So far in 2011, the hot news on the parenting circuit has been the “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua, who boldly asserts in her new memoir and a recent Wall Street Journal article that strict, severe Chinese mothers are “superior” to soft American moms and that their superior kids will eventually dominate the next generation of lazy Americans in tomorrow’s competitive global economy.
Chua’s book has prompted name-calling about name-calling (people have labeled Chua a “monster” for calling her daughter “garbage”) as well as soul-searching amongst American moms, who wonder — is there some truth to what she says? Are we American moms/parents adequately preparing our kids for happy, fulfilling, successful lives?
Um, how does one do that, anyway??
For me, the answer to that question is a most intimate and personal one. Each family has to decide for themselves what their ideal happiness looks like — then make that ideal a priority and strive every day to realize it.
If a family like Chua’s decides that the most important priority above all else is producing children who excel in their studies and at the piano — to the exclusion of what we Westerners might call “well-roundedness” — then Chua’s model is a sound one to follow (minus the mean-spirited insults).
Our family has different priorities. We believe in a simple version of happiness independent of accolades from the outside world. That doesn’t mean we don’t value hard work and achievement — it just means that we don’t need the applause of a Carnegie Hall concert to feel good about ourselves. I believe that our version of life happiness is much more natural, hearkening back to ancient times: a family living together in a loving home, working (hard) every day to put bread on the table, and resting at night in the peaceful knowledge that all is well at home, and thus all is well with the world. Honestly, that is what I want out of life, and that’s my hope for my kids — that they have their own happy family, warm hearth and peaceful nights.
I don’t know for sure, but I think that our American ancestors who founded this country had the same simple dream of family happiness. I doubt any of the rebels of the American revolution cared about whether their piano-playing skills would be good enough to get an audience before the British crown or London’s high society. No, I tend to think that the folks who founded this country — and who not only succeeded in kicking out the highly cultured Brits, but who went on to found the most successful modern country in the history of the world — had a pretty simple dream and straightforward priorities: get a piece of land, settle down with your family, work hard and don’t let anyone mess with your crops.
In our America, we no longer have an agrarian society, but that’s irrelevant. Our economy has continued to evolve and change over the centuries, yet we generally remained true to our core principles and our collective vision of individual happiness. I think that’s what our country’s success has been based upon. And you know what they say — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I was fortunate in 2005 to have the opportunity to visit China and spend about 10 days in Beijing. Our local guides were extremely welcoming and friendly, but it was clear that they were not free to speak as they wanted for fear of punishment by the Communist party (i.e., the entire country’s “tiger mother”).
However, one young female guide ventured to ask me why Americans have kids. I thought the question was odd and wasn’t sure how to answer at first. After thinking about it, I responded that I supposed it was because we Americans have an ideal happy family life in mind — you know, the fireplace, dog, 2.5 kids (which in China is illegal — they can only have one) and a loving spousal relationship (whether of the same or opposite sex).
When I posed the same question to my Chinese guide — who was in her mid-twenties and had just gotten married — she replied without hesitation that Chinese kids were expected to take care of their parents. The parents had kids because they needed caretakers in their old age — whether on a farm or in the cities, the motivation was the same.
The independent American in me — the one who left her childhood home in rural Oklahoma in search of a better life, and found it — kinda shivered when I heard this.
I am one of the most culturally sensitive and liberal people you’ll ever meet. I’m not questioning Chinese methods for China — they have the right to adhere to whatever cultural norms they please, as long as they meet basic human rights standards (which arguably China does not).
But I do question applying Chinese parenting methods to American families because we’re insecure and panicking about maintaining our eroding American dominance in the world. That seems a little misguided to me. Why wouldn’t we look to our own culture and past — dig a little deeper and figure out what worked for our strong, hardy, successful American ancestors?
Of course, I had to ask myself as an American mom — if you were an animal, what animal would you be? The Chinese tiger is so exotic and fierce, and entirely symbolic of China; would American moms be screeching bald eagles? Nah. I think we’d be more like the standard-issue workhorses that our ancestors have used in American cities, towns and farms since our country was born. We’re capable of carrying incredibly heavy loads, running long distances without stopping — and when we get ourselves brushed up, we’re pretty darn beautiful too. We’re caring, nurturing and while our buck teeth don’t have the same sharp bite that tigers do, we’ve raised generations of workhorses just fine. Plus, we don’t get stuck in a zoo and we’re not going extinct. Bonus!
I think American workhorse moms are pretty great — and I have no doubt that we’ll be “plowing the fields” for many generations to come.
Hey! I just had some time to catch up on your blog! I really onjoy reading your posts! Great stuff!
Thanks so much for reading, and the comment! 😀 Hope all is well with you.
Sometimes I feel like more of a packhorse than a workhorse, what with carrying the diaper bag, my purse, the baby in his car seat, and all kinds of other gear…
Seriously, though, this is a great post. I haven’t read this book yet, but you really laid out the fundamental flaw in this cultural divide very well!