The Mindless Conventionality of an East Asian Upbringing

East Asian child rearing is notorious for the heavy pressure put on children, but also famous for the great feats of technical brilliance and hard work many people who grow up under these conditions perform. Kids are sent to evening classes, weekend lessons, hardly have any free time. And then many graduate at the top of their years.

Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School has recently published a book promoting this kind of strict and achievement-orientated parenting. I read an extract on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, and I find Chua’s child-rearing practices counterproductive and draconian. This is largely because I don’t share her highly conservative ideas of what constitutes success in this world.

To begin with, Chua forced her children to play the piano and violin for hours upon end. The value of this is apparently beyond questioning. I’m baffled by this. Few people can name any classical musicians, and extremely few can support themselves playing classical music. Why should I make my kids do that? Both took violin lessons until they tired of the instrument, and then they moved on to sax and piano, which they enjoy playing but don’t work particularly hard at. It’s just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t want either of them to try a professional career in music unless they were really motivated in themselves.

Furthermore, Chua demanded that her kids be No 1 academically in their years, and she forbade them to attend sleepovers, have playdates, watch TV and play computer games. This is just crazy from my point of view. Since childhood, I have always felt that having a lot of unplanned free time to play and laze about with a book or a computer is an important part of basic quality-of-life. Taking free time and play away from kids and teaching them to avoid those things as adults constitutes tragic misuse of a person’s life, from my point of view.

The qualities I try to cultivate in my kids are

  • Independent critical thinking
  • A sense of humour
  • Verbal skills (speaking and writing)
  • Solid general knowledge and insight into how everything connects up in the world
  • Curiosity
  • Social fearlessness
  • Creativity

As those who have met them can confirm, my kids have all of this in rich measure. I don’t think Amy Chua’s methods would have helped much here, on the contrary. And still, academically speaking, my kids are near the top of their years too.

At the root of my disagreement with Amy Chua lies my cynicism about the value of conventional achievement. I would never go to such lengths to get where Chua is in life, or to get my kids to where her daughters are going, because I don’t find that place attractive. I prefer to work 30-35 hours a week for a modest income and spend a lot of my time achieving nothing, just having fun with friends and family. And that’s what I teach my kids to value too. My goal as a parent isn’t to teach them to excel. It’s to teach them to be happy and have fun.

Update 11 January: Thinking about this, I realised that when I force my children to do things, it’s the opposite of what Chua did (apart from household chores). Ever since my kids learned to use a phone, I’ve made them call a playmate at 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, to keep them from hanging around alone at home and being bored or watching daytime TV. This has ensured that they are experienced phone conversationalists and that they have always been invited to a lot of parties. Amy Chua prohibited play dates.

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51 thoughts on “The Mindless Conventionality of an East Asian Upbringing

  1. I was raised by my family knowing that i had to be independent mostly when i turn 18. I will have to pay for college myself. Right now I’m 15 years old but I realize that it helped me when my parents told me about college and being independent. I was in my last year of middle school and i had no idea of what i wanted to do. My parents started making me think about my own future instead of thinking of relying on my family. Right now I’m in my second year of high school and I still don’t know what I want to do or what college I want to go to and if my parents never said anything about college, I’ll still be thinking about having fun only. My parents encourages my siblings and I to be independent and to be social. Does that help? No. I am not social and I find myself depending on my sister. When my parents try to force me to do something I don’t want to do, I refuse. Look at what Amy Chua is doing, forcing her children to bend to her view and wishes when what they should be saying is “NO”. Children should grow up surrounded by their parents unconditional love (i think that was the word :P) and support in order to be able to decide what they want for themselves. Doing what their parents want is just… like living as a doll. There is no point in life like that. Parents should be helping us instead of forcing us. I can’t imagine a life without my parents’ love and support. We all want what is best for our loved ones.

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