In her syndicated column, Betsy Hart recently expressed something less than pleasure with a recently published book by Chinese-American author Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua discusses a plan for rearing children that she applied to her daughters, who, according to Hart and Chua, are now highly accomplished young women. This method of child-rearing is based on traditional Chinese practices, and Chua prefers this form of child-rearing to the one that is now common in the United States.
Her Chinese method seems quite sensible. She assigns domestic responsibilities to her children, makes sure they do their school work, and finally, imposes compulsory practice time for learning to play a musical instrument. Chua is outspokenly contemptuous of how the young are being pampered in our society. Working parents, including mothers, who are trying to increase the family’s disposable income, throw goodies at Heather, Whitney, or Ashley. Material benefits and other indulgences have taken the place of molding offspring. Educating children means increasingly for American parents providing video games, sleepover parties for girls, and conversations that raise the esteem of those who are not really entitled to feel good about their scant accomplishments.
Apparently Betsy Hart has no trouble with furnishing such indulgences, or so I would guess from her earlier columns about her efforts as a single mother to deal with her children. Although she shrinks from the more excessive forms of coddling, she is certainly not opposed to it in principle. She even raises questions as an authorized “conservative” about Professor Chua’s suitability for our American way of life. Chua rejects “individualism, the unique American belief that we can grow up to change the world, to be anything, and not just what our parents are.” Although this belief can lead to “excesses and faults,” it has “allowed us to tame the West, to win two world wars, and invent just about everything the world uses today.” Indeed Chua is being inconsistent in how she lives her life, according to Hart. Despite her apparent anti-Americanness, “she teaches at a U.S. university and brought her daughters up in the United States, not in China.”
Allow me to observe the obvious here. American generals in the Second World War and our most renowned inventors were not like the students in my freshman classes, who can barely read and write. It is foolish to ascribe the achievements of past great Americans to parents who ran to oblige their kids. Did General Patton spend his youth watching “Sex and the City” or did Edison develop his inventive genius by twittering in class? Perhaps those who “tamed the West” were actually making arrangements for their daughters’ slumber parties.
This of course is not the case. Resourcefulness and courage do not come from being pampered by parents who feel guilt that they’re too busy making money to attend to their children’s development. Although not true of all American parents everywhere, the shoe may fit more parents than those who are the exceptions. Chua outlines an urgent social problem; and it is impossible for me to fault her for throwing away current American models for better Asian ones.
Hart’s snide conclusion that Chua is being un-American in her child-rearing methods is staggeringly dumb. American parents of my parents’ generation behaved like Chua’s parents, not like their present American counterparts. Earlier Americans would have been astounded to learn that disciplining children and imposing high intellectual expectations was un-American. “Conservatives” of the Hart generation are carrying their misguided patriotism into a glorification of what is not even traditionally American.
Contrary to Hart’s charge, Chua’s decision to live in a country whose language she speaks better than Chinese is not hypocritical. She is staying in the country in which she’s used to living. She may also enjoy the greater economic opportunity relative to China that our country affords and (despite its diminished liberty) the greater freedom to publicize her views. But this does not require a Chinese-American to disguise our problems or to celebrate our mistakes as gloriously American.
And Chua is perfectly justified in pointing to a better model of child-rearing than the one I see in practice. Having taught in college for many decades let me assure Betsey Hart that Chua is not exaggerating what she criticizes. Has Hart tried to teach a class in which no one has read any book, except for the instructor? Has she found students showing wonder when asked to identify Jesus or Napoleon? Has she encountered college students chatting on cell phones during a lecture and then being offended when asked to stop?
This is how our “kids” behave at home, and so why should they alter their behavior once in college? It may be also what they can get away with in high school. Surely there must be better ways to raise the young.