Amy Chua's article about "Chinese" parenting - aka immigrant parenting, aka Jewish parenting, aka none of that wishy-washy multiple-intelligences, I-just-want-you-to-be-happy nonsense - is the buzz of the day. (Miss Self-Important, among others, beat me to it. But I had to go out for a sugar brioche before finishing this post. I'm a fourth-generation American, I have my priorities.)
Mostly, the novelty of the piece is that we're accustomed to this cliché being torn apart - as MSI notes, we can anticipate a not-all-Chinese-are-the-same reaction. And here's a real Asian-American perpetuating the stereotype! To Chua's credit, she explains that by "Chinese" she means a certain parenting style by no means exclusive to Chinese or even Asian parents.
But even if we accept that there are different parenting styles in different cultures, there are a few confusing elements in the piece. One is that Chua speaks as though she raised her children the Chinese way, yet mentions a "Western" husband. Is part of Chinese parenting treating the non-Chinese parent like a child, thus ignoring his wishes in terms of how to raise the kids? Another, which Isabel Archer points out, is that "Chinese parents," according to Chua, do not permit their children to act in school plays. Why would this, of all endeavors, be deemed a waste of time? Jewish parents - or, really, "Jewish parents," - classically tell their kids not to be on sports teams. While this is counterproductive in a world of "holistic" college admissions, it's at least consistent with the notion of academic success before all else, whereas further exposure to literature and memorization couldn't hurt. I suspect, however, that the theater thing is particular to the author. Finally, there's this: "Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty—lose some weight.'" One might react to this in the Jezebel manner, in horror, but Chua's point is that Chinese parents don't care about self-esteem. Fair enough, but it's legitimate to ask why it matters if the A student - male or female - is overweight. The girl's not allowed to date anyway, and is not on her way to becoming an actress. Is it that heft is a sign of Westernness, of assimilation, of having cut class to go to McDonalds?
My authoritah here comes from a) my own upbringing, which had elements of "Western" and "Chinese" traditions, and b) my having gone to a high school - the high school - where the successful children of "Chinese parents" end up. On the one hand, the fact that there were (and are, but I was class of 2001 and speak anecdotally) so many Asian and Asian-American students at Stuyvesant in the first place meant the parents were doing something right. On the other, at a school so heavily Asian and Jewish, the B-and-below students were Asian and Jewish. The potheads, or the kids whose smoking may not have extended beyond tobacco but who at any rate cut class to hang around outside: also the offspring of "Chinese parents." The slackers, as well as the just mediocre, were the product of families that would, if Chua is to be believed, accept nothing less than an A. It could be that even the "worst" of these kids ended up better off than the average NYC students. But the article left the impression that your child, too, can be permanently obedient, permanently valedictorian. As MSI puts it, "The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?"
Point being, the "Chinese" method makes for a lot of good little 10-year-olds, but guarantees little once mainstream culture becomes readily accessible. Where Portnoy went nuts with the "shiksas," consider a "Chinese-parented" classmate of mine who apparently arrived at math camp only to discover that the dorm had a TV and to park herself in front of that long-forbidden fruit. This is, in other words, a parenting style that only works in a very particular situation. If everyone's "Chinese," someone has to be the B- student. Meanwhile, even if the obedient behavior sticks and the kid gets into a good college, a given family can only stay "Chinese" for so many generations.
Meanwhile, in the towns and villages of America and beyond, just as some kids randomly turn out to be gay, others randomly turn out to be incredible students. Not children of neglect, but not children raised to excel at all costs, whose success isn't tied to obedience. In cities and suburbs, well-connected parents manage to pass their careers down to the next generation, keeping out the "Chinese." Parents can only do so much.
This isn't to say they shouldn't try, and I do think that in America, too much emphasis is placed on the 'A' as the result of innate intelligence and thus not worth working for. Chua has a point here: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." Some children do want to work - remember Saffy and Edina? - but this strikes me as true as a rule.
My question, then, is about what results Chua promises, and to what end. Non-bratty children? That much seems doable. Children capable of supporting themselves as adults? B-students, too, manage just fine. Superstar geniuses? Unlikely. But is the point social mobility? Probably not, because unless they're actually struggling immigrants (less likely to read articles like this one), or single mothers prior to women entering the professions (not likely to exist in the US in 2011), the parents who'd parent in this way would have already reached professional heights themselves. So is it just about not letting one's own children regress to the mean? If so, I see how there'd be an audience, but it hardly seems a cause we as a society should support - why not let the mediocre children of the high-achieving fall behind and leave spots for the high-achieving children of the mediocre? The only way it kind of makes sense is from an international-competition angle. American parents, man up! Because "Western" is really "American" - Western Europeans are not, to my knowledge, exposed to the culture of holistic self-esteem.