I've had quite a few people ask me what I think of Amy Chua's WSJ article on what she calls "Chinese" parenting, presumably because I spent three years in Beijing with school-aged kids.
If you haven't read the article, by all means, go read it. It's a fairly horrifying tale written by a woman who refused to allow her children to be less than #1 in any subject in school. They weren't allowed sleepovers, or television time, or any other standard American kid-fare. They weren't, if you believe the article, really allowed any choices at all. She justifies her harsh parenting with the fact that her kids have turned out well. (Although she has backpedalled in interviews since the article first appeared, saying the article, which is taken from her book, doesn't quite reflect her actual ideas. I don't plan to buy the book, so I can't compare the two.)
It didn't make me feel conflicted about my parenting style. No way would I treat my kids in that way - even if I knew for certain that the end result would be a full scholarship to Harvard, or an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, I still wouldn't do it.
I'm more of the parenting school of "benign neglect." I'm trying to give my kids enough space to make their own mistakes, and I try desperately hard not to compare them to other kids. (I try not to compare myself with other parents, either, yet look at me now!)
There were lots of parents like me at our rigorous international school in Beijing, parents who tried to stay involved without crossing the line into anxious hovering. The kids were smart, the curriculum was demanding, and the teachers were, for the most part, excellent, so I felt my role was to cheer from the sidelines. I didn't sit next to them while they did their homework. I didn't volunteer in the classroom every week. I didn't even go on field trips, much as I would've loved it, because it seemed to me (and still does) that they should be finding their way at school without me standing right behind them.
I was told, when I first arrived in Beijing, that many of the Chinese and Korean kids in the school just went there to become proficient in English - they went to their "real" school after our school closed, and they spent evenings and weekends studying while our kids roamed the playground or negotiated sleepover plans.
I didn't believe it at first. But the longer I was there, the more stories I heard from my kids about their classmates, who went to math school at night and got 100% on the pre-tests in math. Whatever. My kids might get only 70% on the pre-tests, but the post-tests, the ones they took after the material was covered, usually showed them performing easily at an "A" level. So I told them not to worry about those other kids. Feel sorry for them, I said, because they have to sit in your math classes all week long, bored, while you're learning something new. They aren't smarter than you - they're just being forced to learn the material in advance, and that doesn't threaten you. As long as you learn it, and succeed on the post-test, that's all that matters.
I actually discussed the tutoring phenomenon with quite a few local educators for an article I wrote on balancing sports and schoolwork. One teacher, also a coach, told me he could tell which kids were being tutored to within an inch of their lives, because they were often unable to make independent decisions. So, for example, during a game of dodgeball, he'd actually have to tell them when to duck, or they'd get pelted by the ball. Yikes. That snippet didn't make it into the final article, but I've never forgotten the image.
My kids can duck.
So, do all Chinese parents parent like Amy Chua? Certainly not. But there was definitely a large sub-set of such parents at our school. Their kids were the ones who disappeared behind closed doors after school while ours hurried to finish up homework so they could play soccer outside. Did their kids do better than mine in school? I have no idea. I'm not in the business of comparing my children to their peers in that way. I know my kids did very well. And that's it.
I did have one opportunity to compare Shay to his peers in the third grade. The kids were given a "shoebox" culture project. They each chose a culture that was important to them, and they created a picture of that culture on their shoebox. Each side of the box was to represent one facet of the culture: music, sports, history, etc., and inside they were to place "artifacts" of that culture. And after they finished the project, they had to present it to a group of their peers and the parents.
Shay chose Ireland because of his dad's heritage. I knew that much, but he was emphatic that he didn't want my help. He pulled pictures off the internet and glued little facts to the sides of the box. Every so often, he'd ask how to spell something, or he'd ask for extra pencils, or a straightedge, but for the most part he hid from view for weeks while working on his shoebox.
I was nervous. I knew he was going to present the box, and I was a little bit worried that he'd embarrass me somehow by turning in a second-rate project. But he made his wishes clear, and since it was obvious that he was working on the project, I stayed away.
Finally the big day came. The kids were separated into groups of 5 or 6 to do their presentations. Our group was a mix of foreigners and locals. One of the first kids to present was a Chinese girl. She reached into her shoebox and pulled out a thick set of laminated index cards, each covered in her neat, tiny script. There must've been 50 cards, dangling from a large round key fob, and inwardly I groaned when she started reading them. The kids were supposed to have less than 10 minutes each - was she really going to try to read every single one of those cards?
She had barely started when her mother interrupted, telling her in Chinese to speak up. The girl started over, only to be scolded again: speak up. Instead of speaking louder, the girl turned red and began to whisper. Her mom let her have it this time. I couldn't catch every word of the lecture, but she was angry. She was telling her daughter to stand up straight and speak clearly, and every time the girl tried to start again, the mom interrupted to scold. Finally the girl started arguing with her mom, waving her cards and saying she was trying. This went on for a good 5 minutes, with all the rest of the parents sitting awkwardly, feeling sorry for the girl. Another Chinese parent tried to intervene, but when she told the first mom that her daughter was doing fine, the mom waved her hand dismissively at the daughter and turned her back in disgust. She turned her back on her own daughter, and the girl just stood there quietly, face burning as she looked down at her index cards, not knowing what to do.
All of this commotion caught the attention of the teacher, who'd been moving amongst the groups. She came over and gave the girl a hug, standing between the girl and the now livid parent, who would not stop complaining loudly about her daughter's poor performance. The girl's time was up, and despite how hard she'd clearly worked on her project, she wasn't going to get a chance to present it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the kids sat, open-mouthed, watching the mom and the daughter fight it out while the teacher did her best to provide a physical barrier for the girl. It was just... so sad. Our role there that day, as I saw it, was to watch our kids present and then congratulate them for having the courage to stand up in front of their peers, and for having the perseverance to finish the project. Clearly that mom saw things differently.
If you put her shoebox next to my son's, I daresay it would have been voted the more elegant of the two. His box showed no signs of parental interference. But do you know? He did a great job. He talked for the allotted time about Irish sports and music. He told the story of Saint Patrick. And he showed his classmates a picture of his great grandfather, along with that grandfather's watch, to illustrate his connection to the culture.
He did it all by himself, and I was so, so proud of him.
I'd venture to say this other mom was of the Amy Chua school of parenting. Maybe it works for her, though it certainly backfired on that warm spring day. Maybe some kids respond well to the structure, to the commands from on high to succeed. I know my kids wouldn't do well with that system, though, and neither would I.
Would I love to see them win a scholarship to a prestigious university some day? Of course. Do I wish they were more interested in their music lessons? Definitely. But all four of them have their own distinct personalities, their own interests, and their own ways of working. I guess I think it's my job to nurture those differences in abilities and interests, rather than forcing them into my mold of success. I'm not interested in parenting like Chua. I'm not a helicopter parent, either. I'm a traffic cop parent: I'm there, watching for trouble, but as long as they're moving forward and generally following the rules, I'm not going to intervene.
I think there's a skill I'm trying to acquire here. I'm trying to be the parent who supports, who encourages, and who gets out of the way when I'm not needed. Sure, I remind them to put their homework folders in their backpacks on occasion. But I won't do it for them - don't want to helicopter. And no - they can't watch TV if the haven't done their homework. But I don't check their homework over their shoulders, and I don't make them do extra work on top of what the teacher assigns. When they finish their work, they choose what's next.
It's tricky, when you move from place to place, because parenting standards change as you go, as do the schooling standards. Our school in Jordan is quite a bit different from the school in Beijing. The local parents are different, too. Even the expat community is different. My kids are being forced to negotiate an entirely different learning environment, with different rules and expectations. Some aspects of this new place they love. Others they rail against, constantly. My hope is that, in the end, the changes they undergo as we move will mold them into interesting adults, with something positive to contribute in whatever professional fields they choose. That, I think, is far more important than whether they beat their other classmates on any particular science test.
I'm sure Chua-style parents also want what's best for their kids. I can't say "Chinese" style, sorry, because I know too many Chinese who don't parent like Chua does, and while I understand that she didn't intend to lump all Chinese under the label "Chinese" parent, still I can't bring myself to use her term. So: Chua-style parents are trying their best to parent, just as I am. But they use very different methods to achieve their goals.
This much I know: I don't ever, ever want to be that mother, the one who turns her back on her own child because the child didn't meet her standards. There is no school assignment that can possibly matter that much to me.