Amy Chua has been stirring up controversy and conversation with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In addition, she’s been making the rounds on various talk shows and recently landed the cover story of Time, “Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?” Chua writes writes about how she has raised her two daughters based on what she calls “Chinese” parenting, asserting that it is a far superior way of bringing up children to cuddly Western parenting. Expectedly, this is infuriating some, irritating many, and stirring up lively debates all around.
A bit of a shock jock, Chua admits that she has exaggerated anecdotes and taken some liberties with her tales. Regardless of how you may feel about Chua herself, you can’t help but admit that she brings up some excellent, albeit uncomfortable, points. As a the product of an immigrant Asian-American background (though of a working class, not white collar, background), I couldn’t help but nod approvingly and empathetically at some of the basic tenets of “Chinese” parenting. Many of these were realities of how I was raised and, if I do say so myself, I think I turned out well, and by my most standards, successful.
Now, obviously, I am not a parent, nor do I purport to know the first thing about parenting but the article made me consider the same tensions that exist between Western and Eastern education. Many of the differences stem from or are otherwise correlated with the tensions that exist between the two types of parenting. Chua gets under people’s skin because of the inherently uncomfortable inclination to think, “Well, if what the Chinese are doing is right, then what we’ve been doing is wrong.” And, hey, nobody likes to be wrong.
Here are two of the basic differences between “Western” and “Eastern” styles:
- Western education encourages inquiry whereas Eastern education insists upon rote learning
- Western parents and educators are concerned with self-esteem and kids’ feelings whereas Eastern parents are concerned with perfection
But what I propose, from my perspective at the hyphen of Asian-American, is that the two styles are not mutually exclusive. And the sooner we get over our fear that doing it the “other” way is admitting defeat, the better off we all will be. Let me break it down.
Western education encourages inquiry whereas Eastern education insists upon rote learning
Chua writes provoking passages about the hours she forces her kids to spend on memorizing music passages and going through spelling and multiplication drills. This is something that we are often concerned about in international schools, kids who get tutors or go off to Korean Academy and receive homework based on endless memorization. We criticize it fervently, pointing out that the learning isn’t worthwhile if the kids don’t “get” what it is that they’re actually memorizing. We scoff at textbooks and flashcards as relics of transmissive education, something we want to leave behind as quickly as possible. We encourage inquiry – true understanding, deep understanding, connected understanding.
But there is room for both! Sure, parents can go too far by pushing their kids to stay up until midnight and shoving vocabulary flashcards for SAT prep into the hands of year 7s, but we can go too far, too, by dismissing rote learning altogether. What we lose when we devalue rote learning completely is far worse than just students who aren’t very good at mental math (although that is a concern of its own). What we fail to impart to students when we don’t include rote learning is the importance of repetition in order to become proficient at something – anything.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes the “10,000 Hour Rule,” suggesting that in order to become professional at anything, you must practice that specific task for 10,000 hours. Daniel Willingham, a somewhat cocky but admittedly brilliant professor from UVA, also supports this notion from a cognitive neuroscience point of view, based on research using brain scans of participants executing a sequence of steps.
As educators, we need to have room for both deep understanding and repetitive learning. Yes, let’s continue to criticize and weed out the pointless repetition that has existed for far too long in institutionalized learning, but let’s throw out the pointlessness, not the repetition.
Western parents and educators are concerned with self-esteem and kids’ feelings whereas Eastern parents are concerned with perfection
Chua write a horrific anecdote about refusing a hand-drawn birthday card from her daughter because it wasn’t “good enough.” In my current school, we have concerns about our online reporting system because it feeds the grade obsession frenzy. Growing up, I was embarrassed to bring home anything below 90% and wrote depressed diary entries about how I was never good enough. To this day, I ache for my parents’ approval because I am “just a teacher.”
From these examples, it seems that the Western criticism that Eastern parents stomp on their children’s confidence in the search for perfection is well-deserved. Certainly, no child should be made to feel that (s)he is not good enough for her mom, dad, or teacher. Praising children is not just good for self-esteem, it’s good positive reinforcement.
But we have to be wary of is what it is that we are reinforcing, and how. While perfection shouldn’t be the end goal, when we praise or reward our children for something, we need to be very clear about what it is that we are reinforcing. Too often, empty praise or token approval is lavished upon our children for doing . . . well, not very much at all.
There are two dangers to over-praising and over-coddling our kids with approval. First, students never learn what it truly means to achieve something. Second, students never learn what it is to fail and with that, all the lessons learned from failure are lost.
At my previous school, every elementary student received an international achievement certificate once a year. Every student. Every year. What, exactly, was this certificate reinforcing? The answer is simply: nothing. In an effort to ensure that every student felt “special” and “appreciated,” we managed to do the exact opposite. The certificate no longer its purpose, and instead became a token symbol of how reluctant we are to make anyone feel unhappy, and as a result, make it impossible to make anyone actually feel worthy. Students, in fact, demanded the certificates, calculating when others had received them and concluding (quite accurately), “I haven’t gotten one yet, so I must be getting one next week.”
Once students start expecting awards and praise, they immediately lose their effectiveness. Worse, students fail to learn that things in life should be earned, that achievement comes with effort, not a guarantee. Each of us can likely visualize the person whose praise is most meaningful to us, precisely because it is so difficult to earn. Students need to understand, and relish, the feeling of what it’s like to be awarded when they have truly done something exceptional.
When we over-praise our children, not only do we risk false feelings of achievement, we neglect to teach the kids how to fail. Failure is the greatest teaching tool. With failure comes reflection, humility, and a way forward to real success. By setting our kids up for guaranteed success, we take away opportunities for them to learn by trial-and-error, and they never learn to fail gracefully. As a result, when encountered with their first failure far too late in life, they crumble and are unable to treat it as what failure is – an opportunity.
One of my favorite things that Chua writes is that ‘Chinese’ parents “assume strength, not fragility.” Yes, indeed! Once we make that assumption, our behaviors change and we approach teaching and parenting in a new way. Rather than protecting the kids, we instead empower them.
“Western” and “Eastern” parenting styles are really just different, but compatible, sets of practices. Let’s take the good from both.