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Superiority Complex

Malky Heimowitz

Yale law professor Amy Chua opened her January 8 Wall Street Journal essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” with the things her two daughters are never allowed to do, which include having a play date, not playing piano or violin, and not being the No. 1 student in everything except gym and drama. Emailed across the globe, it created storms of protest. Can frum women learn anything about parenting from the Chinese? Or would we consider all of their methods of the “Don’t try this at home” variety?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

When I saw the headline, “Why Chinese Moms Are Superior,” I was a bit taken aback. China has had an infamous one-child policy for many years, and I was surprised that mothers of one child (or two, for those who are wealthy or daring enough to flout the Communist authorities) can claim to be superior, when they are clearly lacking in experience. How can a Chinese mom with one or two children measure up against a frum mother of five, or eight, or thirteen children? Why, most Chinese mothers have never even dealt with sibling rivalry! Then again, maybe the fact that they never have to break up a fight is what makes them superior …

But sibling rivalry is not addressed at all in Amy Chua’s incendiary article, and number of children is not a factor in Chua’s declaration of Chinese maternal superiority.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons she claims that Chinese mothering is superior, and perhaps come away with a few parenting lessons — many of which are of the “Don’t try this at home” variety.

Amy Chua:

In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.”

I beg to differ with the Chinese mothers’ definition of successful parenting. To me, successful parenting — in its universal, not strictly Jewish, definition — is about raising happy, well-adjusted kids who have a strong sense of right and wrong. Sure, I’d like my kids to do well in school, but academic achievement is far from the barometer of my success as a mother.

Honestly, I don’t care whether my children are “the best” students. I want them to be the best people. And “the best” doesn’t have to mean better than their peers. It means the best that they can possibly be.

Amy Chua:

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young — maybe more than once — when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done … Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.

It’s nice to hear that chutzpah is not tolerated in some parts of the world. But I wonder what’s worse: chutzpah or onaas devarim? I also wonder how you teach your kids to have derech eretz by calling them “garbage,” “fatty,” and the like. Chua doesn’t mention whether she ever called her parents “garbage” in return, but she does say that she “once did the same thing to [her daughter] Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully.” My guess is that Chua never did call her parents “garbage”; her parents wouldn’t have allowed that. But the fact that she herself is labeling her child “garbage” indicates that she fully internalized her parents’ chinuch (l’havdil) and is speaking the same repulsive way to her children as her parents spoke to her.

So, what Chua has inadvertently demonstrated is that if you call your kids garbage, they’ll call other people garbage, too. As the gemara (Succah 56b) teaches, Shusa d’yanuka b’shuka, o d’avuha, o d’imei — the way a child speaks in the marketplace is either from his father or from his mother.

Amy Chua:

I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem …Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Hmm, maybe Chua is on to something here. With all of our concern over our children’s self-esteem, are we subliminally conveying to them that we don’t believe in them? Are we actually inhibiting their achievements or undermining their self-worth in our attempts to shield their supposedly fragile psyches and protect them from disappointment and from the natural consequences of negative behavior?

“The hands of compassionate woman cooked their children,” we read in Megillas Eichah. The simple understanding of this horrifying pasuk is that at the time of the churban, compassionate Jewish women were driven by starvation to cook and eat their children. Reading this pasuk in a different light, however, we can ask: Are we figuratively “cooking” our children by smothering them with compassion and pity? In assuming that our children are fragile, we just might be preventing them from stretching to the limits of their abilities and enjoying the pleasure that comes through hard work and yes, even pain.

Amy Chua:

Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.… The understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.

Ouch. The Chinese seem to be taking this nachas thing a bit too far, wouldn’t you say? Why, it almost sounds as though bringing children into the world is a purely egotistical, self-serving enterprise for the Chinese: I’ll change your diapers and pay for your education — A’s only, or else — and in return, I acquire your undying devotion and fealty.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with parents wanting to see nachas from their children. But our nachas has to be dependent upon, and secondary to, the nachas that our children give the Ribono shel Olam. We aren’t raising our children to be our slaves, forever beholden to us and therefore duty-bound to fulfill our every wish; we are raising our children to be servants of Hashem and carry out their obligations to Him. One of a child’s obligations to Hashem is to honor his parents, and that is why we have to train them to honor, revere, and obey us.

Bringing children into the world should be an act of pure giving, and any benefit or pleasure we derive along the way is a bonus. When children give to us, we’re actually giving to them, by enabling them to earn the exceptional merit of kibud av v’eim. But at the times when they don’t exactly make us proud, we have to continue carrying out our obligations and responsibilities toward them — the obligation of discipline included.

Amy Chua:

Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

Can I rewrite the above sentence to make it work? How’s this: Parents know what is best for their children and must therefore override their children’s own desires and preferences when necessary.

Kids don’t have the good judgment or self-control to know what is best for them, and it’s a parent’s responsibility to decide when to yield to a child and when to stand firm. But to override all of a child’s own desires and preferences is to show the child that his wishes mean not a whit to you. How can you ever teach a child to be considerate if you never show any consideration for his preferences?

I have no problem with Chua’s overriding her children’s desires when it comes to things that conflict with her value system. But what value is there to stopping a child from participating in a school play? Why is it okay for her daughter to perform at Carnegie Hall, but not to have a role in the school play? And, on top of that, they can’t even complain about not being allowed to be in the school play?

To me, something seems very wrong about a home environment in which children are so squelched. Shouldn’t a home be a place where people — and yes, children are people — have the freedom to express their wishes and frustrations? This, to my mind, is a perfect example of imposing “eimah yeseirah” — excessive dread — in one’s home.


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