Thursday, January 13, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Sort of Crazy Mother

I'm not a parent (yet, anyway) so I don't know shit about child-raisin' and I'm not about to sit here and tell parents they're Doing It Wrong (except when I see parents who are Clearly Doing It Wrong at Target or whatever but I keep my mouth shut and don't say "You shouldn't call your child 'you dumb little fuck,' it's bad for their development") but I had kind of a bad reaction to Law Professor Amy Chua's child-rearing techniques, as explicated in this article, provocatively titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (an excerpt from her new book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"). In this scene, 7-year-old daughter Lulu is having a tough time learning a piece on piano, despite working on it "nonstop for a week." The following drama ensues:

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. 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.

Jesus Christ, lady. It's the fucking "Little White Donkey," not lifesaving surgery. What the fucking fuck? And for the record, she's not being self-indulgent, you are. You're the one that wants to hear "Little White Donkey," not her.

Clearly there are cultural differences at play and maybe us dumb Westerners just don't understand and I guess if you raise a child like this they probably will get good grades or whatever but I can't help but wonder at what cost.

Amy Chua says her children were never allowed to be in a school play (or, for that matter, "complain about not being in a school play"). Guess Amy Chua's daughters aren't going to be actresses! Sorry if I'm being snarky but I guess my point is if you shove kids into a super-rigid way of life that you control all the parameters of and don't let them do anything that you haven't planned for ahead of time, I can't help but think that they're maybe not going to develop a creative side the same way a kid who's maybe not treated like a trained dog would.

It's complicated and there are loads of cultural issues I'm sure I'm not sensitive to, but I kind of have a visceral reaction to calling a 7-year-old "pathetic."

UPDATE!!!!!!!!!!! - As commenter Amy suggests, as it turns out, there is more to the story than we originally thought. Apparently Law Professor Amy Chua spoke with columnist Jeff Yang over on SFGate and said, basically, that the article painted an unfair picture:

"I was very surprised," she says. "The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model."

So there you go. Maybe it was taken out of context or whatever. I still maintain that calling a 7-year-old "pathetic" is not cool. That said, I also agree with Amy and fellow commenter Verbal Cupcake that many American parents aren't anything to write home about either. I guess there's got to be a middle ground between borderline child abuse and breezy abdication.

Anyway, I don't know if V.C. has kids, but I don't think Amy does, so let's all chat about this again when we all have kids. I feel sort of uncomfortable judging any parent from my childless perch. I'll do it; I just feel a little uncomfortable about it. That is all.


Unknown said...

A friend sent me this and I found it nauseating.
I'm not sure which is worse, calling your kid garbage when you do mean it or when you don't. In the long run, I guess it doesn't make much difference.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I even got a third of the way through her WSJ article--it was so fucking boring! It was like "paint by numbers," but for writing: "Western mothers do this. But Chinese mothers do that. Western mothers blah blah blah. By contrast, Chinese mothers..." OMG...I would rather claw my own brain out through my ears than read that whole piece.

Still, I can totally agree with you that she sounds like a bitch. Just as bad is that she also seems perfectly content to perpetuate stereotypes about her own culture and that of others. That's great--the world really needs more shitty parents and people who perpetuate stereotypes--excellent if we can get both those needs met by one person in a little package deal.

As disgusting as this woman appears to be, I feel I would be remiss not to note that there are a lot of people in America whose parenting seems to be a little too lax. Having spent the better part of the last ten years teaching the generation who grew up in the era in which "everyone gets a trophy (no matter how much you suck)," I can say that a little humility is not a bad thing. It's just that humility is gained by making mistakes and realizing that you're not perfect--not by having someone call you "garbage" and forcing you to do shit you're not interested in doing.

But hey--if you find yourself in need of even more bad parenting in action, be sure to check out Teen Mom on MTV.

amy.leblanc said...

1. a couple of people i know have said they read the whole book and the WSJ article is really inflammatory and purposefully leaves out a lot of the context/rumination on the situations and pissed them off. it's maybe the article that's bad, not the culture.

2. i taught chinese kids for 5 years in oakland who went to school 7 days a week + violin/ballet/soccer/art/abacus, and i can tell you that they are better behaved, do better in school, and have actually a fairly carefree attitude about life. the parenting style might seem extreme, but the kids do end up confident achievers. a lot of American parents on the other hand barely even know what classes their kids have at school or who their teachers are, and if their kid is failing out of HS they blame the school, not their lack of parenting. which is worse?

Anonymous said...

VC has no kids and ain't plannin' on havin' any, and do you know why? Because she has spent the better part of the last 10 years teaching everyone else's offspring and it has been fucking exhausting.

I did, however, co-parent my oldest niece and nephew for their first six and three years of life. (Their mom got divorced after having my oldest niece, and she moved in with me and my mom. My mom had already been the official day care for my nephew before my niece was born, and since I still lived at home, I was part of that "day care.) So I haven't been a parent in the biological or legal understanding of that word, but I have cared for my share of children (and teens who act like children), so I don't mind occasionally criticizing the extreme shit that parents do. Feed your kids cookies and milk for dinner every once in a while? That's cool. But feed the kid McDonald's every day, and yeah, I'll probably judge you as irresponsible.

One of my former students was crowdsourcing her abortion on Facebook the other night. She's five months pregnant. I bring this up mostly because her parents *did* fail at raising her in the sense that she has no one she can turn to, so she ended up on Facebook asking her friends where she could get an abortion at five months (and this was two days after telling everyone on Facebook that she was having a girl). Her dad was never in her life, her mom is an alcoholic, and her stepdad was abusive. When she was in my class, she lived with her oldest sister and she called me her "second mom" because she would come in my classroom almost every day after school and get advice about schoolwork, boys, whatever.

Anonymous said...

So I guess what I'm saying is that I think you can acknowledge that parenthood is an extremely difficult "job" and still feel that some people fuck it up royally--whether you've had a kid or not. Again, I bring up Teen Mom, which on the one hand is sort of my guilty pleasure TV, but on the other hand depicts in such raw, graphic detail how completely awful some parents are, and how much they fuck up their kids when they themselves are emotionally a mess. I know it's kind of a cliche at this point that "anyone can have a kid" when you need all sorts of clearance for far less important tasks in this world, but it really is true that we tend to view parenthood still as some sort of right of passage, when really it's a role that should be entered into with as full an understanding as possible of the level of responsibility and care it requires. Spend a day in nearly any high school classroom in America and you will see kids whose parents have utterly failed at raising them. It is heartbreaking, and it's effects go beyond the immediate experience of that particular child.

Anyway...sorry for the long response; I don't plan on ever having children of "my own," but I do enjoy being part of the "village" that helps raise others'. I just wish more people relied less on the village and stepped up to help their own kids more than they do.