Amy Chua has garnered such a reputation in the media that when I laid eyes on her book for the first time, I was taken aback. Written on the cover was, “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”
Being a foreigner in the west, I can relate to her, especially since I was born and raised in Southeast Asia, and am familiar with some aspects of Chinese culture. Chinese parenting values hard work, respect, obedience, humility, and excellence. I find myself nodding in agreement with her of how some of these values seem to disappear in succeeding generations of immigrants to the west due to the influence of some aspects of western ideologies. Key word: some.
Because human history is dynamic in nature, defining Chinese and Western parenting can be quite a feat. This is evident in Chua’s expansion of the terms ‘Chinese mother’ and ‘Western parents’. Due to the nature of the eastern culture, in which prevailing customs are not questioned, Chinese parenting has probably not undergone as much detailed scrutiny as Western parenting has. As a result, Western parenting practices are spread over a wider spectrum, from the lingering practices of the older generations, which are more akin to Chinese parenting, to permissive parenting. While I agree wholeheartedly with Chinese parenting values, my years in the west have opened my eyes to the aspects of mercy, patience, respect, and wisdom in Western parenting practices that interestingly lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
According to Chua, by pressuring their children, the Chinese assume strength, whereas by treading cautiously around their children’s self esteem, Western parents assume fragility. On the other hand, it seems to me that the need for constant pressure infers an assumption of laziness, whereas by giving a child the choice, space, guidance, and support, the Western child-centered approach assumes an inherent and natural love for learning. Unhampered by excessive control, this natural love of learning will lead to pursuit of more challenging tasks and eventually excellence.
Chua’s daughters had no say in what instruments they would take up. It begs the question, should a child have a choice in choosing her areas of interest? To the Chinese, it’s a definite no, because the parent knows what is best for the child. To the westerners, it’s an unquestionable yes, because children are individuals, and personal choice is highly tied to internal motivation. This was manifested in Lulu’s commitment to tennis, which she was finally allowed to pursue after many battles of wills with Chua. Chua’s explanation for this parent-made choice is the virtuous circle, where constant pressure and pushing on the parent’s part will produce enjoyment on the child’s part, thereby inducing internal motivation towards success. To be honest, I don’t know if this is true for all children.
What I do know is that Allah has created us as individuals. The prophet (SAW) treated people according to their personal strengths, conditions, and inclinations. After the Battle of Hunayn, he gave the war booty to the new Muslims over the Ansar, because the new muslims were more in need of encouragement. He discouraged Abu Dhaar from taking any position of leadership, and when young Zayd came to join the army, he was told to learn Hebrew instead. He (SAW) treated each person with a level of personal closeness that must have required time, energy, and effort, not unlike the time, energy, and effort a parent has to put forth in order to know her children well. Chua argues that being a Chinese mother requires more work than being a Western parent. Let’s face it. Being a parent alone is tough. Never mind the culture.
It thus makes more sense to treat children according to their individual strengths, be it exerting pressure or holding back, giving them more freedom in making choices or restricting it. It all boils down to the parent making judgment calls, which Chua had to painfully do in Lulu’s case. Regardless of culture, a parent is a guide, mentor, teacher, coach, and counselor all at once.
It’s hard not to admire Chua for her tenacity, all faults aside. Even more admirable is her humility in admitting her faults. It’s not easy for anyone to do this, let alone a parent, who is basically in a position of leadership over her children. I’m particularly touched by Chua’s effort to soften her harshness by leaving endearing notes of love for her daughters when they were younger. In reality, all of us have our individual faults just as we have our individual strengths. To realize, admit, and rectify these faults marks a new level in the parenting journey.
The Chinese value of hard work resonates with the concept of ihsan in Islam, where we are to put our best effort in whatever we do. Where Chua pushes her daughters to put in long hours of practice, even during vacations, we should also instill in our children the concept of ihsan in whatever they do. Islam has given us a basic set of guidelines which includes balance, sound intention, and definition of success. Parenting by these guidelines requires wisdom, taqwa, patience, and mercy.
As my husband says, parenting is like flying a kite. You have to continuously gauge when to pull and when to let go. Pull too hard, the string will break. Let go, the kite will fly away. Chua’s first daughter, Sophia, was an easy kite to fly. Lulu, her second daughter, kept tugging all the way. In her parenting journey, Chua has come to realize that at some point, you do have to let go when the string becomes too taut. It’s only then that the kite will soar to great heights.
Further reading: Positive Pushing by Dr. Jim Taylor
The few times that Juli Herman has flown a kite, she found the ball of string weighing quite heavily in her hands. It was tiring yet joyful, and required her to make constant judgment calls as to when to unwind the string or pull. To this day, she still hasn’t mastered it.
First published in SISTERS June 2011 issue