Chinese mom vs. matzah mom


If you’ve been under a rock the past few weeks — or, alternatively, you’re like me: childless — you may have missed the uproar over Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The article — the most responded-to in the WSJ’s history — argues for the superiority of Chinese parenting. In particular, Chua advocates such seemingly draconian parenting measures as prohibiting sleepovers, playdates, television, school plays and any grade lower than A.

It’s hard to pull out a single perfect, tone-defining quote from the piece, which is worth a read even if you haven’t yet reproduced. But here’s one that sort of captures its flavor:

If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

A stream of offended Jewish mothers have since waded into the debate, chief among them Ayelet Waldman, a woman who knows something about inspiring the scorn of other moms for her frank confessions in the pages of a major newspaper. And like Waldman’s earlier, notorious entry into the annals of American parenting, this one too cops to a healthy serving of the emotions in which Jewish moms proudly traffic: guilt and shame.  

The difference between Ms. Chua and me, I suppose—between proud Chinese mothers and ambivalent Western ones—is that I felt guilty about having berated my daughter for failing to deliver the report card I expected. I was ashamed at my reaction. But here is another difference, one I’ll admit despite being ashamed of it, too: I did not then go out and get hundreds of practice tests and work through them with my daughter far into the night, doing whatever it took to get her the A. I fobbed that task off on a tutor, something I can afford to do because my children reside in the same privileged world as Ms. Chua’s.

I am, actually, grateful to Ms. Chua, and a little in awe of her. I expend far too much of my maternal energies on guilt and regret. Reading her essay definitely put some Chinese iron into my Nerf Western spine, and though I eventually apologized to my daughter for failing to acknowledge, right off the bat, all those tough classes in which she had excelled last semester, and for expressing my disappointment at the others too vigorously, I have also refused to back down from my expectation that she devote extra time to those two subjects in which she is "underperforming."

Writing in the Huffington Post, Wendy Sachs writes that Jewish and Chinese moms aren’t in fact so different. The difference is one of style more than substance.

Chua says that Chinese moms don’t mince words when it comes to their children’s appearance either. They can say, "Hey fatty — lose some weight." The Jewish mom would more likely kvell over her daughter than insult her, no matter how fat she had become. "You are too gorgeous, but maybe you want me to get you a gym membership," a Jewish mom would say. The f-word would never enter the conversation.

While Chua describes Chinese moms in almost pathological terms, the Jewish-mom style is decidedly more passive aggressive. "Why don’t we go study for your spelling test now?" I say to my son. "Can you please get your math review sheets? Let’s make sure you get 100 percent on your quiz!" I say in my best bubbly, you-can-do-it voice.

We frame demands in pleasant questions. Really what we mean is, "Go study now, and I want you to get straight As and a National Merit Scholarship that gets you into Harvard." We just message it differently.

Allison Kaplan Sommer, writing in the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, had this to say:

My two cents: a key point that most of these commentators miss is that Jewish mothers — both the immigrant and Americanized versions — can be as uncompromisingly ambitious for their offspring’s success as their Chinese counterparts. It is their broader definition of “success” — one that treats social status as important to climbing the American Dream ladder as academic success — that leads to their different ground rules.

Chua’s “Tiger Mother” model dismisses activities that are crucial to gain social skills important for climbing the ladder in modern America. If one doesn’t master the politics of playdates and sleepovers, how are they going to handle dorm life and office politics?

Sommer’s take is similar to that of the one Jewish male in our roundup, the reliably original David Brooks, who claimed that Chua’s problem is that she hasn’t been demanding enough, forcing her children into tasks that stress focus and rote repetition while sparing them more cognitively demanding ones — like sleepovers.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average IQ. of the group or even with the IQs of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together. This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

Recommended from JTA