Dragon Mother

Our man in New York sends word that Chinese parenting styles are causing a stir. The Wall Street Journal extracted a new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, a high-profile professor at Yale University’s law school, extolling mother enforced rote learning to establish the mastery of academics and musical instruments that lets their children “see what they’re capable of, and [arms] them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away”.

Chu’s straight-A, piano and violin playing daughters stand testament to the accomplishments such tough love can hot house, though one flourished and one rebelled in the face of such strict parenting. (For a more acerbic take, try Amy Chua: Model Chinese Parent or Insufferable Elitist?).

The timing of Chu or her publishers is deft. Her WSJ article has hit a nerve (with a reported advance for the book of $500,000 her publishers will be delighted by the buzz for the book she has provoked; our man wonders if she hasn’t overegged her parenting pudding to that end). American parents — and employers — increasingly fret that their country’s system of secondary education is failing students, causing them to fall further and further behind their counterparts in other countries, an anxiety supported by America’s descending positions in international achievement rankings for maths, science and reading. All of which touches a bigger sensitive spot about America’s changing place in the world order.  A return to the hard work, self-denial and discipline that Chua prescribes seems, to some at least, a return to elysian American values that would cure what ails the U.S. education system.

Yet at the same time, parents in China are questioning the approach Chua advocates, fearing it won’t produce the children needed for the 21st century, those that are creative, independent and armed with the ability for continuous self-learning rather than stuffed with facts. This Bystander recalls a similar debate over education in Japan three decades ago. There a subsequent generation of policymakers schooled in rote learning was unable to find the creativity to solve the exceptional problems that confronted the country in the 1990s and let its economy drift into its long stagnation.


Filed under Politics & Society

15 responses to “Dragon Mother

  1. I wonder if the mom’s attitude is really more of an ESFJ thing than a Chinese thing, and she’s just reading her over-the-top, ultra-authoritarian, Type-AAA personality into her ethnicity. Seriously, she sounds like Norman Greene in “The House Next Door.”

    Will she “allow” the girls to hate the piano or violin, and all those courses they were “No. 1” in for the rest of their lives, after they get out from under her thumb?

    After they finish school how will those girls even know what it means to be interested in anything for its own sake, because THEY’RE interested in it, without it being assigned to them by someone in authority?  Will they spend their entire lives thinking that the only tasks that are important are those assigned to them by other people, and that they are simply human tools for achieving purposes determined by others? Will they spend their entire lives trying to live up to standards of “success” and “achievement” set by others, without ever subjecting them to critical analysis? Does their mom expect them to keep on taking orders without question from whatever authority figure governs a given aspect of their lives (we all know what country that approach worked out so well in)?  Or does she flick some magic switch at graduation that enables them to start exercising independent judgment and initiative?  

    How the hell do they ever figure out what’s THEM and what’s just programming?

  2. andrew paul

    Pruducing child prodigy’s (“Carnegie Hall at 14!”)was very big in the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially amoung New York Jews.
    My father knew alot of them, I met a few who he kept up with. Most were schizophrenics and ended up in Mental Hosptials for either all or part of their live. None ever amounted to anything. My father, and his brother were allowed to do anything they wanted, as children, and ended up in the top .02% of their fields, Physical Chemistry and Particle Physics. Kevin Carson is too charitable. The lady is a destructive lunatic and god help her children&husband.

    • China Bystander

      The comparison between Jewish mothers of an earlier generation and Chua is frequently being made in New York we are told. The joke is that whereas the former used to introduce their infants as ‘my son the lawyer and my son the doctor’, the Dragon mother will introduce her infants as ‘my daughter the violinist and my daughter the pianist’. — CB

  3. Andrew, your comment re her husband made me think: if she herself underwent the “Chinese mother” treatment, and was herself a dutiful and filial little Chinese version of the “Maria complex,” at what precise point did she make the transition to being someone with a steamroller will who flattened out all opposition and dissent?

    My guess: when she was first put in a position to enforce her will on someone weaker than herself. The classic authoritarian personality is someone who was brutalized by authority, but gets revenge by brutalizing another victim. On some level, the person encountering a more powerful authoritarian personality hates the person who is brutalizing them; but on the same level, they know that if they direct their hatred against them, they will be destroyed. So they sublimate and redirect the hatred against another target of opportunity — usually out-groups and dissenters — and achieve a sense of vicarious power by identifying with the authority figure. “If you can’t beat ’em…”

    All the force of will that Chua suppressed for her own survival in the face of her mother, she is now taking out on victims weaker than herself. In other words, she received from her mother, and is passing on to her daughters, the dog’s philosophy of life: Know when to bark, and when to lick. Utterly despicable.

    On a more common level, you see people who more consciously resent what they’re subjected to by authority. But when they see someone else rebelling and breaking the rules, their instinctive response is not to cheer them on and say “More power to you–wish I had the nerve to do that.” Rather, it’s to say “You’re no better than I am–if I have to obey these stupid rules, then so do you.” When dealing with such people, my usual response is that of Cool Hand Luke: “Yeah, them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get.”

    Re the prodigies you describe, it occurs to me that anyone who goes through Dragon Mommy’s “be No. 1 at everything” treatment will be excellent at doing the best possible job at a task assigned by someone else who is actually capable of critical thought. They will be utterly incapable of deciding for themselves which tasks are worth doing and which not, based on their intrinsic value to THEM based on some autonomously chosen set of goals. In other words, they will be excellent drones to the people with real power.

    I would add, finally, that this treatment is more successful with some personality types than with others. If the daughters are INTPs in the Myers-Briggs typology, once they get free they may spend the rest of their lives doing exactly the opposite of what their mother compelled them to do, fighting a battle that’s never won in order to finally reassure themselves that they’re free. And see their (hated) mother’s face on every authority figure they encounter for the rest of their lives.

    I’d like to see Chua’s face if her daughter, after she turned 21 and finished college, announce as publicly as possible: “You remember that book my mom wrote about how she forced me to practice the piano? Well, I’ll never touch a piano again. She’s given me a lifelong hatred of the piano and everything else she ever shoved down my throat.”

  4. William

    I think that this mother has missed the most important thing in her childern’s lives. Are the childern Happy? You can mold a child into what you wish. You can give your child every opportunity and they can be Highly succesfull. You can have fame, money, and choices, but if you not happy, what good are they. If the child is a sweeper at a Mall and has a happy healthy life would the Dragon mother be proud of the child. I assume that these people are not worthy of being equal to her. But we all are human. If my child was happy sweeping, I would over joyed and I have a BA. The Chines with all its rich pass is still a nation of corruption and human right problems. This “chines way” is part of the problem. Parenting in such a manner raises a child that wants to please someone else, follows orders that scarifices , and can not think in thier own manner. The state becomes the parent. Westener Ideas are not the be all and are not perfect, but is does promote compation, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Take a look at the olimpics see our succes, look at Kenny G for music, see Bill Gates and so on. Happyness, spiritual satisfaction is the key to life and all else will come if its ment to be. Give a child this, they are humans, they will become President the first Black President of the U S A.

  5. Ad Honorem

    It seems to me, as though these very strict, authoritarian parents are doing nothing more than using their children as pawns in acting out their vain, shallow, narcissistic fantasies. All the discussion regarding how this style of parenting is necessary for the child to be successful in the twenty-first century, rather misses the point- how do we define success? The parents are obviously living out their own personal vision of success (a very shallow, materialistic interpretation) through their children. I am sure it is a lot more about image for most of these parents than an actual genuine concern about the well-being of their child. Whether or not these parents’ children will “thank them later”, it is by making our own choices- and mistakes that we ultimately learn and progress from children to adults.

    In saying all of the above, a healthy middle ground is always a good starting point for any problem. All too often, when I read articles or columns about things like this, a false dichotomy is drawn. Either you must adopt the completely laid-back, no-discipline “western” or “American” approach, or you must take an ultra-strict, domineering, authoritarian “eastern” or “Asian” style parenting approach. This is completely ridiculous of course: a good parent needs to be aware of when a little discipline or tough love will help their child and provide a valuable lesson in maturity. That same parent must also be aware of the desires and needs of their child, and not confuse their own selfish or narcissistic desires with a desire to help their children.

    • chinabystander

      On the question of the citizens needed for the 21st century, I reiterate the point I made in closing my post: In Japan three decades ago a generation of policymakers, their generation’s most successful students, all schooled in rote learning, was subsequently unable to find the creativity to solve the exceptional problems that confronted the country in the 1980s and 1990s and let the country’s economy drift into its long stagnation. — CB

  6. I’ll second what Ad Honorem says about “what it takes to succeed in the 21st century.”

    One of the downsides to Chua’s approach is the unhealthy attitude it teaches toward power: find out what it takes to please the people in authority, and do it. So you accept the current model of Corporate America as just another fact of the natural order, and try to adapt to whatever it takes to survive in it. That makes it a lot less likely that Corporate America will be threatened by a successful challenge to its values of success.

    Chua falls victim to the fallacy of composition. Her approach works great if there’s only one Dragon Mommy in each class. But happens when her approach catches on, and there’s more than one Dragon Mommy to a class? It’s mathematically impossible for more than one person to be number one. And what happens when there are several graduates of the Dragon Mommy School applying for each position?

    The more her approach catches on, the less viable it becomes for any particular individual. The Empire, as Joe Bageant pointed out, only needs about a quarter of the population in administrative-technical positions overseeing the proles. The more Mommy School alumni you have competing for these positions, the more you’ll drive down wages and drive up the level of credentialling to get onto even the bottom rung of the meritocracy. And the more the meritocracy will be staffed by increasingly authoritarian people with an “I got mine” attitude. Ever read Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”?

    It’s a great recipe for having a society of Little Eichmanns, petty bureaucrats who will automatically follow orders from whoever happens to be giving them, for the sake of their career. And who never, ever, look behind the curtain or question the underlying assumptions of the system because it might lead to nagging thoughts they can’t afford to have on the career fast-track.

    OTOH, what would happen if we didn’t have a governnment-funded school system acting as a human resources processing factory, with a conveyor belt from K-12 to college to the HR department, teaching people to line up on command, eat or piss at the sound of a bell, and automatically do whatever is necessary to please the person behind the desk? My guess is that, without a ready-made government-subsidized pool of human resources inculcated with corporate values, employers might have to dicker around a bit more to persuade people to work for them, and might have to sacrifice a bit of the authoritarian corporate culture if they want to have enough workers to get the job done.

    Maybe Chua ought to be calling herself a German Mom, because her system sounds like the perfect way to raise Good Germans.

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  9. Thank for your post. I hope that you will have some helpful.

  10. nuality

    “Yet at the same time, parents in China are questioning the approach Chua advocates, fearing it won’t produce the children needed for the 21st century, those that are creative, independent and armed with the ability for continuous self-learning rather than stuffed with facts. This Bystander recalls a similar debate over education in Japan three decades ago. There a subsequent generation of policymakers schooled in rote learning was unable to find the creativity to solve the exceptional problems that confronted the country in the 1990s and let its economy drift into its long stagnation.”

    Hmm…. I never could understand the logic here. This I think is a myth. Perhaps to cheer up the “average Joe”, by telling him he is too creative for a job.

    This is like saying engineers, and computer scientists are not creative. They are creative in what matters: Solving problems related to their domain of study. A doctor is creative if he/she can solve complex problems in his research.

    Well, the US is certainly benefiting by import so many Chinese scientists that are supposedly not very creative.

  11. Right here is the perfect website for anybody who hopes to find out about this topic. You understand a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a topic which has been discussed for decades. Excellent stuff, just great!

  12. Some posts make you smile, some posts leave you feeling
    sad, this oone makes me think, and that is better
    than any other reaction.

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