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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Cross-Cultural Canticle from a Red, White, and Blue Mother

The title of this post is a riff off the title of an article written by a Chinese-American mother, professor of law at Yale and writer, Amy Chua called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." This article was published by the New York Times earlier this year and came under scathing attack almost immediately.

Why all the fuss?  Amy Chua tried to convey to an American audience her personal attitude toward educating her children which is firmly rooted in cultural beliefs that have come down to her through her own family who came from China.  Some of her comments and comparisons were offensive to her readers who were quick to comment and defend the American style of parenting and the school system.

It is very hard to have a cross-cultural conversation on any subject but when it comes to children we are very sensitive and quick to defend our culturally specific methods.  Raising children is something we all care deeply about and I think it provokes more arguments than any other cross-cultural topic.  Most of us are willing to adapt to another culture in some ways but we draw the line when it comes to our offspring.

Amy Chua has drawn such a line between her family and her interpretation of the values and beliefs of the larger culture.  Her article is both descriptive and defensive.

It is descriptive in the sense that she very clearly explains her methods:  no TV, no video games, no play dates and limited extra-curricular activities;  a constant striving to be the best through hard work and persistence combined with a refusal to allow a child to give up just because something is hard; and the use of shame to enforce compliance.

It is defensive in the sense that she felt compelled to explain all this to an audience of a few million people in an article in one of the most widely read newspapers in the United States.  She writes:
There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.
This is my way, she says, and it is not inferior to yours.  The broader goal is the same - how we get there can be different and she claims the right to difference when it comes to raising her children.

This might surprise you but I feel a certain kinship with Professor Chua.  I know what it is like to try to raise children a particular way according to a set of values that are not necessarily shared by the people around me.  This has meant that I needed to be very clear in my own mind about what is important to me:  English as an equal language in our household, the transmission of certain values that I received from my American family that that I deem Good (free speech, intellectual inquiry and debate, love of knowledge for its own sake) and a teaching method that relies more on encouragement and less on punishment as a motivator.  Over the years I have had the most difficulty with items one and three.

When my Frenchlings were young and their teachers learned that I spoke English with them  I was told that they would never succeed in the French school system if I didn't start speaking French exclusively at home.  I thought about it, realized that I had hit a hard limit, and decided that this was not in my children's best interests.  From that point on, I simply ignored them.

Amy Chua's description of working with her child on the piano really resonated with me.  I cannot count the number of times I enforced English at home and had to stand firm in the face of the Frenchling's tears.  They thought it was "hard" and I was being "mean."   I made them write "thank you" letters in English.  I refused to allow them to watch videos (no TV in our house but movies were allowed) in French if the original version was in English.   Harry Potter was not permitted in our home until they agreed to read it in English (though I think a French family member took pity on them and slipped them a copy.)  When they spoke to me in French I answered in English.  If they were asking for something, they didn't get it until the request was made in grammatically correct English. The only time I ever lapsed into French was to scold them which has given them a strong aversion to hearing their mother speak French since nothing good ever came of that.  Was this extreme?  Perhaps.  But it worked.  Today the Frenchlings take their English skills for granted and seem to have complete amnesia about my efforts and their resistance.

Just as difficult was the divergence of beliefs about teaching methods.  Here I had to make my peace with the French school system.  Shame and humiliation are regularly used in both the French school system and in the bosom of my French family as a way of motivating children to do better.  I was appalled when the younger Frenchling told me about a child in her elementary school class who failed an exam and had her copy publicly displayed and mocked by the teacher for the edification and general amusement of the rest of the class.  When the child cried and tried to quit the classroom the teacher said, "Go ahead and cry somewhere else.  This will give the rest of us a vacation."  Stories like this made me queasy and had the American friends and family up in arms.  I was under pressure to "do something" about it.  I didn't.  Why?

Some of it had to do with feeling that this was a battle I was not going to win as an immigrant parent and a recognition that it was not my place as a foreigner to try to change the entire public school system culture here to conform to my expectations.  So I tried to suspend my judgement about the methods and concentrated on the results and I liked what I saw.  I liked the academic rigor of the system, I liked the emphasis on hard work and earning a grade.  No favors, no pandering to self-esteem, and no distractions (no extra-curricular activities like after-school sports).   I also noticed that shaming methods may have bothered me but my Frenchlings seemed to take it in stride.   At home I tried to provide a counter-balance by being as encouraging as I could be (that self-esteem thing we Americans prize so much) while supporting the school, the teachers and my spouse's beliefs and practices.

In that spirit I deeply respect Amy Chua's perspective.  I can see a great deal of virtue in her approach though I do not entirely share her values.  It takes enormous courage to defend them in a public forum.  I certainly didn't have that kind of courage but then I am not a citizen of the country in which I live and I think that does make a world of difference.

My only remark is that the home is only one factor among many that form and shape our children.  Whether we like it or not the family is not a hermetically sealed bubble - the larger culture has an interest and a say in shaping its members and citizens.  We can fight it or we can find ways to work with it.

From her piece it seems that she chose the former strategy which I might consider entirely noble if I were not so aware that it can also be limiting and a bit parochial.  It simply ignores all the good things that can come from letting go, opening up to another culture, and allowing the unexpected merits to shine through.  She seems to see it as a battle against the wider culture while I prefer to have an ongoing conversation with it.

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