Eye of the Tiger

President Hu of China’s recent visit to the White House, reminded me of an article in the WSJ about Chinese moms that appeared a few weeks ago. Not that I really needed a reminder. This article has sparked debate everywhere. It continues to be forwarded, and discussed across the web. Published on Jan. 8, it is still the number one read and emailed piece in the WSJ. That article, by Amy Chua comes from her new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (it’s already on several bestsellers lists). Even this coming weekend’s NYTimes Magazine has an story that continues to weigh in on this particular parenting style. I think the idea that the Chinese have it right in terms of parenting and education, is one that is fueled by the media and full of misconceptions and stereotypes. Even Chau herself says, “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.” I have not read her book, but I have read the WSJ piece. There are indeed so many stories in the media trying to pit eastern and western philosophies against each other. Some are about China’s rising economic growth, some about math test scores, parenting, and language. Within the article online, the WSJ has a binary opinion poll: “Which style of parenting is best for children? ‘Permissive Western parenting’ [or] ‘Demanding Eastern parenting,’” implying that there are only those two extremes. If the words ‘permissive’ and ‘demanding’ don’t seem carefully chosen to polarize people, the title of the article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” should.

According to this CNN article, many schools in the US are being funded by the Chinese government to teach Chinese as the second language. While I believe learning a second (and even third language) is important, especially when kids are young and wired for language acquisition, what that second language is should be meaningful and useful.  For some it may be that one of their parents speaks French and the other speaks English. For others, it may be purely about learning something new and different. Many in this country would argue that Spanish would be a more meaningful language to learn than say Japanese (not that there’s anything wrong about learning Japanese). Predicting what will be the most useful second language for your child when he/she grows up seems a little short sighted. Suppose they end up falling in love with a Finn and moving to Finland (neither of the second languages I mentioned would be terribly useful there). Is the world changing? Yes. Do I think everyone is going to speak Chinese? No. But I may be wrong. I just don’t predict it happening in my generation. For one, learning to read and write Chinese is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, I have read about the demise of languages in smaller communities. Many people learned Russian during the cold war, I wonder how many use it today. Teaching kids to read English, especially kids who struggle with reading, involves getting them to make the connection between the letters and the sounds they make.  There is some rote learning involved too. For some kids it may be the common sight words or homophones. With Chinese, it differs considerably. It’s not a phonological writing system. Chinese is a language based on individual or compound characters. You can’t “sound out a word” in Chinese. There have been phonetic schemes based on the alphabet for Chinese, but that was developed for foreigners.

This op-ed piece in the NYTimes this weekend was written by a correspondent who worked in China, and whose children went to school there. While he agrees that kids were way ahead of his kids in math, there was something missing about an important way it differed from western education: western education fosters and promotes creativity and innovation.

Educational reformer Yong Zhao certainly took exception to this article in his blog post titled, “You’ve must be joking, Professor Chau: An open letter to the Chinese Tiger Mom.” They say there is no tone in text, but one can tell there is a lot of emotion behind his response. Here’s a part of it: “I am sure you know that your children’s success—Carnegie Hall performance and other kudos and trophies—may have more to do with you as a Yale professor, the community you live in, the friends and colleagues you have, the schools they attend, the friends they have (oh, I forgot, they are not allowed to have friends, well in this case, the classmates they have), than your parenting style. There are at least 100 million Chinese parents who practiced your way of parenting but were unable to send their children to Carnegie Hall.”

The Winter edition of Independent School Magazine‘s focus is on the ‘model minority’. An article from this issue, titled “The Model Minority Myth” reminds us of the dangers of stereotypes.

There’s enough variation in parenting and education within any culture.  One could argue the picture Chau portrays in that initial article is an extreme one – not too different (according to this piece in the Seattle PI) than the “Mama Grizzlies produc[ing] tabloid stars.”

I agree that you can’t let children have free reign, and you have to keep your expectations high. But we also have to learn about each child as an individual and know that those high expectations are going to be different for every child. According to the recent literature out there (Drive, Mindsets, Brain Rules, Nurtureshock), Western research shows that praising your child specifically for effort is what counts, not just praise for the sake of praise.

For me, this was a good reminder of how easily one can fall into the trap of stereotypes and a reminder that teachers must check any pre-conceived notions at the door.

In the meantime, here is a TED talk by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (in a way, a book about Chinese mothers) speaking about her own creative process. While completely different, you might see from this video why certain stereotypes persist.

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