Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tiger Mother

The Tiger Mother book has created a lot of controversy.  However, it does illustrate the differences in the treatment of children in the USA and the rest of the world - as well as how we used to treat children here.

Until fairly recently, even in this country, children (and women) were treated as chattel - property.  Parents basically owned their children, and if they didn't behave as expected, a parent would take them out behind the woodshed and beat the tar out of them, as though they were disobedient robots.  "Darnation!  I paid good money for this kid, why don't he work as advertised?"

And the child-as-property theory still has much currency is most of the world - the non-Western part anyway.  But increasingly, even in the West, children are again being looked upon as small robots - to be programmed and forced to perform tasks for the amusement of their parents.  Part of this is due to the increased immigration of people from third-world and second-world countries into Western states.  Part of this is due to a misguided effort by some people, particularly religious fundamentalists, to go back to "the old ways" of doing things.

For example, I had a friend who was of Indian descent, raised in the UK, who had a career as a biochemist.  Well, she would have had a career as a biochemist.  We met while she was a graduate student, a process she was dragging out because, as she put it, "I don't want to go back to England and marry the man my parents chose for me when I was seven."

To an American, such a confession is shocking.  And moreover, we were appalled that she felt, as a British citizen, compelled to marry someone chosen for her, two decades earlier by her parents.  After all, she was an adult - 27 years old - not a blushing child bride of 16.  And we were disappointed when one day, she packed her bags, moved back to the UK, and was never heard from again.

This is not to say all arranged marriages are bad - just that it is an institution that is alien to Westerners.  I had an Indian friend who married a girl chosen for him by his parents when he was 7 years old.  They got along well, and both were professionals and had settled in America and had a beautiful daughter.  I used to kid him that his daughter, however, would grow up "American" - talking with a Valley Girl accent and yakking on the cell phone to her girl friends about "cute boys" and asking Dad for a new Corvette.

This apparently shocked him - and worried him.  "NO! No! no!" He said, "My daughter will be raised as a proper Indian girl!  She will attend Indian boarding school and she will marry the man we have chosen for her!"  And with that, he packed up and went back to India - which was probably a smart thing, if he didn't want his daughter succumbing to the "evil" influences of our decadent American culture.

I also had a Korean friend who became an Engineer because his Father selected the career for him.  He was a very sad man, and confided to me that he never wanted to be an Engineer, but because of cultural custom, he must follow his Father's chosen path.  Or another Korean friend, who felt obligated to support his entire family - including brothers and sisters - because "that was what was expected of him".

And the list goes on and on.  Different cultures have different views about their children.  It is only in the West - and only in the last 50-100 years or so, that attitudes have changed, allowing children to live lives of their own, instead of living their parents expectations.

To some extent, this is due to the great wealth in our country.  In poorer countries, families have to stick together for survival.  And parents have to count on their children as a retirement plan.  Your eldest son will take over the family farm (or business) so you can retire.  Daughters, largely regarded as an expensive nuisance - are to be married off in whatever strategic arrangement or alliance that can be formed, or to whomever will take them off your hands, after you have paid them handsomely.

Other cultures may view us as decadent, but frankly, I think we are the ones who are advanced, and they the primitives.  And as their countries become more wealthy, their cultures will shift accordingly, when parents' expectations and instructions no longer make sense in a rapidly shifting technical world.

And many folks resent this change, which is one reason we see a reactionary movement among fundamentalist religions - including all the Judeo-Christian ones.  The tiger mother phenomenon is just the latest version of this - as our culture clashes with that of the Chinese.  And our culture will win, of course.  But more on that later.

Why do backward nations and cultures feel threatened by Western Society (while at the same time being drawn toward it like a moth to the flame)?  The answer is simple.  If you invested your entire life in this theory that your subservience to your parents will have a payoff later in life - that you will inherit a family business, marry a beautiful girl well beyond your station, and most importantly, have robot children of your own to boss around - then the idea that children should have their own lives is threatening to you.

After all, you've paid your dues under this sick system and expect to have your own slave children to control as a result.  If your kids suddenly get the idea that they can make their own way in life, well, that just ain't fair, it is?  It is like joining a Fraternity and enduring hazing, only to find out the next year that hazing of new freshmen has been outlawed by the school.  You paid your dues, and now it is your turn to give someone a wedgie - and then they take that all away from you!

The problem with the children-as-robot-slaves theory of society is that it backfires in a developed nation.  While such children may appear to accomplish much - being forced to practice the piano for hours on end, or being browbeaten into getting straight A's in every course - in reality they are doing little more than memorizing, like robots.

And on a personal level, of course, it can be a total rip-off.  You live your childhood as a slave to your parent's expectations.  If your Parents are wealthy, or they choose the correct career path (or spousal choice) for you, you win.  But if your parents are poor, or they make poor choices, you might be justified in thinking that you could have done a whole lot better yourself.

In a technological society, Parent's choices for careers and training are usually obsolete.  As I noted before, my Mother used to rail about "those damn computers" which she was certain would "never amount to anything" and that I was "wasting my time" programming them.  Career advice from parents, in a Western society, is bound to be bad.  But increasingly, this is also so in developing countries as well.  Jobs like goatherd are getting harder to come by, and just because your Dad did it, doesn't make it a good career choice for you.

Amy Chua, the author of the Tiger Mother book admits that during her time at Harvard Law School, she had little curiosity about the law, other than to memorize everything the professor said, and then barf it all up on the test.  She exhibited no critical thinking, no inquiry, no real thought.  So it is not surprising that she made a very poor lawyer (and a very poor writer, according to the New Yorker review of her book - it sells for shock value, not as great literature) but ended up a very good "Tiger Mom".

Rote learning and discipline rarely leads to creativity, culture, or innovation.  And what we see in countries that practice such techniques is the inability to innovate or advance.  After all, when all you can do is "what everyone did before" - and people are punished for trying new things - no wonder you need a Peace Corps volunteer to show you how to dig a new well.

Industrialized society - Western Society - requires free thought and innovation to succeed.  While the Chinese may be making great strides in manufacturing, they remain merely an imitator and not an innovator, in terms of technology.  We can go over there with a product and they can make it for us - they cannot come up with new product ideas on their own.  But as they industrialize more and more, we see the tight reins of government control, as well as the traditional roles of families changing.  And there are those who are alarmed at these changes.

In another New Yorker article from last year, a reporter interviewed a young woman in China who made paintings on an assembly line for American consumption - the types of paintings you see in motels and hotels, or are sold at these "famous painter" art shows.  What was interesting about the interview is that she had no curiosity about the subject matter being painted - each painting was a job to be completed as quickly and cheaply as possible.  And moreover, she was really not even interested in painting as an art form - it was merely another job to make money, and better than the factory work she had been involved in before.

To be sure, there are Americans who have painted under similar conditions, such as Florida's famous Highwaymen painters.  But they viewed themselves as artists, even if their art was commercial, and they took joy in their work, which is why it is collectible today - and why Chinese motel art never will be.

Creativity, spontaneity, inquiry, curiosity, intellectuality - these are things that fossilized cultures will never teach.  Our decadent Western society may be on the decline in their view, but it is our culture and technology that they copy - our art, our music, our writings, our computers, our aircraft, our software.  Left to their own devices, such societies rarely innovate.

And unfortunately, there is a movement afoot in this country to return to "the good old days" of beating children and treating them like property.  Already we are seeing the perpetuation of childhood in this country, with the raising of the drinking age to 21, and in many States, the driving age to 18.  Children today are treated as children longer.   We coddle what once were considered young adults as though they were grade-school children. 

Fundamentalist educators want to return to rote learning - the "readin' writing' and 'rithmatic" of the one-room schoolhouse.  But such learning techniques teach little in the way of understanding and turn out robots, not citizens.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a math teacher who subscribed to the rote memorization technique of learning.  Having already been educated in the "new math" from Grade 1 onward, I did not do well.  I knew Boolean Algebra, but did not have the multiplication tables memorized.  Alarmed, this teacher contacted my parents and tried to persuade them to have me set back a year in school.  She literally thought I was retarded because I could not memorize what 7 x  8 was.

But memorizing multiplication tables is not mathematics, as I learned over time.  Mathematical concepts such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus and even number theory have little to do with memorization and making yourself a human calculator.  And as I learned in Engineering School, the students who memorized the answers to the tests rarely succeeded in life as Engineers (and the same is true for lawyers, which is why it doesn't surprise me that Ms. Chua decided to follow the mommy-track and not the Lawyer-track).

And that, in short, calls into question the whole point of the Tiger Mom concept.  What is the point in getting straight A's in math and learning the play the violin - of going to Harvard to study law - if your career track is already settled for you at age 8 - marry a successful man and raise children?  Most of these backward cultures provide no career path for Women, so what is the point of being Amy Chua's kids?  Of doing well or succeeding?  It provides only trophies and plaques they can point to later in life, not real accomplishments of their own later on.

And even for men raised under such discipline, the point of it is lacking.  We decry American's "failing test scores" and worry that the Chinese will "get ahead of us" as their children score higher in rote learning tests.  But until they learn how to be creative - how to think up new ideas and new concepts - they will be beholden to the decadent old West for new product designs and cultural styles.

That is, until they start to learn to think for themselves and innovate.  At which point they become one of us - the decadent Westerners whose sloppy habits they decry, while secretly admiring.  Either way, we win.