If you see a parent at the mall calling their toddler an asshole and breaking his toys, you can thank China.
If you believe the news, China is already like a step or two from world domination and is only getting stronger, thanks to an educational and economic system that apparently makes ours look like turds. Or as the New York Times put it: "... the long-run competitive challenge we Americans face from China will have less to do with its skylines, army or industry than with its Super Kids."
Yes, "Super Kids." China is breeding a nation of math and science whizzes that know no pity nor love, and they will dominate the future. This has led to a new parenting fad in the U.S. that involves treating your children the way the Chinese supposedly treat theirs: by relentlessly pushing for greater and greater success, and brutally punishing anything less.
We might be jumping the gun here, considering ...
An author named Amy Chua, an American-born Chinese mom, has ignited a media firestorm with her guide on mothering the Chinese way (her book was titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, probably after her publishers told her Enter The Dragon Lady was a bit over the top). The method Chua trumpets with such relish involves a number of basic tenets (and I should point out here that with my background, I've lived through some of this from the kid end):
* Extreme negative reinforcement.
Chua allegedly threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals if she didn't practice. She called her daughter "garbage", which in my experience is fairly tame. Sometimes hitting is involved. This doesn't do any wonders for your mental health but it does teach you that piano or math or whatever is fucking serious business.
How could it not be?
* No positive reinforcement.
There's a couple of reasons for this, but the basic idea is that you get yelled at for bringing home an A, A-, B+, and whatever grades come after that (I wasn't allowed to get them), but if you bring home an A+, your reward is basically no yelling. No "Good job," or even "That'll do, pig."
* Ridiculous hours of study/practice.
I've tutored fifth graders whose parents had them enrolled in classes from the moment they woke up until tuck-in time, because American school days are clearly too short and intended for lazy people. That's Chinese immigrants carrying on the same learning model as in China, where kids spend an average of 8.6 hours a day in school and only 4 in 10 have friends to play with. Yes, the crazed "isolated loner" kid in the USA would be commonplace there.
It seems like the basic mistake is the assumption that this is the only way to get achievement out of your kids. If I can again use myself as an example, I stereotypically learned algebra on the side in 4th grade, and I liked it (I was pretty crap at it, but I liked it). And I did it, not because of a string of screamed Chinese insults, but rather because my dad, the "cool," non-yelling parent, taught me. I was proud that he thought I was smart enough to learn algebra so young, even though I couldn't even pronounce it right ("a-LEG-bra." Come on, I was 9).
Not only did he avoid the mistake of browbeating me into it until I hated it, but also the other mistake of thinking, "We shouldn't ask too much of her." Dad treated me like I was great, and also like I could do better, and the result was a kid that liked algebra.
Also known as a nerd.
In other words ...
A lot of people are framing the debate in a completely wrong way, asking the question, "Should we be accepting of our kids the way they are, or should we push them hard to succeed?" If we push them hard, the reasoning goes, they'll succeed academically, but become psychologically scarred zombies. If we accept and nurture them, they'll be happy, but stupid (compared to the Chinese anyway).
But isn't it obvious that giving your child approval and encouraging your child to improve are two separate things? One doesn't have to come at the expense of the other, any more than you have to choose between diet or exercise when losing weight. You could (and probably should) do both, or could be a lazy ass and do neither.
Nobody has the advantage here.
In the same way, you don't need to choose between telling your kid they're the most awesome kid in the world and encouraging them daily to get better. It's not that you don't think they're good enough already, but that you know they could be 10 times more awesome, and you don't want them to miss out on that. Setting the bar higher doesn't have to go hand-in-hand with screaming at them about where they're at now. It's not a war between "You're special the way you are," and "We need to get your ass in gear before we disown you."
Both Chinese parents and American parents have strengths and weaknesses, but you don't fix your weaknesses by picking up somebody else's not-even-related weaknesses. I can't cure my cancer by picking up somebody else's malaria. You can't fix your neglect of your children by throwing down ultimatums and calling them garbage. Those are two different problems, not two ends of a scale.
In China, being an asshole to your child comes from the concept that the worst thing that you can do is give your kid a big head, because he's going to get his bubble burst. It's not just fear of looking prideful, which is a big no-no in Chinese culture, and protecting your kid from disappointment, but also fear of complacency. This goes as far back as Confucius. 2,500 years, in other words.
So for 25 centuries the thinking has been, if you tell your kid he's good at math, he won't try to get better at math, because what's the point? You already told him he was good at it. He's clearly done! I've mentioned above why this is wrong, but as an additional example, have you ever known a kid to stop making new drawings after you've told them their first crappy drawing was great?
It never ends.
As kids, we want to do the things we're good at. Tell us we're good at art, and we'll make art. And thus we'll get practice at making art.
Chinese parents don't start out wanting to pop their kids' bubbles. They're human parents. They have instinctive urges to tell their kid they are the best kids ever, and that their stupid painting is a work of art, before they catch themselves realizing what a disastrous thing they almost said. The very thing that everyone around them tells them will ruin their child! Shit!
Praising kids excessively is like the bogeyman of the Chinese parent world. Pretty much nobody does it, so no one's ever seen what would actually happen, and all you get are scare stories about what will happen if you try, like, "I heard Mrs. Li's sister praised her kid too much one day and he dropped out of Harvard to become a hobo."
Chinese parents do love their kids, obviously, but have been told for centuries that they shouldn't use empty words to tell their kids so, and should instead put their money where their mouth is, literally. A traditional Chinese dad shows he loves his child by making a lot of money to support the kid, so an American-born child can be confused and hurt when her dad never says "I love you," or "Good job," and her Chinese-born father will be confused why his kid isn't touched when he volunteers for overtime. Moms also will show their love through their salary these days, as well as the traditional favorite, food.
"Try harder next time. Now eat these meatballs."