Saturday, January 15, 2011

Amy Chua Amy Chua Amy Chua UPDATED

The NYT is on the case. Judith Warner, Room for Debate, Motherlode, Fashion & Style. This woman, who will teach you how to raise show poodles, is everywhere. This is her moment! How kind of her to agree, "between what she called a '24/7' effort to 'clarify some misunderstandings,'" to give a phone interview to the Times. As though that wasn't a key part of said effort. Anyway.

I have not, I confess, combed through all of this. Doing so - comments included! - will be my reward for getting through a substantial to-do list after arriving in Paris. But I did appreciate this, from Warner: "simply by marrying a Jew, and not a Chinese man, she [Amy Chua, remember her?] worries that she is 'letting down 4,000 years of civilization.'"

Given how much emphasis many American Jews place on intermarriage as a Jewish issue, as though Jews are the only ones whose culture is worth honoring, and as though any non-Jewish partner is by definition a hearty Protestant Nebraskan or a New England WASP, or at any rate, an unhyphenated American, because really, isn't the world divided between Jews and the whites who inspire Ralph Lauren?, it's amusing to be presented with the other side of a scenario that we all know exists: minority-minority intermarriage.


How is an American Jewish mother that much more "Western" than an Asian-American one? I had more thoughts on this before a heck of a trip, and so will maybe muse on this later, but didn't intend to take the post down, just to update.


Daniel Goldberg said...

S'weird, as a Jewish man married to an East Asian woman -- and one who likes some of Amy Chua's academic work, to boot -- I suppose I should have some strong opinions on this whole thing.

But I really don't. I mean, parenting is such a goddamn crap shoot, anyway, IMO. Who am I to comment on Chua's parenting style? Maybe her kids will grow up to hate her, and maybe they won't. There's not much reason to think it's any more likely that a more lenient parent would either have a better chance of having a great relationship with their kids, nor that the kids will grow up to be virtuous people.

I tend to think we overestimate the specific effects parents have on how their children turn out. This is not to say parents are unimportant, far from it; I work, in part, on the close connections between early childhood development and long-term health outcomes (and the ethical implications). But that has to do with creating the basic conditions in which health sufficiency exists, not with ensuring that lil Jimmy grows up to be a decent human being. Violence, of the kind no reasonable person would dispute as violence, is definitively not good for both health and the cultivation of virtue, but otherwise, I think those who are sure they can delineate good from crappy parenting are guilty of hubris.

This is a long-winded way of saying I just don't find myself particularly exercised about this whole thing. I don't really understand why Chua wrote it all down, though, because the parenting cults were sure to go bananas, as they have. Maybe she wanted that?

Phoebe said...

"Who am I to comment on Chua's parenting style?"

You're no less qualified than the next person - she appears to be inviting comments on her parenting style.

"There's not much reason to think it's any more likely that a more lenient parent would either have a better chance of having a great relationship with their kids, nor that the kids will grow up to be virtuous people."

Going by the WSJ excerpt, she wants her kids to be A-student classical musicians. Warm relationships, kindness, these seemed to be irrelevant.

"Maybe she wanted that?"

Yup! The point of this, my second post on the mini-phenomenon.

PG said...

"I don't really understand why Chua wrote it all down, though, because the parenting cults were sure to go bananas, as they have."

She wrote a memoir about parenting in a slightly more extreme version of the way that a lot of the kids of immigrants were raised. I don't see why it's any more bizarre than other memoirs people write about family. I have read (and could write my own) memoirs about Crazy Asian Mom; why not get the story from the CAM's perspective? I'd consider buying her book for my mom's enjoyment, except I don't want my mom to know there's possibly someone crazier than herself (seriously, why violin/piano only? why not the cello? it worked for Yo Yo Ma).

Daniel Goldberg said...

Yes, I am no less qualified than the next person. Which is, to say, not very qualified.

I doubt very seriously warm relationships and kindness with her children were irrelevant to her.

Fair enough, PG.

Phoebe said...


This article has been a PR boon for Yo Yo Ma - he's mentioned as a counterargument in so many responses to it!

I think you're right that part (most?) of the value of the book is, here's this Other, who's now getting to speak up for herself. There's been at least one "shiksa" book, presumably along the same lines, as well as various "JAP" entries. It's not exactly questioning the cliché itself, but it may (although I doubt so in this case) have a humanizing effect.

Britta said...

A few thoughts.
First, this is going back to the post you linked to, is a Norwegian-Jewish intermarriage really considered an double ethnic minority relationship in the way a Chinese-Jewish relationship is? (My experience is that Norwegians are ethnically marked, although I'm not sure how our ethnic markedness compares to groups which are also racially marked.) I would have thought that the whole European Christian thing (well, thinly Christianized paganism in the case of Norway) would be off putting to Jewish families.

Secondly, in case you were interested, in China her book has been translated into what is roughly, "An American Mother." Then there is a blurb on the cover which is: "Chinese style parenting, American style success." I read an interview with the translator, who noted that: Amy Chua is actually very charming in real life; she is not really that Chinese, since neither she nor her parents were from China (her parents were from the Philippines, although of course she is ethnically Chinese); her parenting methods are unusual pretty much anywhere, but there are aspects that would be useful to incorporate into your own parenting, mainly the ones MSI and PG pointed out.

Finally, reading another parenting blog about picky eaters really made me realize that my parents (and much more so my grandparents) probably fall more on the Amy Chua parenting style in certain ways than the straw man American parenting style. Here mothers talked about feeding their children only chicken nuggets, even though they were vegetarians, cooking a separate meal for their child, etc., basically, bending over backwards to accomodate their child's eating habits. In my own family, eating options included: eat what was put before you with no complaints, never leave the table, or starve. As a young child, for pretty much any behavior my parents cared about, there was no option to not do exactly what my parents wanted, and my grandparents were far more like that.

I know I was initially very disdainful of her, and there are still things I don't agree with her about (perhaps her ends even more so than her means), but I do think that strictness has a place in parenting. I do also agree that self-esteem is not an unmitigated good, and that it is not a trait middle class children are lacking in, so maybe a little less self esteem building and a little more criticism would be good for children. And thinking more about it, I do agree with her that criticism with the underlying message that you think someone expects more from you is better than lavish praise with the sense that your children are not that great. I think that, in my earlier criticisms, I focused so much on how my upbringing differed from her children's that I didn't consider to what extent common traits might have spurred success.

Ultimately though, I'm also not certain if the psychological scars are worth the extra success. Is being tortured and neurotic and self-critical worth being very successful in what you do? Or is happiness/acceptance of life the ultimately a better end?

rshams said...

"How is an American Jewish mother that much more "Western" than an Asian-American one?"

It probably depends on the American Jewish mother - how long her family has been in the U.S., her religiosity, her approach to parenting and how her Jewish identity factors into that, etc. From the excerpt of Chua's book that was featured in the WSJ, it seems that she is defining "Western" not as being of any particular race or ethnicity, but rather as having a set of values and approaches to parenting. Thus, Chinese, Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, and WASP mothers who share her parenting approach aren't Western, but their counterparts who are less rigid are Western.

Presumably, Chua (in reality, not the exaggerated version of herself she's presenting in order to sell more books) would believe striving immigrant Jews of the past (and present) who place lots of value on education, pressure their children to be doctors/lawyers/etc., have standard notions of "success" as being of the "Chinese mother" mold. Those Jewish mothers who believe that there are multiple roads to success and read "The Blessings of a Skinned Knee" and "The Blessings of B-Minus" would fall into the "Western" mold by Chua's standards.

Phoebe said...


Norwegian-American is white. Norwegian - and I believe Tavi's mother is from Norway - is Other. Any non-English-speaking European, however pale, however Catholic or Protestant, is still an Other in America at least as much as the average native-born Jew. I mean, my boyfriend's from a white, Christian European country, and I wouldn't say he gets the real-American treatment any more than I do. I suppose it is from personal experience that I don't see how anyone Jewish could see Flemish culture as part of the mainstream into which American Jews are in danger of disappearing, except insofar as any minority-minority couple's children are more "American" than either minority parent.

The point about the Chinese title is fascinating - someone brought it up also on "Prettier than Napoleon." My first thought was how "French" manicures are called "American" in France - it's all about grass being greener.

As for strictness... I think the issue with Chua is less the severity - which is valuable even insofar as it makes children appreciate adulthood, a time when you choose your own meals, but which shouldn't extend to tyrant-like behavior for its own sake - as the end goal, which is to an extent just an upper-middle-class version of "Toddlers in Tiaras." Thus my reference to show poodles. Not a perfect analogy, because sometimes a lifetime of As leads to medical innovation and such. And academic achievement for its own sake, because "Yale" looks good on a bumper sticker, is arguably less damaging to the kids forced to do their homework than it is to dress up babies like hookers. But there's a certain overlap.


The problem with not finishing the update I intended is... I never finished my thought. Can't fault you or anyone else for not anticipating what that thought was! What I found baffling was that the type of parent Waldman presents herself as, while it is indeed "western" by Chua's definition, is a specifically Jewish-American parenting model. Not that of all American Jews, but a model coming out of our community. At least as "Jewish" as Chua's is "Chinese." Touchy-feely, therapy-speak, neurotic self-analysis, but underneath it all - not even that deeply hidden - there's this passion for mainstream intellectual success. It's not that this isn't different from the "Chinese" model, or more Americanized than it, but it just seems imprecise, like not the best word choice, to phrase the difference between what somewhat more assimilated American Jews do from what somewhat less Chinese-Americans do in terms of East and West.

rshams said...

I agree with you - the wording is imprecise, as many of those from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds who found similarities in their own upbringing to Chua's daughters can attest to. I haven't read the entirety of Chua's book, so I can't really speak of her "real" beliefs, but from what I have read, it seems that the parenting model that she disdains as "Western" is a situation that has come about from specific conditions of economic affluence.

If the parent adhering to such an approach happens to be Jewish (or Chinese, or WASP, or black), so be it - her "weaknesses" are the result of a "lax and decadent" attitude that arises out of "Western" comforts more than anything else.

On the other hand, since her husband is Jewish, she might have been in a position to know that some of that touchy-feely, overanalytical, "express yourself" approach to parenting has a strong Jewish component.

On yet another hand, one could argue that this particular Jewish brand of parenting - Waldman's version - is also the result of postwar affluence enjoyed by much of the American Jewish community, a microcosm of the overall "Western" approach taken by American baby-boomers onward.

Britta said...

I know this is tangential to Amy Chua, but I'm interesting in your point re. Norwegian/Jewish marriages. It would seem then that the fear is less one of marrying out rather than marrying into American culture? (Or general assimilation of all minorities into American culture?) I agree that the odds of this are laughably minute, but I can't imagine that Jewish culture being assimilated into Norwegian culture any less undesirable than being assimilated into American culture. I guess I also find it interesting that a Northern European Christian culture that is more anti-Semitic than American culture is less threatening than whitebread American culture (as opposed to China, where people are neither traditionally Christian nor have a history of anti-Semitism). Also, with Jews and Chinese people, there is a shared history of oppression in the US, whereas that is not true of Norwegians. I do agree that Europeans are Other in the US, but I'm not sure that translates negatively to most Americans, or at least, it depends on where in Europe. Maybe being French wouldn't go over so well in middle America?

Phoebe said...


It's not that Waldman isn't - even special Chua definition aside - a more "Western" parent than Chua. It's that the difference is generational, Asians-are-the-new-Jews and all that. Yes, it's about comfort, affluence, etc. But it's just funny to have the representative of "Western" parenting be an urban Jewish mother - a generation or so removed from Chua-style parenting - rather than, I don't know, someone from a group not known for being especially academically driven, that is, from any group other than Asians or Jews.


"It would seem then that the fear is less one of marrying out rather than marrying into American culture?"

Basically, as far as Jews worked up about intermarriage are concerned, there are two threats. One is the eventual disappearance of Jews as a people, in which case no, it doesn't matter who the other person is. The other is a concern about Jewish self-hatred, Jews feeling like outsiders in America, the Jewish fantasy of becoming more American than the WASPs (Ralph Lifshitz -> Lauren), etc. Portnoy's Complaint is not a novel about a Jewish man's desire to propagate generations of 1/4 then 1/16 Jews, but rather about a desire to "penetrate" America via its native-born blondes.

I could go on about this, oh, forever. But just a few one thought. Jews tend to be liberals, if not always politically, at least in the sense of being uncomfortable with vocalized racism and xenophobia, given how easily it can be redirected. So part of why Jews who oppose intermarriage might be more lenient when the other partner is of color or even a European with a funny accent comes from that. But I think there's more to it.

Britta said...

That is very interesting. I just think it's funny that Norwegian blondes are a yes, but American blondes are a no (where would German blondes fit into that picture? I'd imagine they'd be more on the no side, even though they are also European others in the US).

On the parenting, I think that there are two pieces here, one is the academic success, another is the coddling. As you pointed out, there is also a style of over-analytical, express your feelings type parenting that also promotes academic success, and in some ways Amy Chua is reacting to the first part but not the second part.
I would say "ideal typical" American parenting is seen as being too coddling in terms of being both too overprotective (especially by Europeans) and not academically oriented enough (especially by East Asians). In some ways, Waldman's parenting conforms to the first part, but perhaps not the second part.

In terms of affluence, I agree that material affluence probably softens people and their parenting methods to some extent (as it probably should, I don't see any reason to purposefully avoid convenience for its own sake), but I also think there is a cultural aspect as well. In my experience, Northern Europeans also complain about the "Disnification" of life by Americans, and the general desire to not expose children to anything that is remotely dark or unpleasant in life, including in terms of experience. In some ways, this is similar to Amy Chua's complaint about coddling children, although is also very different (as in some ways she shelters her children even more than American parents do).