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. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
This, to a certain degree, was my mother's reasoning for pushing accounting on me during my first two years at Rutgers: that despite my vocal and emotional resistance to spending my four years of college studying something I had no passion for, eventually I would "learn to like it" (her words) if I kept at it.
Of course, why did my mother think the study of accounting was the best path for me in college? Chua suggests it in the last paragraph of this article:
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
One of the reasons my mother often cited as her justification for foisting accounting on me was that becoming an accountant right out of college would keep me financially secure, in contrast to all those others out there desperately living paycheck to paycheck—a state in which she dearly wished never to see me. In her highly practical mind, this was a "right" major, in contrast to "wrong" majors like, say, English.
In spite of my frustrations, I always tried to give her credit for good intentions. That, I think, is why I struggled for so long—to the point where I became an emotional wreck during the spring of my sophomore year and actually had to see a therapist for a bit—before deciding to pull the plug on my Rutgers Business School accounting studies just before my junior year began.
But you know what? All of that is in the past, and while it has taken years for me shake off all the resentment that built up from not only this accounting-major disagreement, but from plenty of smaller annoyances in my younger years (like not being allowed to watch any movies except during lengthy school breaks, and even then rarely in a movie theater), now that I live away from home and don't have to be reminded of all those resentments on a daily basis, I'm not inclined to dwell too much on all that anymore.
And then comes this rather gloating essay, which managed to bring back back some not-so-fond memories of the kind of "tough love" that I suffered through during my years at school—not to such an extreme as what Chua recounts about herself, but nevertheless, there are aspects of the parenting style she describes that I recognize in my own personal experience. The only thing this essay made me wonder, in the end, is what Chua's own kids really think of her strict parenting style: whether they are swimming in gratitude or secretly hating her guts.
Surprisingly enough, even my own mother found Chua's model to be, well, a bit much. When I forwarded this article to her, this is how she responded via email (I've made only minor edits to this, by the way):
Regarding that article, this is a very extreme case. I do not agree that some mothers have the right to deprive the kids completely of the intrinsic right to pursue happiness. There is no right or wrong; if the kids are happy and have no complaints being scheduled and manipulated as instrument machine, so be it. This is nobody's business. If the kids enjoy playing, enjoy the ensuing success, why not. The mother is the hard pusher. You know what they said, "Behind the success of a man, there is a successful woman (or women)." Some kids are pushable and can be helped. Most are not. If you try to push, you are looking for trouble. You are fighting against gravity. You have taught me a lesson. I have learned my lesson. I have also learned that the parents should inspire, not manipulate. You know and you witness too many pushy parents. There are pluses and minuses. How to balance is a real challenge to the parents. To be an excellent instrument player is not the only way to measure success. It also does not guarantee happiness. I start to realize the golden rule: to do what please you and be pleased what you are doing and have fun and happiness. Know who you are and maximize your potential. You will be a winner in life.
Mom, after all these years, I think I can honestly say that I agree with you 100%!
And yet...there may be more to Amy Chua's essay than meets the eye! It's apparently an excerpt from a new book of hers that will be published tomorrow. Go take a look at the front cover of the book, on its Amazon page. It says, "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old." Maybe this essay is not telling the whole story about Mrs. Chua's relationship with her children. In which case, then why publish that particular, and perhaps misleading, excerpt from it???