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‘Tiger mothers’ overemphasize excellence rather than personal enjoyment when defining success

By George Wang, Columnist on January 24, 2011

When referring to the stereotypical Asian person, what usually comes to mind is someone smart — especially in mathematics — who probably plays the piano or violin. Yale Law Prof. Amy Chua encourages these stereotypes in her article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” excerpted from her new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”. In the article, Chua argues for a strict and demanding parenting methodology. Her work has generated a firestorm online, drawing thousands of comments and dozens of articles in response. Though a product of Chinese parenting, I have reservations about her endorsed method. It is not so much that Chua’s style is wrong, but rather the kind of success she envisions is.

Many argue that the biggest problem with this approach is that it discourages creativity. Some online users of The Wall Street Journal’s Chinese website argued that Chua’s preferred method of child-rearing maintains a “feudal-slave culture” in China and that “Chinese parents adopt slave society attitudes.”

David Brooks presents another, more interesting criticism in a New York Times op-ed titled, “Amy Chua Is a Wimp.” “Practicing a piece of music … is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls,“ Brooks writes. “Social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.” Although I have not had comparable sleepover experiences, I agree with Brooks. In a more apt example for young males, figuring out how to ask that one special girl to prom was much more challenging and stressful than any calculus test.

City University of New York Prof. Yan Sun concurs. “Chinese parents everywhere are changing,” Sun wrote. “My family is a case in point. We find a combination of demanding and encouraging styles the ideal model.” That is how I was raised, too. My parents are more relaxed than most Chinese parents. For example, they indulged me in video games, let me participate in drama class, allowed me to practice sketching, and were even supportive when I played Weiqi. My parents also did not disapprove when I recently became interested in art.

On the other hand, I was forced to play the piano and practiced algebra problems while in the third grade.
My own experiences suggest Chua’s argument is not completely without merit. Some firmness is necessary. Why? Because most of us would rather be on Facebook than writing that politics paper or working on an engineering project. I am glad my parents forced me to play the piano as a child. It is something I enjoy very much now and there is no way I would have learned it voluntarily.
My biggest problem with Chua’s argument is her rationale. “Chinese parents understand … that nothing is fun until you’re good at it,” Chua wrote. “Once a child starts to excel … she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.” In addition, among the things denied to Chua’s daughters is their ability to choose their own extracurricular activities. The school play, in particular, was forbidden. I could not disagree more. First, do we participate in an activity to obtain praise and admiration? We participate because we enjoy something or wish to learn from the experience. If praise is all we seek, then such an activity seems hollow. Second, we can enjoy something without excelling at it. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy playing the piano, but my skill level is mediocre at best. Our enjoyment for an activity should follow from how much we love participating in it. Enjoyment, though related, does not solely depend on excellence. Finally, why does the piano or violin indicate success while drama and art do not?

The mistaken perception of what success is follows not only from Chua’s perception, but often from education in general. In college, the professors and deans all tell students to strive to become tomorrow’s leaders. But we cannot all be leaders. Followers are just as — if not more — important than leaders. Who would the leaders lead without followers? In the working world, lucrative or high-profile and powerful jobs are seen as prestigious and indicative of success. We all want to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen or politicians, but where would society be without teachers, historians, artists and musicians? Defining success based purely on income or prestige is unfulfilling. To think that way is to lose sight of the larger picture.
Life is meant to be enjoyed; it is not merely a succession of tests and jobs. Success cannot be defined solely by excellent grades or high-paying jobs. That is Chua’s key mistake. To quote Albert Einstein, who was once a C-student, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

George Wang’s column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.wang@cavalierdaily.com.
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