unfocused.

The headlines are invidious. The attempt to start a new front in the Mommy Wars is annoying. The absence of fathers is totally unsurprising.

Anonymous said...

Claire I really enjoy your blog - thank you.

I hope that "Mommy Wars" is not the intent or the inevitable outcome of the publication or the discussions it starts.

The question that presents itself to me begins, not in racial differences, but in cultural differences. The American culture is based on the import and value of the individual as a part of the whole rather the import of the whole serviced by the individual. This creates an entirely different stance to all experiences, but especially to personal independence. Perhaps we have taken this concept a bit far, making each member of a team own a trophy...

More critically, in order to be an independent thinker, to be creative and innovative, one must know the history to prevent re-invention of established idea and action. Are we asking children to be independent before they are ready, thereby denying them the solid foundation on which to build their dreams? How is the point of individuation determined? Who chooses the dream, the goal, and how? Formulaic thinking is less expensive, but less effective as well. Thought, should be the basis of education, thought and "your gut" is always the basis of good parenting. Discussions like these prompt thought; good!

Historiann said...

Thanks to Janice and Notorious for asking where the fathers are. (Is there anything about the Waldman-Chabon household we don't yet know? And do we really care to know as much as is offered up to us?)

My thoughts when I heard about this $hitstorm were: what if Amy Chua were a Dad? Would he have found a publisher, and if so, would he be praised for being such a harda$$ demanding parent? It's difficult to say, but YES to everyone who sees that this is just another log to fuel the Mommy Wars.

Anonymous said...

I have pretty mixed feelings about the whole thing, but one thing I know for sure - I'm waiting for Lulu to publish her own account later.

Fiona said...

I read the same NYT piece that New Kid read, and while it does suggest more complexity, the ultimate message isn't much more sophisticated.

She says that the book is partly about how she learned that her methods needed moderation when Lulu rebelled at age 13. So...the complexity here is that your kids turn out to be human beings who have their own ideas about life?


I guess I find that every bit as underwhelming as TR. If this is what we get from books about parenting, why bother?

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

Applying to fifteen colleges is a problem? Why? I mean, I applied to seven, I think, which was typical at my prep school -- a few reach, a few likely, a few safety. In the end, I made it into four of the seven, I think, including one of my reaches, thankfully.

But if you could afford the extra application fees, what's the difficulty in applying to more schools, to expand your options? Most of the schools won't require individual separate essays, so it's just a bit more paperwork. Seems reasonable to me, for a decision that can matter so much.

As for Chua, I was raised by an Sri Lankan mom much like the mom Chua sounds like (I've read the WSJ and NYT pieces, not the book). Sri Lankan parents, really, but my father was fairly absent in the hands-on parenting, since he was mostly away at work twelve hours a day. And I had huge issues with my mother's parenting at the time, and avoid many of those practices in raising my own children. (My parents were liberal with the heavy cane, for example, as their parents had been before them. And my kids have never had a hand raised to them, and barely a raised voice.)

But I don't think it makes much sense to judge these women based on contemporary standards. It ignores a tremendous amount of cultural history.

When I was an Americanized teenager, I accused my parents of child abuse, and threatened to report them to the authorities. As a 39-yr-old mom, I have a more nuanced understanding of their child-rearing practices. They lost their temper at times, but mostly, they were trying very hard to be the best parents they knew how, based on everything they'd been taught.

Over time, hopefully, we evolve.

Benny said...

Very good job calling attention to just how common "tiger"-like mothers are, and how the issue is not the behavior as much as the attitude. I do wonder if perhaps unambiguously cruel Asian mothers are superior to the passive-aggressive Western type.

Altogether, I think that the debate should direct people to the bigger and older question, which is whether or not parents should just say "because I said so" or make up confusing and misleading logical reasons for why they order their kids around.

themacinator said...

the discussion of parenting children who see education as a means to a (monetary) end rings very true with me. i graduated from the tenured radical's institution of higher learning almost 10 years ago, and decided not to go onto any higher education, although it seemed like my destiny all through my childhood.

i'm a learner for learning's sake. i can't stop reading. i engage in theoretical conversations. but i like to ACT as well as to converse, and act based on what i learn. the further along in my expensive and curtailed education, the more i felt that i was surrounded by people who wanted to get good grades, graduate with fancy and bedazzled diploma, and either go on to more prestigious or more enriching things. education as something to brag about, rather than something to live for.

parenting as something to brag about seems to be part of the problem.

Deulens said...

Success should be also be defined. As Alfie Kohn says, "Punishments and rewards are both sides of the same coin. And that coin doesn't buy much." Both parenting models are the same model, whether the Westerners/Chinese/whomever realize it or not. Both place emphasis on controlling the children in a way the parents (read: bullies) desire, rather than letting the ignorant child (read: actual person) develop into who they should become naturally, utilizing unconditional love (something everyone/child natually longs for and searches for). Which is why watching this debate is a bit like watching a dog chase its tail.

LouMac said...

Yes to all who have made smart comments about the implications for debates about race, immigration, etc. The particularly annoying thing about this shitstorm is that it's ultimately reproducing gender roles across all of these other divides: raising children, and thinking and writing about how you are raising the children, is women's work no matter what race you are. It's another, pseudo-multi-cultural, instantiation of the mommy wars, in which the media pit women against women and ignore far deeper structural problems, including but not limited to the absence of men. (Other problems include class, and real, complex, discussion of racial inequality). As in the Thernstrom piece, it's about the media much more than it is about the individual story. They are largely to blame for seizing on any story about motherhood and spinning it so that there remains little discursive difference between talking about women's identity and talking about having/raising children. And men who might want to participate in the conversation are not accorded much interest by the media. The fact that Chua wrote this book is not, in itself, particularly noteworthy. The media frenzy that accompanies any woman's pronouncement about motherhood is the problem. And now there is a book by a woman of colour to talk about, they would have us believe that they have got over their exclusive focus on middle-class white women's maternal subjectivities. Look! they say, We're talking about race, too! White women and (fill in the blank with token non-white) women parent differently! But parenting is women's business whoever you are!

Science Lurker said...

I have tried to give my children the same gifts my over-educated upper-middle-class non-Christian parents gave me and my siblings:

- read to them daily from infancy
- read in front of them daily
- provided a house full of books and art supplies
- removed the TV from the house while they were growing up
- subscribed to a daily newspaper, and left it on the breakfast table for anyone who wanted it
- conversed with them regularly and cared about their opinions
- had dinner together as a family most nights, during which two parents taught them to be aware of the outside world and question everything, but still be polite to their teachers.
- offered to pay for any music lessons they wanted to pursue, and quality instruments to pursue them on, but tried not to nag much about practicing
- sent them to good public schools, where they saw that our pushiness would benefit their classmates whose parents were less willing or able to demand excellence of the school district

To be sure, I think the not having the distraction of the TV early on was one of the most important. But then one addicted to the Internet, and progress did slow.

So far, no regrets on my part, and they forgive me for most of it.

PS to TR: if there are now > 10 times as many of them applying for the same number of slots in the kinds of colleges we went to, it makes sense that they need to send more applications than we did, if they want to learn from and with the students that choose to attend that kind of school.

Joe said...

Perhaps this is beside the point, but every music teacher of any value winces when they hear about forced, marathon practices. This type of discipline doesn't create musicians, it inspires hatred of music from those who might have been musicians otherwise. And if an early student does manage to survive this kind of practicing, it creates practicing habits that can lead to SERIOUS injury later in life. A teach would much prefer an hour of efficient practice to ten hours of drills.

Anonymous said...

@Mary Anne. It makes all sorts of sense to evaluate the parenting by "contemporary standards", if by that one means the standards of people who wish the best for children and care whether they are happy or not.

Note to self, wherever y'all's from: Screaming at children is not OK. Narcissist parenting damages a child's self esteem. Deliberately causing children (or any person) emotional or physical pain to achieve your own goals is not OK. Education that aims only to succeed in material terms and not in spiritual, emotional or social terms is not OK.

In my work I've had Latino parents tell me that feeding their babies cola from a biberón is a "cultural thing", but it's still not OK to make your kid a diabetic while still in the cradle no matter how you cook your frijoles.

Nah. Lay down your culture sword. I don't buy it. Kindness and compassion are universal principles, no matter with what passport you started life.

Anonymous said...

My language teacher is a really bright guy with happy, intelligent kids going off to great colleges.

He has never, ever looked at his kids' report cards. He wanted them to become intrinsically motivated and create their own meaning about what education is and means to them.

Anonymous said...

"I don't find the Chua particularly shocking"

Lindsay said...

Hi, Tenured Radical!

I found this post through a link on Historiann's blog, and it's by far the most thoughtful thing I've read about the whole "Tiger Mother" mini-fracas. Thank you!

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