Speak Roughly To Your Little Boy

January 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amy Chua says that her recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about her personal “journey” of change away from the “very strict Chinese parenting model.” But the Wall Street Journal op-ed page edit of her memoir reduces Chua’s journey to a one-dimensional promo for that extreme Chinese model. The WSJ selected those elements of Chua’s story that embody the current conservative world-view in the US. For example, the chief family virtues in this conservative model – for the children and the parents as well – are hard work and perseverance. The model also emphasizes goals rather than process; the “journey” is less important.  Still less relevant is the way the child feels about any of it. Finally, the tiger mom method places all responsibility on the individual and rejects the influence of external, situational forces.

The appeal of the Chinese model stems in part from our fear that America has become, in Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s phrase, “a nation of wusses.” Rendell was referring to the NFL’s decision to reschedule a football game in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when heavy snow made travel to the stadium dangerous and nearly impossible.
The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.
Rendell was joking, but the joke reflected our anxieties about ourselves vis-à-vis China.

The remedy for this wussiness, at least in the ideal WSJ family, is basically the parent-as-marine-drill-sergeant. The drill sergeant doesn’t “journey.” He barks that he wants results not excuses, my way or the highway, and similar bons mots. This model of child-rearing combines several elements of the conservative mentality: authoritarianism, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity, and certainty.* Parents are always right, their rules are clear and absolute, and children should unquestioningly do what parents say.** Therefore, whatever parents do to enforce rules is legitimate and beneficial since it leads to the desired results. (Some of Chua’s methods will strike many readers as psychological cruelty if not abuse.)

Another virtue in the war on wussiness is Toughness. This means the rejection of emotions, especially “feminine” emotions like sympathy, as irrelevant or even detrimental to the task at hand. (Remember the right-wing reaction to “empathy”?) “Masculine” emotions that can be used for goal attainment are O.K. These include pride and anger, and perhaps even envy and greed (hey, four out of seven ain’t bad.)

This tension between toughness and kindness towards children is nothing new. The Lewis Carroll poem from Alice in Wonderland (1865) alluded to in the title of this post was itself a parody reaction to a popular poem of the time, “Speak Gently”
Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain . . . .
Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

The conflict is also reflected in the bimodal reaction over at Amazon, where Chua’s book is #6 on the bestseller list. In the end, I doubt that the book will have much lasting influence on child rearing here, though some parents will use it to justify what they were already inclined to do.

The stronger influence will run the other way; American culture will change Asian-American parenting. As Chua says, she was “humbled” (and presumably changed) by her 13-year-old. The Asian kids at my son’s high school (where they were about half the population) would often say, “Asian parents are crazy.” When these kids and Amy Chua’s kids become parents, they will probably not be quite so “crazy.”
* For a somewhat controversial review of the literature on the conservative mentality, see this Psychological Bulletin article, which includes studies from other countries.

**This upends the usual American formulation, at least in movies and other fictions, where children are typically wiser than parents. (See my earlier post contrasting this configuration with the British version of childhood as seen in “Atonement.” Or this post on the non-authoritarian sitcom family.)

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Drill sergeants are a lot more flexible than you give them credit for. The whole breaking-you-down-to-build-you-up-AS-A-TEAM thing doesn't work if Drill Sergeant never stops berating you.

In the end, the training platoon ends up operating in a military manner, with a hierarchy that reports to the drill sergeants. I don't think that's the best model for the family, and it's kind of hard to do with only one kid.