Why it’s ‘Garbage’ that Chinese Mothers are Superior: A Rebuttal

While many readers expressed jaw-dropping disbelief at Amy Chua’s picture of parenthood, I admit I enjoyed considering this controversial and scandalous position on parenting.  Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Chua’s article was her willingness to promote (in public) that calling her child “garbage” is good parenting.  As a scholar in the field of parenting, I’m fairly well versed in the research – in fact, studies do NOT link derogatory name-calling to anything positive.

Following are a few research-inspired thoughts.  While there are a couple of things that didn’t bother me about Chua’s article, I will first explain why I fundamentally disagree with her methods as a parent.  Then, we will explore the best route to children’s academic success by visiting three areas of research in parenting – the importance of free and unstructured play, the benefits of fostering children’s social and emotional development, and the dangers of ‘results at any cost’.

It didn’t bother me that Chua’s article is very stereotyping.  If we took a poll, most of us would say, “Well of course, not all Asian parents are so cruel in their progeny’s push to perfection.”  “And not all Western parents walk their way on egg shells to indulgent permissiveness.”  We are intelligent readers, after all, and know that there is great diversity in parents’ approaches to their children, even within cultures.

It didn’t bother me that the author dichotomized parenting: all or nothing ‘to the death’, ‘do it my way’ strictness versus worry-filled angst over the frail self-esteems of children who are allowed to give up.  To perpetuate this short-sighted position, the Wall Street Journal asked readers to weigh in on a poll, forcing them to choose between two extremes: “Which style of parenting is best for children?  Permissive Western parenting or Demanding Eastern parenting?”  While it might be surprising that 65% of parents are now going to call their children “garbage” when they are a disappointment, it would be equally surprising if the majority of readers endorsed letting their children give up.  Who parents their children in either of these polar ways?

Not many of us.  However, controversy fosters discussion, and I’m glad millions of people are thinking about choices in parenting.

While I agree with Amy Chua on a few points – things aren’t nearly as fun before you get good at them, doing drills is key to increasing facility, and assuming strength is empowering to children – I disagree with her teaching process.  And it’s not just me – a rich history of cross-cultural research in the field of parenting links permissive and strict parenting styles to poor outcomes for children.  Additionally, research resoundingly supports the notion that a focus on academic success early on does NOT lead to academic success later.  In fact, it stifles children’s desires to take intellectual risks.  Furthermore, punitive discipline is related to negative child outcomes across cultures.  I’m glad that Amy feels her children are well adjusted and successful, despite the strict parenting, the focus on academic success, and the punishment that rivals coercive abuse.  Amy and her children beat the odds.  However, if 100 people tried the exact same tactics, the majority wouldn’t be as lucky with their results.

I’d rather place my bets on research, adopting parenting methods that are known to cultivate optimal development in children.  So here’s some food for thought before we throw our children out with the garbage . . .

Visiting research-based literature on parenting, what is the best route to raising and supporting children to succeed academically?

First, children need ample opportunity for free and unstructured play, without TV, without video games, without ‘bells and whistles’ toys, and without a priori rules – I’m talking about play borne from children’s curiosity and imagination.  Remember connecting boxes to create a secret tunnel to an unknown land?  Remember forts made of pillows, furniture, and blankets?  Remember playing outside with friends, making up and negotiating rules to your own personal games?  Research has confirmed: creative play is on the decline.

So what.  My kid gets at least SOME unstructured playtime – isn’t that good enough?  In order to reap the benefits, experts have found that children need a full hour or more of free play each day.  Here’s what free play affords children:

  • Exploration of scary concepts like monsters or getting shots at the doctor
  • Working through anxiety and stress by replaying past events like getting a cut and bandaging it up
  • Practice at solving problems such as who will take what role in the play scenario (“I want to be the Dad!”  “No, I do!”)
  • Opportunity to develop social skills
  • Window into creativity and imagination
  • Abilities to accommodate and cooperate (for, if the play is to continue, they’ve got to work something out!)
  • Development of persistence and negotiating abilities
  • Rich opportunity to exercise language and communication skills

An example in our household: My son is afraid of peacocks.  He first saw one at nine months, and since he’s been verbal, he has retold and retold the story.  Peacocks are now an icon for anything he fears.  If it’s too dark, then there’s a peacock in the room.  If there’s a strange noise, by golly, a peacock is the cause.  Not surprising, peacocks come up in the Bug’s (as we call my son) creative play.  We often need to escape to the blanket tent to get away from the peacocks that are coming.  Then we have a chat about the fact that peacocks live outside, and if it’s dark, they’re usually asleep anyway.  We humanize the peacocks: Do you think the peacock has a family?  Do you think the peacock has favorite foods?  And we work all these ideas into the imaginative play.

Just yesterday, my husband had a look of surprise on his face.  The Bug thought he was scared.  He said, “It’s OK Daddy.  We’re inside and the peacocks are outside.  It’s OK.”  I’d like to thank free and unstructured play for helping my son process his biggest fear.  When children are allowed to process strong emotions and exercise their creativity and imagination, they build a strong foundation for later academic success.

Second, a well-replicated body of literature confirms that a focus on cognition and academics is NOT the key to academic success.  Instead, supporting children’s social and emotional development in the early years is what leads to academic success in school later on.  It is counter-intuitive on the surface, but makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Consider the abilities of a child who is socially and emotional competent:

  • Resourceful and creative in successfully resolving conflicts
  • Able to build and maintain meaningful relationships
  • Successful at entering into and inviting others into a group
  • Pro-social – expresses cooperation, empathy, and altruism
  • Able to regulate strong emotions (sad, angry, excited)
  • Constructive with strong emotions

Now, if your goal is for your child to make straight A’s, a child who is resourceful, able to solve problems creatively, empathetic towards others, and can manage their own emotions has a much stronger foundation for learning than a child less well equipped.  To be successful academically, yes children need to study the material and practice, but when they do so in addition to feeling good about themselves and having a good relationship with their parents, teachers, and peers, they’re a lot closer to that A.

Last, a focus on the result or the product of children’s efforts causes children to take less intellectual risk.  Research supports that encouragement and process-oriented comments build an inner motivation and self-confidence in children that is far more predictive of ultimate success.  Here are a few dangers of focusing on the results:

  • Stifles children’s motivation to succeed by creating a fear of failure
  • Focusing on personal characteristics negatively affects self-worth
  • Teaches children to seek approval from others
  • Pigeonholes children
  • Promotes a self-fulfilling prophesy
  • Loss of opportunity to support children’s internal motivation
  • Loss of opportunity to teach morals
  • Children won’t take risks, instead risking perfectionism

A child, who is told she is smart over and over again, will choose to engage in easier cognitive tasks in order to maintain her ‘smart’ status.  She does not want to disappoint her fan base – an external motivation that negatively impacts her self-image.  Likewise, a parent who berates his child for making a 90 on her math test has missed a huge opportunity to guide and teach.  If the parent’s goal was to help the child raise the grade, he could engage the child in a conversation about study habits and motivation.  The child might then self-reflect to realize she does like math but isn’t crazy about the teacher – she doesn’t study as much because the class is a bad experience.  The parent and child could then brainstorm about how to make it more enjoyable.  Tackling the process, allowing children to adopt and believe in what they are doing, helping to build inner strength and confidence will go much further towards supporting academic success than focusing solely on the end result.

So, in opposition to Amy Chua’s outmoded and mistaken ideas about parenting, I stand with research.  I submit that parents can guide and encourage their children to achieve academic and personal success in positive ways – ways that teach children the value of practice, that build inner strength, and that foster children’s internal motivation.

Dr. Rachel

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