Posted by Jay Livingston
Amy Chua’s essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” has been getting a ton of attention.
When it comes to child-rearing, Americans seem forever to be seeking out expert advice. This used to be the province of print – books and magazine articles – but videos and TV shows are now in the media mix of advice for parents. This advice cannot be an “only in America” enterprise. Still, I would guess that we manufacture and consume more than our share.
Societies with a stronger sense of tradition would have less anxiety about whether they were doing it right. But in American culture, tradition usually loses out to rationality – effective means to desired goals. There seems to be a value on rejecting the ways of the previous generation (“I’m not going to make the same mistakes my parents made.”) Turning to experts for new ways of raising kids also fits nicely with American optimism and belief in progress. (“The new, improved child-rearing – get it now. Operators are standing by.”)
The trouble is that parents have many goals for their children – success/achievement, social skills and friendships, autonomy, self-fulfillment, proper behavior, happiness, and so on – for the immediate present and for various distances into the future. These goals are not in perfect harmony, and to get more of one good thing, you may have to give up another. Worse, even if parents could decide which goals they wanted to emphasize, they have precious little evidence, beyond the very short run, for the effects of one strategy or another. So we turn to those who claim to have some special knowledge, and the books and videos just keep on coming. “How can I make sure my kid is happy?” Or smart? Or successful? Or well-liked? If there were clear answers to these questions, we wouldn’t need another book.
So while these books purport to tell us how to raise kids, they also document the anxieties and ideologies of their authors and readers.
The Wall Street Journal article is a case in point. I refer to it as the “WSJ article” and not Amy Chua’s. Here is the cover line at Penguin.
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.But the WSJ article has no such change of mind, no ambivalence, no uncertainty. The Chua in the WSJ is the Tiger Mom, driving her daughters with a strictness that most readers will see as cruelty. And in the end, the WSJ Chua is triumphant. Her unrelenting demands and no-sympathy tactics vindicated, she remains convinced of the rightness of her approach. But that is far from the whole story. Here she is in an interview with Jeff Yang at SF Gate:
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.It’s possible that Chua is kidding herself. Yang’s SF Gate post quotes someone on Chua’s “woeful lack of self-examination.” But he also says, “The book’s tone is slightly rueful, frequently self-deprecating and entirely aware of its author’s enormities.”
The WSJ edit tells the story so as to make it conform with the American conservative world view (more on this in another post). I guess that one moral of the story is that you should be wary of heavily edited excerpts on the WSJ editorial page. Or, as my fellow fourth-grader’s book reports invariably ended, “If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to read the book.”