The Wall Street Journal perhaps had the idea in mind of generating controversy just for controversy’s sake when it ran the piece Why Chinese Mothers are Superior in last Saturday’s edition. (My thoughts of the piece were posted here.) Ms. Chua, the Chinese immigrant cum law professor and the author of the work, has now come out and basically disclaimed ownership, or at least has disowned its basic premise.
First, she claims she didn’t decide on the title of the piece. Okay then. The title was provocative and doubtlessly responsible for piquing the interest of a great many readers. Had it said something like “How Some Chinese Mothers Believe Children Should be Raised”, it wouldn’t have been as likely to go viral like it did.
But she not only denied responsibility for the title. She claimed that she didn’t really mean all that she said. That she long ago backed down from the tyrannical parenting style she attributed to Chinese mothers when her youngest daughter rebelled against it, here’s Ms. Chua:
There is no easy formula for parenting, no right approach (I don’t believe, by the way, that Chinese parenting is superior—a splashy headline, but I didn’t choose it). The best rule of thumb I can think of is that love, compassion and knowing your child have to come first, whatever culture you’re from. It doesn’t come through in the excerpt, but my actual book is not a how-to guide; it’s a memoir, the story of our family’s journey in two cultures, and my own eventual transformation as a mother. Much of the book is about my decision to retreat from the strict “Chinese” approach, after my younger daughter rebelled at 13.
Most incredibly, she claimed her parenting style was simply her strategy of getting her kids to be the best they could be. Which implicitly means all the garbage about their being first in every class was just nonsense. Pulling out the best in a kid means the metric by which the kid should be judged is the kid, not his peers. In other words, like I said in my review of The True Measure of a Man , the true measure of a man is always himself. His sternest critic and harshest judge is always the man in the mirror.
She observes that kids often don’t realize their own abilities until they are pushed a bit, and it takes a parent, teacher or coach to coax their best out of themselves. True enough. But why did she allow the earlier tripe to run, as if it were what she believed? Not only superior Chinese mothers understand that children rarely have the self-discipline and fortitude to push on their own to their best effort. That’s the whole point of good teaching and coaching–to teach a kid to make the most with what he’s got. It’s why academic rankings should be ignored, either of students or of schools. The question that matters is whether the kid is motivated to achieve as much as he could. Ranking first among peers captures nothing of that ethic. Ms. Chua could easily have ensured her kids were first in their class simply by ensuring they attended a school with lower IQ students.
I was in the seventh and eighth grades when I finally played football for a coach that pushed me (and the rest of my teammates) to be the best football player I could be. He was the first person to ever drag more out of me than I thought I could accomplish. No teacher along the way ever did, which is probably part of why I loved football more than academics, even if I was genuinely talented academically, but only perhaps a bit above-average on the gridiron. And here’s the thing–though the whole point of everything we did–all the three and four hour practices in the hot Alabama sun followed by grueling sprints that turned the legs into noodles and made breathing an exercise in pain–was ostensibly to win football games, winning and losing (i.e., our class rank), when it was all said and done, didn’t really matter. What mattered was whether we were individually as good as we could be, and thereby, whether the team was as good as it could be. It turned out that we won a whole bunch of games, but I never considered that winning was anything more than an extra reward, a little gravy, for having won my battle against the internal demons that plague us all, constantly conspiring to prevent us from achieving our best. Winning a football game paled in comparison to the satisfaction at having made the young man in the mirror proud.
I’m glad to see Ms. Chua is not as foolish as she first appeared. But I wonder whether she and we were just duped by Rupert Murdoch’s new and improved Wall Street Journal, that seems to understand better than the old management of Dow Jones, that nothing sells papers like a good controversy, contrived or real.