Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Amy Chua and Chinese-style parenting: a study in stakeholder prioritization (eventually)

I finally got around to reading the Amy Chua article on Chinese-style parenting that caused a big uproar a few months back (yeah, it's been busy, ok?).  I've also finished reading all the reaction pieces I had lined up to give me some perspective, including Amy Chua's response to readers.  Before I get to the meat of this post, I should note that it's hard for me to reconcile the text of Amy Chua's original article with the text of her responses.  Let me touch on that and some other quick commentary before I get into what I really want to discuss: stakeholder prioritization.  For brevity's sake, whenever I (like Chua) refer to Chinese parenting or western parenting, I'm referring to parenting styles, not necessarily cultures or ethnicities.

Firstly, Chua notes that she did not choose the article title (see note from someone who authored a heartbreaking response and emailed her here).  In fact, Chua is allegedly now telling people that the Wall Street Journal outright misrepresented her.  By accounts of people who have read the book, although the article is an excerpt from her book, the article is not a reflection of the book.  The book is apparently in fact quite funny and by Chua's own account, is a story of how she was forced to re-examine her assumptions about strict parenting, particularly when she reached a crisis point in her relationship with her daughters.  I haven't read the book myself, and this is only stuff I read on the Internet, so take those statements for what they are.  One would obviously have to read the book to come to a proper judgment regarding Ms. Chua's parenting ideologies.

Secondly, Chua has a younger sister with down syndrome, whom she allegedly loves.  From the Q&A posted on the WSJ blog:
Your method may work with children with a native high IQ—but demanding that kind of excellence from less intelligent children seems unfair and a fool’s errand. Demanding hard work and a great effort from children is the best middle ground we can reach philosophically, isn’t it? Your thoughts?

Jokes about A+s and gold medals aside (much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself), I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be—which is usually better than they think! It’s about believing in your child more than anyone else—even more than they believe in themselves. And this principle can be applied to any child, of any level of ability. My youngest sister, Cindy, has Down syndrome, and I remember my mother spending hours and hours with her, teaching her to tie her shoelaces on her own, drilling multiplication tables with Cindy, practicing piano every day with her. No one expected Cindy to get a PhD! But my mom wanted her to be the best she could be, within her limits. Today, my sister works at Wal-Mart, has a boyfriend and still plays piano—one of her favorite things is performing for her friends. She and my mom have a wonderful relationship, and we all love her for who she is.

I have the distinct impression that one would have to be a true monster to not be affected by a sibling with down syndrome.  While I don't have a sibling with down syndrome, all accounts I hear tell me that you can't help but learn to be more loving, caring, and forgiving when you have such a sibling.  Given what I've read thus far, I have trouble seeing Chua as such an insensitive monster.  Of course, that would not be the case if I had read only the initial piece and stopped there.  The initial article standing by itself is quite sensational and some may argue even reprehensible.  Given everything else that's been said, I think we should give her benefit of the doubt.

Thirdly, enough has been written about the advantages and disadvantages of such strict parenting styles.  I won't really try to dive into that here, as other people have done much better than I ever could.  This Quora thread has a great number of anecdotes and analysis written by Asian adults who were raised by such strict parenting.  The stories there range from the mundane to the tragic, but the overall analysis is quite intelligent.  The one theme that really hits home for me is best summarized by Yishan Wong, a guy whose thoughts I've come to greatly respect:
What I see among other Chinese children who I was raised alongside or who I see now in workplaces today is that this method of Chinese parenting is great at producing skilled and compliant knowledge workers, but it utterly fails to produce children who can achieve greatness, remake industries, or come up with disruptive innovation. All the Chinese-American people I know who now perform at the highest levels - both creatively and technically - either achieved this without being driven to it by their parents (ask Niniane Wang about her upbringing) or in rebellion against the paths their parents set out for them (see Tony Hsieh http://www.businessinsider.com/tony-hsieh-life-before-zappos-2010-10). The others - the skilled and compliant mediocre - make superb employees for the truly great, and if that is what their parents consider "successful," then that's exactly what they'll get.
That's great for those kids who manage to become high achievers (and it might be said being rebellious is maybe a natural requirement for many entrepreneurs who really need some gall to dare to change the world's status quo).  Vivek Wadhwa did some research and found the flip side of the coin for everyone else:
My research team at Duke looked in depth at the engineering education of China and India. We documented that these countries now graduate four to seven times as many engineers as does the U.S.The quality of these engineers, however, is so poor that most are not fit to work as engineers; their system of rote learning handicaps those who do get jobs, so it takes two to three years for them to achieve the same productivity as fresh American graduates.As a result, significant proportions of China's engineering graduates end up working on factory floors and Indian industry has to spend large sums of money retraining its employees. After four or five years in the workforce, Indians do become innovative and produce, overall, at the same quality as Americans, but they lose a valuable two to three years in their retraining.

On both counts, I can attest to these ideas as fact for many Asian young adults.  I know a Korean businessman in Canada.  The guy worked hard to try to recruit me for some projects; he had a fair amount of success in Korea and had moved countries.  I ended up going my own path and don't know what would have happened if I ever had really joined up with him.  But he really needed some people on the ground, so to speak, preferably Korean speakers so that communication with the motherland would be easy.  I distinctly remember several conversations where he asked me to recommend some recent Korean graduates who were seeking jobs, given that I didn`t seem enthusiastic about joining up.  I frankly told him that I couldn't recommend anyone.  I would not consider a single one of the Korean classmates I had back in university as a top tier employee candidate.  For the most part, my Korean classmates could not innovate, think critically and logically, or communicate well.  Language was no doubt a significant hurdle, but I anecdotally found that it was not a core limiting factor; perhaps culture was more an obstacle (for a good summary of what I'm talking about, read the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers about Korean airlines).  It was only after months of searching and some poor hires that he came to agree with me.

My conjecture is that if you so restrict your kids at a young age as to what they can do and what they cannot do, they do not learn how to think differently.  And thinking differently is the one thing that is sorely lacking in today's workplace, as organizations try to figure out how to be more innovative to solve difficult problems.  There is a generation of children being raised that are ill-suited to fulfill the demands of the workplace.  Parental guidance is obviously important and necessary.  Hey kid, this is why drugs are bad and why you shouldn't hang around gangsters or talk with suspicious strangers.  But not allowing kids to be in plays?  Not allowing them to play instruments other than violin or piano?  Not allowing them to attend sleepovers?  Not allowing them to choose their own extra-curricular activities?  Not allowing them to play computer games?  How are we supposed to find the next great talents?  How are kids supposed to bond and develop deep quality friendships that will help them through troubled times?  How are they supposed to learn to interact with people, period (which is perhaps the most important skill necessary for managing people, if those parents ever wish for their kids to get promotions)?  How are kids supposed to develop independent and creative thinking that enable them to become leaders?  This is a difficult topic, and here in China, many are realizing the limits of an education system built on similar philosophies.  Strict rote learning is great for some things, but needs to be balanced with other methods of education.  We'll see what the future holds.  This particular topic obviously much broader than pure parenting.

Fourthly, Chua's daughters certainly seem like superstars for their age.  But if Chua's daughters look like superstars, this mother's daughters look all-universe.  AnnMaria De Mars raises an excellent point that Chua's daughters are still in high school, and it's therefore premature to determine the quality of Chua's parenting.  The real test for the quality of parenting comes when the kids venture out into the real world; her comments are wise.  Look at professional sports for an analogy.  If we could 100% judge an athlete's future performance and past coaching based on their past performance and potential as a young prospect, professional drafts would be a slam dunk.  But in every sport, there are many #1 draft picks who never live up to their potential and instead crash and burn.  Likewise, there are many stories of kids who were never drafted, never heralded as the second coming as Wayne Gretzky, and yet turn out to be quite amazing.  It's the same in life.  You have people going from rags to riches, tragedy to triumph, and then you have geniuses who never seem to make it.

And finally, I'm curious about the feasibility of this style of parenting across family demographics.  God help the poor mother who wishes to implement this parenting model for her kids, but can't afford the piano because they're dirt poor.  Chua and her husband are both Yale Law professors; their family is quite well off and the parents are obviously quite intelligent.  Methinks that's maybe an advantage that her daughters have that other kids don't have, an advantage that increases the probability of successful kids, no matter what style of parenting is implemented.

OK, now that we've gotten all that out of my head and onto the screen, what do I really want to discuss here?  I want to discuss stakeholder prioritization.  Here's an excerpt from the original article that struck me as being core to the whole debate and actually ignored by most folks:
Second, Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children. (And it's true that Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.) Anyway, the understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
By contrast, I don't think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. "Children don't choose their parents," he once said to me. "They don't even choose to be born. It's parents who foist life on their kids, so it's the parents' responsibility to provide for them. Kids don't owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids." This strikes me as a terrible deal for the Western parent.
I had a whole bunch of Chinese friends in Vancouver who got married recently.  One common theme I heard among them was how difficult it was to please the parents, and the shenanigans that parents went through to get things done their way.  It all sounded very odd to me, until one of my friends vented his frustrations this way: "We went into a restaurant and she and I thought it was great, but my dad said no because the menu wasn't expensive enough.  We told him that we wanted to keep the budget to a manageable level, but he said that he'd give us money, so what's the problem then?  He always thinks everything can be solved with money.  Well, whatever.  I get it.  It's his special day to show off to everyone, so we'll just deal with it."

That made me blink hard.  It was the dad's special day?  Not the couple's special day?  Not the bride's special day?  Huh?

If I look at most dysfunctional Asian parent-kid relationships I've ever seen, that sentiment probably summarizes it.  Asian parents raise kids to make themselves happy, not to make the kids happy.  Don't get me wrong, they usually love the kids to death.  But there seems to be some sort of subconscious element that says, "I'm the parent, therefore I'm the primary stakeholder here, not you."  Now my parents would vehemently deny this, but I still can't help but feel it's true.  It's a very complicated and emotional topic, and my thoughts on the matter over the years have evolved frequently.  My current thoughts today?  I have no doubt that while my parents love me wholeheartedly and would sacrifice anything for me, they expect the same in return because we're family.  That would be the crux of it right there.  Yes, they're selfish and would want me to sacrifice everything for them, but they only think that because it's automatic for them to be completely selfless and be willing to sacrifice everything for me.  It's a familial obligation that's as natural a law as thermodynamics, and its based on unconditional absolute love.

The unfortunate part is that if I'm correct in this thinking, Asian parents do an absolutely horrible job of getting their kids to understand this.  They think it's automatic and common sense, but my own experience and the anecdotal evidence I see around me tells me otherwise.  In fact, for the longest time, I absolutely resented my own mother's statements about money.

Mom:  "Your money is my money, we're family."
Me:  "No, it's my money.  I worked for it, I paid taxes for it, I decide what to do with it."
Mom:  "That's not the right way to think about it.  We're family."
Me:  "Yes, we're family, and if you need money and I'm able to provide, I'll provide it because I love you and we're family.  But that does not mean that it's your money.  It's my money and I decide what to do with it."

For the longest time, I was convinced that my mother was a selfish, greedy, money-hoarding grinch.  It was quite shocking and disheartening for her to hear that, because none of those things ever crossed her mind.  Believe it or not.  I've come to believe it.  I've brought her to tears over this matter, because for some reason, she was getting the impression that I don't love her the way she expected.  It was never about the money.  It was about the love.  It's weird and complicated, but somehow we were having two completely disparate conversations: I was talking about financial management, she was talking about family care, and we somehow came to totally misunderstand each other.  Gee, sorry for making you cry, Mom.  She wonders if it's because her family never really had any money when she was a kid, so they had to work really hard and save everything possible; everyone was in it together.  That's the way she was raised and how they showed each other they cared, so that's the way she tried to raise her kids.  Ignorant me took offense to the taxation without representation.  I think we understand each other a bit better now, though we may still have some differences here and there.

On the other hand, in so-called western style parenting, it's allegedly mostly about the kids.  Hey kid, you go find what you're good at, I'll support you all the way, rah rah rah.  Oh, didn't do so good on that test?  Don't worry, let's figure out what we can do about that.  Remember to try your best.  Hey kid, I'll always be here to protect you, but one day you're going to have to make out there on your own.  Here's what I think needs to happen, go figure it out.  I'll be right here if you need me.  Hey, want to go to that camp thingy?  Go have fun, time of your life!  You'll learn lots too!  Hey, it's finished already, huh?  Tell me all about it!  Wow, you did what???  That's awesome!  Cool, what do you want to do next?  OK, but you know you need to finish your homework and eat your vegetables first, right?  It's good for you!  Etcetera.

There's a much more explicit expectation in western parenting that it's about the kids: kids are being prepared to face the world from the get go, and they can and should go chase their dreams.  This obviously isn't true everywhere.  I'm sure the movie Dead Poets Society reflects a lot more western parents than western advocates would care to admit.  As my father noted, there are plenty of western-style parents who are trying to live vicariously through their kids and push them to do things the kids may not like.  His specific example had to do with parents who emphasize sports with the dream that their kids can grow up to become professional athletes.  Honestly wouldn't know which kids are pushed harder: Amy Chua's musician virtuosos or some tyke who has to wake up at 5am every morning for hockey practice and get yelled at by Dad when he doesn't score goals. 

So then let's be honest.  Like most things compared and contrasted, you'll see horrific parenting in both styles.  But whichever way you go, you probably need both a bit of good cop and bad cop to get results.  But bad cops are only able to maintain good relationships in the long run if the underlings are able to maintain respect for the bad cop.  Does the bad cop know what he's talking about?  Is the bad cop right?  Has the bad cop explained what needs to happen to get better, or is he just full of crap and on a power trip?  Perhaps that's what was missing in the furor about Chua's post.  Let a lazy parent with anger management problems and low intelligence implement Chinese parenting, and you probably get really messed up kids.  Let a calm, loving, and patient parent implement Chinese parenting, and you probably get some pretty good kids who will have a fair degree of success.  Likewise for western parenting, though the exact nature of the kids would probably be a tad different.  Maybe Chinese-style raised kids would be more disciplined and hardworking, but less socially competent and creative.  Advantages and disadvantages abound.  Etcetera.

I honestly see that the key factor in parenting is whether the parents are of high quality and are able to demonstrate and communicate love to their kids, not the methodology that they implement.  While I have a lot of complaints about how my parents raised me, I can't argue with the results.  I'm no Bill Gates, but I'm still alive and doing OK.  It's just unfortunate that maybe more parents than not end up giving their kids the impression that it's all about what the parents want, forget about what the kid wants.  For a lot of parents, that's no doubt exactly what's going on.  The parents couldn't care less about the kids, it's about what the parents want.  In that situation, I'm not sure what can be done to improve the situation.  I'd guess that it falls on the parents to realize what's up and how they're actually hurting their kids, but what needs to happen for them to realize it?  For many other parents who aren't like that, but simply fail to communicate their true love and intentions, I hope that they and their kids can figure it out sooner or later.  I think it took me and my parents some 20-odd years to come to a good understanding.

I'm not sure which kind of parent Chua is, but I hope for the sake of her daughters that people are misunderstanding her article, and that she truly does only drive them hard, not emotionally abuse them.  I also hope that this blog post helps any younger (or even older) folks reading to try to re-examine and improve any difficult relationships they might be having with their parents.  You shouldn't have to struggle as long as I did to get it to work out.

Hey Mom, Dad, I love you.  Yeah, you too, little brother.  Hope you're taking good care of them.  :)  Mom, Dad, hope you're loving him in a way he can understand also.  :)

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