Amy Chua and her controversial writings on Chinese mothers were the topic of conversations and email exchanges with more than a dozen friends and family members this week. If you managed to avoid the now-infamous Amy Chua on the Today Show, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and various other media outlets, here’s the skinny: A Yale law professor promotes her forthcoming parenting book by writing an outrageous essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” that attributes her overachieving children to denying them playdates, choosing their hobbies with an eye to college admissions and forcing them to study and practice musical instruments above any other interests (or even a bathroom break). Her message seems to be: call your children “lazy” and “garbage” and “fatty” and they will be motivated to become successful at school and life.
Naturally, this deliberately provocative stance caused outrage among readers, including me, and led to a slew of writings about the damage that impossible-to-please Asian mothers (and similar parents of other ethnicities) have caused to their children. It’s no accident that Asian-American women have high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, given the intense family pressure to succeed. So Amy Chua is backing away from the notion that she was promoting her extreme version of parenting as a model, and even denied the claims made on the first page of her book and essay. Apparently her two teen girls do have playdates and sleepovers, after all. (I find this about-face extremely disingenuous, but that's another blog post.)
All this led me to reflect on my own childhood, being raised by a Chinese mother and Western father who emphasized academic achievement but also let me know that they loved me unconditionally, no matter how I performed. I ended up earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, but then I departed from script. Instead of pursuing a PhD or law or medical degree, I chose a career in journalism and started supporting myself within three months of graduating from college. This life path befuddled my parents, and it took about a decade for them to stop asking when I was going back to school for an advanced degree. But I never once doubted their love and support for me, and I even enjoyed their shock at seeing me debt-free and self-sufficient at age 22.
To me, that’s the real flaw in Amy Chua’s method of parenting. When you define success for your children – in her case, perfect grades and mastery of a musical instrument – you deny them the opportunity to chart their own way in the world and astonish you. Set aside the likely psychological damage, the depression and anorexia and sexual acting out. Just look at what you’re taking away from your children: the chance to define success for themselves.
Yes, children need encouragement to develop good study habits, to stick with activities when they hit a plateau and to focus on the long-term payoff of their life choices, rather than the short-term cost. But when you impose your will unequivocally, you not only take away their individuality, you prevent them from developing their own decision-making ability and willpower. At some point they’ll be launched into the world, to sink or swim. My first year at Harvard, I saw too many 18-year olds go off the rails when confronted with true freedom, whether from drugs, alcohol, risky sex or depression at the first B grade of their lives. I’d rather see my children make small mistakes as they grow up – and learn from them. Not to mention that I can’t possibly know what academic subject or hobby will ignite their passion; how could I choose for them?
So as my young children enter the academic system and start having serious homework and musical and sport obligations, I will follow my own Chinese mother’s lead and articulate our family values of hard work, honesty and commitment. But I will also encourage them to discover their talents and interests beyond what I could imagine – by seeing what sparks their imagination and encouraging them to follow through. To me, the true definition of success isn’t whether my children follow in my Ivy League footsteps, it’s whether they become confident, independent adults who can form healthy relationships and pursue meaningful careers that challenge and fulfill them.
I’m not saying it’s always easy for me to stick to my guns. I’m as competitive as the next parent, and it’s easy for storylines like Amy Chua’s to trigger parental anxiety around achievement and traditional definitions of success. But I remind myself that life isn’t a choice between extreme discipline and coldness and permissive parenting. It's not a race in which the person who dies with the most money and prestige wins. And I turn my eyes back to the middle path, where I set high expectations and values and watch to see how my children will respond.