Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mothers and Competition

There was an interesting set of comments with some broad based generalities in Al Fin today about Amy Chua. Her latest book is about the Chinese way of raising children. Chua has written extensively and has been quite controversial in her multicultural ideas and in the demise of US culture.

Yet I find the ideas she presents interesting because of two reasons:

First, many of my doctoral students at MIT are of direct Chinese ancestry.

Second, the world in which I grew up in seemed more Chinese than hers.

Specifically the article claims:

Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions and providing a nurturing environment. The Chinese believe that the best way to protect your children is by preparing them for the future and arming them with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chronicles Chua's iron-willed decision to raise her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, her way-the Chinese way-and the remarkable results her choice inspires.

Here are some things Amy Chua would never allow her daughters to do:

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin

Now in the world I grew up in we never had play dates, if we were ever seen idle we always were given a task, whether it was pulling out dandelions with a spoon or raking leaves, or washing windows with ammonia and newspapers. We could always opt out of those by studying.

I did a school play, Richard III and I was Richard. That taught a 12 year old more of life than anything else. The director was Redmond O'Hanlon, a winner on the $64,000 Question, and a Police Officer, I still have the copy of Shakespeare that he gave me.

As to number the one student, my mother always asked who did better than me, and if there was none at the school, I had to find someone at a better school. Number one was relative, it had to be absolute. As for gym, we never had one, Catholic Schools did not believe in gym. Yet my father had me box, Rasmussen PAL Center, the only blue eyed boxer. After 3 broken noses my mother said it was enough. That added to Richard III.

And why waste time on an instrument, it costs money, it did not make money, and there was no room to store it anywhere.

That was the US generation bred before the baby boomers. That was the generation that was at home when their fathers went to war, and in many cases to help liberate China. It is still there hidden in the back of the SUV somewhere, that genetic American trait, that surprise that meets an aggressor. So perhaps that is why some of my Chinese students called me "grandfather".