When I first read Amy Chua's article "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" in last weekend's Wall Street Journal, I thought it was a Jonathan Swift-esque, Modest Proposal-type response to modern parenting. No playdates? Never any TV or computer games? No extracurricular activities chosen out of love or interest? It sounded more like a gulag than a family. As I continued, I realized that along with sleepovers and performing in the school play, she'd excised irony from her children's lives as well.
Granted, as the child of Chinese-American parents, I recognized a few of her strictures from my own childhood - piano lessons, pressure for straight As - and I have my own tales about being forced to begin SAT classes in the 7th grade, or berated into considering plastic surgery. Unlike Chua's kids, however, I played sports in high school, had a walk-on role in the school play - and was nowhere near the top of my class. According to Chua's view, I was a failure. Somehow, despite my childhood shortcomings and lack of discipline, I have had careers as an editor and journalist, and published a novel last year.
What bothers me most about Chua's article, which is excerpted from her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is her exploitation of Chinese stereotypes. She uses examples such as threatening her daughters, screaming at them and calling them "garbage" - essentially, she pulls out every cliché in existence - as typical Chinese parenting behavior. It concerns me that she perpetuates Western perceptions of Chinese mothers as pushy and verbally abusive - it's akin to pigeonholing the Hispanic boy as illegal, or the Irish girl's father as an alcoholic. I saw one comment from a woman who, after reading this article, assumed that the Chinese culture creates socially stunted kids who are prone to suicide.
Perceptions matter. Why are there so few Chinese American authors, artists and athletes? Why has no Asian actor ever won an Academy Award? Is it because Chinese parents don't care about the arts? (Or because no Chinese kid has ever been allowed to perform in the school play?) Or is it because stereotypes dictate that Asians are good at academics, especially math and science?
I have zero experience parenting, but I suspect that true success lies - as Jonathan Swift himself might have said - in moderation, somewhere between teaching your kids discipline and encouraging them to explore the activities they love. I think the best we can hope for our children is that they are happy and able to support themselves, financially and emotionally. Everything else is just vanity.