Monday, 14 February 2011

East or West, Mum is Best!

Even before I read her words, I had heard about her and her memoir, the rather militantly titled 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', from other sources. Amy Chua's everywhere on the net these days.

But when I actually read her article on Wall Street Journal's website, excerpted from her memoir and titled 'Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior' (subtlety is not Chua's strong point), I was moved. Really.

I moved through shock and horror, understanding and empathy, anger and humour. I reluctantly conceded some points while strongly disagreed with others. Chua is definitely blunt in many places (she's sparked a mini clash of civilisations after all) but as a child who grew up in a home environment indirectly shaped by Confucian values, her stabs were not new ones.

Before you jump the gun, let me tell you bluntly myself: my mum is not Amy Chua. Not at all. Neither is my dad. They no doubt share many of her values and beliefs: that education is of supreme importance, that parents should wield authority over their children, that parents objectively know better the real needs of their children,  that bolstering a child's self-esteem is not the primary objective of parentingproviding for the child is, especially in terms of education, but they are no where near as iron-fisted as Chua.

Compared to many parents I personal know or know of, mine are relatively strict and very conservative (that is not a criticism, mind you), but compared to Chua, they are almost hippies. It seems to me Chua takes the imposition of her values on her children to the extreme, to a point where it could probably lead to diminishing returns. Her kids might be tough and come out great, but I can imagine many others getting nervous breakdowns by 12, regardless of ethnicity.

I do not doubt Chua loves her daughters and wants the best for them and their future (at least by her standards), and I am not here to judge whether she is a bad mother or a good mother, or whether or not her style of parenting is superior in any sense of the word. I will not comment on any emotional effects her parenting will have on her kids, their happiness or their adult relationship with her.

What I can say is this. What Chua and her 'type' are doing to their kids is merely to produce perfect conformists. People who will have stable jobs and live in safe neighbourhoods and watch 20 seasons of American Idol and die anonymous to the world. Can anyone say if there's something wrong with that? Not really.

In many ways I am one of them. This 'safeness', this 'stablity' in life (encompassing financial, familial, societal safety and stability) is something that my parents and their parents treasure above many, if not all, other things. And because they believe this security and stability comes from education, they endeavored to give me the best they could afford in that area. No, not the best toys and Play Stations and gadgets and laptops and summer camps, but the best tuition and books and colleges and universities. I will admit I have not always been thankful, or even aware of this.

But now, this security and stability, this safeness, is something I am thankful for every morning. I know that, unless I make horrendous blunders in life or my society turns upside down, I will always have food and clothing and shelter because I have an education which assures my employment. And I know I have my parents to thank for it, and I also know it came to me at no small sacrifice on their part. I know all this very well. Yet, this safety and stability is the same thing I sometimes resent at night. It is this same thing that I feel has limited my options and negated my desires for a different, freer, less conventional life.

Let's face it, Chua's kids (and all kids who have parents are like her) may get A's and gain scholarships and go to top universities, but they will never be groundbreaking theorists or academicians. They may play the piano perfectly, but will never be the great composers. They may be literate and communicate well, but will never write 'The Great American Novel' or an award-wining play. They will be hardworking and rise the ranks, but will never venture their own start-ups. They will be excellent managers, accountants, bankers who will be hired by many big corporations, but will never be entrepreneurs, inventors or risk takers who make the news.

There will be no Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerbergs, Tiger Woods, Richard Bransons, Theresa Tengs, Itzhak Perlmans, Meryl Streeps, JK Rowlings, Picassos, Robert Frosts, Quentin Tarrantinos, Schumanns, Stephen Hawkings, Mother Theresas, Ghandis or Thomas Edisons to come from them. It's almost impossible. I mean, can you really imagine any of those kids changing the world in any significant way?

Their job in life is just to do their job really, really well, and get ahead by pure efficiency. Their goal will be to live quiet lives away from trouble and have kids who do the same. They will pay taxes and vote and read newspapers, but will probably never get into politics. Their goal is not to create change, or initiate paradigm shifts, or to spread charity, or to lead peoples, or to cure world problems, or to make headlines, or to be brilliantly creative.  But again, can anyone say this is wrong? Not really.

There is no right or wrong here, that's the point.

Chua may be right about many things when she criticizes what she calls Western style parenting. But she also must understand that encouraging creativity and freedom and self expression and self respect can lead to great failures and well as great successes, often both in the same lifetime. Her parenting may lead to success in her kids, but only a very limited, albeit perfectly acceptable, definition of success.

Also read mainland's Chinese mums' reactions at


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