Friday, January 14, 2011

About that Chinese mother article...

Amy Chua's article Why Chinese Mothers are Superior has ignited a firestorm in the press and blogosphere. As someone who is of Chinese heritage and moved to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of ten, I feel that I am in a special position to comment on the article.

Notwithstanding the fact that Ms. Chua is likely talking her book (pun intended), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she makes some relevant points about how hard the education systems in a number of emerging economies have tried to catch up to the developed world, as well as to describe the immigrant experience:
I'm using the term "Chinese mother" loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I'm also using the term "Western parents" loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.
...and how hard they push their kids academically:
They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.

Sparta vs. Athens
Kids, when pushed hard, will tend to excel (on average). This model of child rearing has been used since the days of Sparta. Hard effort, perseverance, duty, honor...and family - these are all attributes of the "Chinese" mother model advocated by Amy Chua.

By contrast, the Athenian model of a greater focus on culture does create different results. Its citizens are more creative and "cultured", but there are tradeoffs.

Overall, I do believe that Americans (and Canadians) focus on self-esteem and self-actualization too much. For instance, Paul Kedrosky pointed to the documentary Two Million Minutes as why Americans are falling behind India and China.

I would add to my comments that parenting is about making choices for how you want to mold your child. During the 1980's, when Japan was ascendant, many analysts pointed to the rote learning and the discipline of the Japanese education system (which is similar in approach to the Chinese, Korean, etc.) What happened next?

That kind of education is really good at producing engineers - but not so good at spawning creativity. Consider how many Nobel Prizes have been won by Japanese scientists compared to westerners. (But then how many world leading pianists or Bill Gates does the world need?)

It's about skill optimization
For the record, I am the parent of a ten-year-old. She does have sleepovers and play dates. On the other hand, she plays the cello and the oboe, both of which aren't easy instruments. We optimize her activities to her strengths. She is a singer. She dance and acts, with the objective of the "triple threat" for musical theatre.

My approach is to encourage her to maximize her skill set while acquiring the right tools for her adult life, e.g. study skills. Performing arts isn't about making her a world famous child actor, but more about learning presentation and social skills - sort of a modern day finishing school.

Hopefully for my bank account, she won't be good enough for Juillard.

1 comment:

moremiles said...

I am sure you have seen the article in Saturday's Post?

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011

Read more: