5 Reasons Parenting Is One Place We Shouldn't Imitate China
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 ...
It Involves Being a Dick to Your Kids
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 ...
We Don't Have to Choose Between Zombies and Retards
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.
The Chinese Are Clinging to Ancient Tradition ...
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."
... and An Outdated Model
What about the crazy obsession with school? We Americans live in a country where people start multimillion dollar businesses in their garages, and others make a comfortable living drawing cartoons. Where does a crazy person get the idea that a failing grade on one lousy sixth grade test should be treated like it's life and death?
The thing is, once upon a time in China (starting about 500-600 AD), one failed test could ruin your life. Your whole life -- your career, your status, your marriage prospects, the way people looked at you -- it all depended completely on certain written examinations. All civil service positions were determined by these tests, and anybody who was anybody was in civil service.
And who wouldn't want to be, with those awesome hats.
This was actually quite a bit of progress at the time, since the previous system, like most medieval systems, was set up so you got a government job based on who your uncle knew. Becoming a government official based on how good you were at something (even if that something was often poetry) was actually fairly revolutionary at the time.
So while my mom was growing up in Taiwan, the system had evolved, of course, but the idea was still that a series of tests would determine your destiny. Taking tests to get into junior high, high school, and university were like three rounds of a single-elimination tournament. Lose the first round with a bad junior high test score and you were permanently out of the top university sweepstakes.
That's cool, kid, it means you have more time to prepare for your fast food career.
Test scores even figured into what your major would be. My mom was stuck with diplomacy, which she didn't even want, while some other kid who actually wanted to study diplomacy didn't have the test scores to get it.
Anyway, that's not true in the U.S., obviously. Students change majors and transfer schools left and right. High school entrance examinations are rare and only for schools where kids learn to wear cardigans tied over their shoulders. Surely anyone who's spent 10 years in this country would grasp that, right?
Well, China has been doing this "tests are everything" thing hardcore since at least 581 AD. You can't stop whistling a stupid credit report commercial jingle after listening to it for two days, so imagine how hard it is for a whole society of people to stop doing things they've been doing for 1500 years.
The amazing thing, though, is that they are.
"Tiger Mothers" Are So Yesterday
In China, the bestselling parenting books in the past have been what you would expect, with titles like Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, From Andover to Harvard and Yale Girl, all obviously about how to raise your child so that it gets into Harvard or Yale, which I guess is part of the invasion plan. (Spoiler: it's by making your small child hold an ice cube as long as they can to build stamina.)
"Harvard Girl Liu Yiting" - multidisciplinary genius, perhaps, graphic designer, no.
That's why it was such a surprise to see Yin Jianli's A Good Mom Is Better Than a Good Teacher take China's bestseller list by storm, where it's been hanging out at the top since 2009.
Okay, I guess the entire Chinese publishing industry needs to look into this graphic design thing.
Yin offers revolutionary and controversial new advice, like listening to your children, or not yelling at toddlers for painting rivers pink. Something is definitely changing in the culture when someone can say something as nutty as "Kids shouldn't be slaves of homework," and not get thrown in an asylum.
Yin isn't the only person saying it, either. One mom in China wrote an editorial saying that the abusive, one-dimensional "Chinese way" Chua described was so out of date that it was like Chinese parenting's version of parachute pants.
Or shoulder pads, if you like.
I'm not saying all Chinese parents have stopped telling kids that they bring shame to their family or making them hold ice cubes or whatever, but it's certainly not the Unquestioned Way To Raise Kids anymore.
Part of it is just people adapting and improving like people do, and part of it is big societal changes like the one-child policy, where the pressure of having four grandparents and two parents with a laser-beam focus on one child is causing some kids to snap, making parents rethink whether what they've been doing for thousands of years is still the right way to do things.
It often isn't.
Remember the scare stories I mentioned earlier, parents telling urban legends about the kid who got complimented so much he had to drop out of school? Well my mom told me a couple of "true" stories about Chinese-American kids, ones who were pushed hard to succeed by their immigrant parents, and were driven, yelled at, and denied affection until they "succeeded" by graduating from med school, which is of course the best thing a Chinese child can do. In the first story, the son accepted his diploma on graduation day and then handed it over to his mom and told her, "There. That's what you've wanted. I'm done." He found another career and never wanted anything to do with medicine, or his mom, again.
In the second story, shortly after graduating from med school, the son had a nervous breakdown and had to be committed.
I'm sure there's a version where the son found a hook hanging from the diploma too.
She swears these totally happened to a friend of a friend, and maybe they did, whatever. The point is that old Chinese moms are telling these stories to each other. Urban legends get retold because they play on our subconscious fears, and moms talking about horror stories that result from traditional Chinese parenting are moms that are afraid the old ways might be wrong.
The Chinese kids we should be afraid of are the ones whose parents are reading Yin Jianli's book. Seriously, kids with the balls-to-the-wall work ethic of Chinese tradition plus the confidence and security of being raised by parents who encourage them to paint rivers pink and be who they are? Now that's unstoppable.
Our future masters?
But I don't know, if China does manage to turn out a highly-educated generation of confident individuals who think for themselves, maybe it's not America that needs to be scared.
Side note: One thing all cultures can agree on is that cancer is bad, so I'll be participating in a 100 mile bike ride to raise money for leukemia research. Click here to find out more or donate.
Be sure to buy our New York Times bestselling new book because America is the greatest. And check out more from Christina in 5 Topics Guaranteed to Elicit (Condescending) Advice.