Saturday, January 08, 2011

Authoritarian Parenting

An article by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale law school, in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," defends an approach to parenting that is about as far from the humanistic, freedom-oriented, model of education as you can get.

The style of parenting she advocates essentially consists of the parent deciding what they want their children to be good at and forcing them to work extremely hard to become good at it.  I don't dispute that this approach to raising superstar kids can work in getting them to be stellar at violin or piano. Or chess --- the famous Polgar sisters ( are a good example of the results that can be obtained.

Nor do I dispute that a genuine desire to see one's children excel and do well in life is what lies behind such an approach to parenting.

But it is, nevertheless, deeply disrespectful of the child as an individual. She writes:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. 
I can think of a lot of things that are fun even if one is not good at it. Like attending sleepovers, having playdates, being in a school play, watching TV or playing computer games, choosing one's own extracurricular activities. All  choices that Amy gleefully reports that *she* chose to deprive her daughters of.

What it really boils down to is this. Does the end justify the means?  And is that end (of raising kids that excel at the piano or violin or chess or whatever other difficult skill you can think of that requires tens of thousands of hours to become very good at) fundamentally desirable in the first place? Why?

Parents considering this model should ask themselves: having never owned the momentum of their growth, having never set their own path, how will kids raised in such an environment chart their own course when they grow up? What kind of citizens will they make? What kind of world will they shape, whose own freedom has been subdued by will and violence, in the name of excellence or some other lofty goal of another's choosing?

As a college faculty member, I have seen too many failed products of precisely such a regimented approach to parenting. Timid young men in their twenties who write on their graduate school application that they know they should go to do a Ph.D. because their parents believe they should. Students who are brilliant at accomplishing a given task and getting A's in courses, but utterly unable to make progress independently in research unless given a lot of structure and external motivation. Students who are unable to bring themselves to question authority or mainstream ideas, who therefore find it difficult to think and act out of the box. Self-centered students who never volunteer or propose (without prodding) to do something that might benefit their peers, or be of service to others, or change their environment for the better in some way.

As the parent of children with a Chinese mother, who is nothing at all like her, I am particularly dismayed by the stereotype that Amy chooses to promote and propagate with her choice of words. What she is describing is better referred to as authoritarian parenting. I do not recommend it to you, regardless of your national or cultural background.


Bhaskar said...

An update: An article by Jeff Yang in SF Gate ( suggests that the excerpt of Amy Chua's book printed in the WSG presented a one-sided view of what she actually wrote in the book.

Jeff quotes Amy Chua: "I'm not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But I'd also note that I'm aware now of the limitations of that model -- that it doesn't incorporate enough choice, that it doesn't account for kids' individual personalities. And yet, I would never go all the way to the Western ideal of unlimited choice. Give 10-year-olds total freedom, and they'll be playing computer games eight hours a day. I now believe there's a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there."

I'm glad to see she's not (at least anymore, according to this article) quite the extremist the WSJ excerpt makes her out to be, but I still don't think she quite gets it.

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