Jan 17, 2011

A recent Wall Street Journal essay by Amy Chua titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” has created quite a stir.   Spinoff articles and editorial reactions have popped up on NPR and other news outlets  over the past week.  It seems everyone has an opinion about the topic.  Comments on the article have reached over 6,500 and continue to grow.  They range from the annoyed casual reader to the ever present anonymous racist commenteur, the now guilt ridden insecure American mom who didn’t do enough to the agreeing throngs of Chinese bandwagon riders, and a number of finger pointers beget finger pointers.

[format] For those who have not read the article let me break it down: according to Mrs. Chua, raising children the “Chinese way” requires parents to enforce punishingly hard work and expect nothing but the best in return from the child.  In other words, if children do not excel at school then there is a problem and parents were not doing their job.  Anything short of straight A marks or a gold medal is simply not tolerated.   Below is an excerpt from her article. [/format]

[quotes]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. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.[/quotes]

As I continued to read the commentary surrounding this topic I began to think that a big difference between the “Chinese Parent” model described by Mrs. Chua and the “Western Parent” is that the West prefers to hire out this role of disciplined enforcer.  Home is designed to be safe zone, a retreat from the punishing outside world.  For children, discipline, hard work, and perseverance are learned and practiced on the playing fields and at camps and educational institutions.  Coaches and teachers have been assigned the role of “Chinese Parent” while the “Western Parent” plays a complicated balancing act of mentor/advisor/supporter/enforcer.

[format] As a sports guy I could honestly care less about the percentage of first-chair violinist a certain demographic produces but I was interested in applying the model in sport.  The more I read and thought about it the more I shaped the opinion that it is not so much the technique that produces the result as much as it is the talent and knowledge of the participants.  Sure Mrs. Chua has a daughter playing piano at Carnegie Hall.  She also probably had access to some pretty valuable resources.  Finding a piano teacher around Yale, where she teaches, is probably not too difficult.  There are numerous examples of sports families cranking out elite athletes (Manning in football, Andretti in auto sports, Boone in baseball, and Gracie in MMA).  What do these “sport families” have in common?  They have access to the highest level of sport education which is reinforced with practice and they have witnessed first-hand that success was possible. [/format]

As it does so many times, to the point of cliché, sport mirrors real life.  How we develop our children is in part the same as developing athletes.  Our ability to offer the best opportunity for success is contingent on providing adequate resources to gain the necessary knowledge, reinforce what is learned with focused discipline and work ethic, and belief that success is attainable.  Failure to execute in any of these three categories would seriously jeopardize the opportunity.

[format] The current debate is misguided.  It is not so much which method produces the better result but more about what we value.  In certain circles the ends justify the means.  In others the journey is the prize.  Some groups are hungry for the opportunities available today and they are not about to miss their chance while others are sitting around fat on their past laurels.   Our cultural background plays an important role in shaping these views and as our complex world continues to rub up against each other we will continue to have such debates. [/format]

As we rush to find the quickest way to success, whether it’s a seat in the London Symphony Orchestra or qualifying for the Olympic team, I just hope it produces a world that is entertaining to observe.  I have a good feeling I won’t be disappointed.

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