chinese moms, “superior?”

An interesting viewpoint as articulated by author Amy Chua in her soon-to-be published book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” is that Chinese parenting succeeds at raising “math whizzes and musical prodigies” because it assumes their children are blessed with strong psyches, that they owe their parents everything, and that Chinese parents know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.” In an excerpt that ran in the Wall Street Journal yesterday entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua proclaims

…Chinese daughters can’t have boyfriends in high school and…Chinese kids can’t go to sleep away camp. It’s also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, “I got a part in the school play! I’m Villager Number Six. I’ll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I’ll also need a ride on weekends.” God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.

To her benefit, Chua does go on to say “Don’t get me wrong:  It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It’s just an entirely different parenting model.” I wonder then  “Where does one person begin, and the other end? If parent and child are so intricately intertwined, are their lives forever one?” Personally I don’t think I’d want a lifetime “make it or break it” responsibility. If my daughter doesn’t become a prima ballerina, then will I have failed as a parent? I’m just fine bringing her along with what physical and financial support my husband and I can muster, until she can literally, and figuratively, “stand on her own two feet.” Her flight forward is of her own making, not ours. Her successes, and failures, are hers to own, not ours. Without the pressure of having us “on her back,” the highs and lows of life are not doubled, or tripled. Our daughter can “soar” as high as her own body takes her, or hover as “close to the ground” as she needs when times are tough. No thanks! I don’t need to wallow in her glory, or despair in her sorrows. Truthfully, I’m still trying to carry the weight of my own personal baggage until the day I die. I couldn’t possibly carry someonelse’s as well, although believe me, moms never, ever, cut the umbilical cord.

Chua seems to denigrate the fact that Western parents dwell with anxiety upon the self-esteem of their children. “They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital.” As an example, Chua offers the comparison between the reaction of both Chinese and Westerners to a child’s less than excellent grade, an A, on a test. Her claim is that Westerners would be thrilled with an “A-,” and while some would be fine with a “B,” others would analyze the situation “express disapproval, but…not make their child feel inadequate or insecure, and they will not call their child ‘stupid,’ or ‘worthless’ or a ‘disgrace.’ ” Chua then suggests, perhaps correctly, that Westerners would try to find fault elsewhere than with their child, that he or she “does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school.” Western parents, she claims, might even meet with the principal, challenge the school’s teaching method and perhaps, even the teacher’s credentials. No way would this scenario play out in a Chinese home. Instead, Chua says, the following is more likely to happen.

If a Chinese child gets a B–which would never happen–there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to sub-standard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

The Chinese mother as a tough-as-nails “master sergeant,” does seem deserving of total ownership of her child’s life. According to Chua, “… Chinese mothers get in the trenches, putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids.” If the two are striving side-by-side for perfection, doesn’t it follow that mother and child should share equally in the reward?I’m being facetious, of course. But the author is very serious when she says that “Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”

Jed Chua, Amy’s spouse, has obviously come over to the “dark side.” She feels Western parents get the “short end of the stick,” if they subscribe to her husband’s way of thinking.

Children don’t choose their parents…They don’t even choose to be born. It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.

Perhaps without the author’s realizing it, or admitting it, her husband is providing balance in their family. It’s not far-fetched to think that their teenage daughters might seek comfort and solace from their Western dad, when their Chinese mother is too much of a bear. But I’m not sure she would ever let us in on that family secret if it did occur. Although one can read between the following lines uttered by a frustrated Amy. “I’m happy to be the one hated. And you can be the one they adore because you make them pancakes and take them to Yankee games.”

Ten paragraphs of Chua’s Journal article relate a personal “story in favor of coercion.” When her daughter Lulu was 7, she was learning a piano piece which required that “the two hands …keep schizophrenically different rhythms.” An “incredibly difficult” accomplishment for young players, in Chua’s own estimation. Nonetheless she browbeat her daughter into mastering the piece by using “every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, …” But this wasn’t the worst of it. The battle between mother and daughter actually began earlier in the day, when Lulu stomped off exclaiming that she was done practicing. After returning to the piano upon orders from her mom,

Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hannukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she could’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu–which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her–and that he didn’t think threatening Lulu was helpful. Also, he said, maybe Lulu really just couldn’t do the technique–perhaps she didn’t have the coordination yet–had I considered that possibility? “You just don’t believe in her,” I accused. “That’s ridiculous,” Jed said scornfully. “Of course I do.” “Sophia could play the piece when she was this age.” “But Lulu and Sophia are different people,” Jed pointed out. 

“Oh no, not this,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Everyone is special in their own special way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t you worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes,…”

Guess what? Lulu mastered the piece, and at the end of the night she laughed and cuddled with mom in her bed. Go figure.

While I don’t agree with Amy Chua’s parenting practices, I do agree that there are different parenting styles. I also agree that what parents invest in the development of their children’s lives, significantly affects the people they become. I wouldn’t have had the stomach or the stamina to berate and threaten my daughter, to get her to return to her school lessons or violin practice. I’m a talker. I lectured a lot, still do, but not as much. The only time I thought my husband might leave me was when I insisted our 2-year-old daughter remain in her crib, despite her wails and pleading with outstretched arms to be brought into our bed one night. We never had a problem with her sleeping alone after that. But that wasn’t a trick passed along by my Chinese dad, it was something I’d read in a Western book for first-time parents.

I think Chua is right in feeling that we Westerners bring our own personal angst to bear when parenting. “Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.” Evidently Chinese parents have no qualms whatsoever about strong arming their children. Chua gives several reasons for this attitude. Practice makes perfect, and so it is crucial to override the resistance of their children. Once excellence is obtained, the activity will become fun. Furthermore, Chua suggests that “as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.” And finally while both Western and Chinese parents want the best for their children, Chua writes that “many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.” She goes on to say

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

It’s a well-known fact that HONOR of family and country is a significant characteristic in an Asian person’s life. While highly commendable in sustaining a race and a culture, it can come at a very high price to an individual not inclined to live a robotic life. I’m reminded of the protesting Chinese students who gathered in Tianamen Square, some having lost their lives as a result.

What becomes of children who do not measure up? Are they ostracized, or sold into slavery? Why are millions of Chinese working in “sweat shops” producing goods for the global market? Are there no suicides among Chinese children?

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and author of several books. She’s a shining example of Chinese parenting at its best.

My daughter didn’t attend college, choosing instead to follow her passion to become a professional dancer. My husband would’ve liked her to obtain a college degree so that she’d have a safety net. It’s conceivable that our daughter will one day pursue higher education. Many dancers do. When she does, it’s likely her experiences thus far will make her a more focused student. As of right now however, our daughter has achieved a goal she set for herself. With unrelenting self-discipline, she pursued her career. And so it’s with great pride that she takes her place in the community as an upstanding citizen, already making a substantive contribution with her art.

Chua and I have taken divergent paths in parenting. She preferred to “throw everything, including the kitchen sink”, at her daughters. I preferred to restrain myself, since I was the product of regular beatings. We both seem content with our mothering, and I know my daughter is 100% in favor of how she was raised. She told me so, when I asked, and I believe her. I can only wonder what Amy’s children would respond, if asked the same question.

We should all ask ourselves, “Is how we were raised, the way we want our children to raise their children?” Because 9 times out of 10, that’s exactly what will happen. Only a conscious effort to break the mold, like I did, will make for a different outcome. Children are “clean slates” upon which we are the first to pen the course of their lives. That is our legacy as parents. I’m fine with mine; are you with yours?

For those interested, Amy Chua will answer readers’ questions Thursday on Review’s new blog, Ideas Market.

hugs for charting the right course…hugmamma.

“change your brain, change your life”

I have to credit Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain Change Your Life with my “detour” towards a more positive attitude. It’s the path I’ll continue to travel, as I journey “home.” With the information gleaned from the book, I’m pretty certain I’ve suffered a form of depression all of my life, and I’m sure my mom did as well. We battled our “demons”, mustering up all the courage we could gather from deep within, and relying upon the  support  of loved ones. At best, our attempts to help ourselves was haphazard. Sometimes our efforts succeeded, other times we probably “blew it.” We muddled through, with growing negativity as a constant companion. To survive, we felt compelled to sever relationships along the way, that might destroy our fragile psyches. Looking back, we were just trying to live our best lives, given the hand life had dealt us. Without a doubt, there must be many who have led similar lives.

All kinds of help is available these days, from psychiatrists to clinics to alternative health practices. There’s no quick fix for depression, nor one right way. However I am a proponent of Dr. Amen’s philosophy, for it has helped me understand the workings of my brain. And just as I take care of my body with the help of exercise, diet, chiropractic manipulation and massage therapy, I am learning to look after my mental health, thanks to Dr. Amen’s message.

Your brain is the hardware of your soul. It is the hardware of your very essence as a human being. You cannot be who you really want to be unless your brain works right. How your brain works determines how happy you are, how effective you feel, and how well you interact with others. Your brain patterns help you (or hurt you) with your marriage, parenting skills, work, and religious beliefs, along with your experience of pleasure and pain.

If you are anxious, depressed, obsessive-compulsive, prone to anger, or easily distracted, you probably believe these problems are “all in your head.” In other words, you believe your problem is purely psychological. However, research that I and others have done shows that the problems are related to the physiology of the brain–and the good news is that we have proof that you can change that physiology. You can fix what’s wrong for many problems.

Depression is a physiological illness, just like diabetes or arthritis. Living in our high-tech, fractured society, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us suffer some form of depression, ranging from moderate to bipolar.

According to Dr. Amen’s book, my difficulty may lie within my brain’s Cingulate System. Glancing through the following checklist, I  have probably exhibited several of the symptoms, especially during the early years of my marriage. Maturity and motherhood helped me overcome some, but more recently, suggestions from Change Your Brain Change Your Life helped me to combat other symptoms, namely “excessive or senseless worrying,” “tendency to have repetitive negative thoughts,” and “tendency to predict negative outcomes.” But just as there’s no cure for arthritis, there is none for depression. Both have to be managed, which is fine with me. It’s a fact I’ve come to accept. Exercise and a reduction in sugar intake has helped lessen the arthritic pain in my lower back. And practicing Dr. Amen’s recommendations, has greatly minimized my depression.

CINGULAR SYSTEM CHECKLIST

Please read this list of behaviors and rate yourself (or the person you are evaluating) on each behavior listed. Use the following scale and place the appropriate number next to the item. Five or more symptoms marked 3 or 4 indicate a high likelihood of cingulate problems. 0=never/1=rarely/2=occasionally/3=frequently/4=very frequently

  1. Excessive or senseless worrying
  2. Being upset when things are out-of-place
  3. Tendency to be oppositional or argumentative
  4. Tendency to have repetitive negative thoughts
  5. Tendency toward compulsive behaviors
  6. Intense dislike of change
  7. Tendency to hold grudges
  8. Trouble shifting attention from subject to subject
  9. Trouble shifting behavior from task to task
  10. Difficulties seeing options in situations
  11. Tendency to hold on to own opinion and not listen to others
  12. Tendency to get locked into a course of action, whether or not it is good
  13. Being very upset unless things are done a certain way
  14. Perception by others that you worry too much
  15. Tendency to say no without first thinking about question
  16. Tendency to predict negative outcomes

GETTING UNSTUCK

The cingulate system of the brain allows us to shift our attention from thing to thing, idea to idea, issue to issue. When it is dysfunctional, we have a tendency to get locked into negative thoughts or behaviors; we have trouble seeing the options in situations. Healing this part of the mind involves training the mind to see options and new ideas. …Whenever you find your thoughts cycling (going over and over), distract yourself from them. …Sing a favorite song…Listen to music that makes you feel positive…Take a walk…Do a chore…Play with a pet…Do structured meditation…Focus on a word and do not allow any other thoughts to enter your mind (imagine a broom that sweeps out all other thoughts).

(Keeping busy has been my “default” response to low spirits. Ironing clothes is a “favorite”, a chore my mom taught me with pride, since that’s what she did at the orphanage where she worked. When I’m outdoors walking Mocha, nature’s beauty intoxicates my senses, forcing me to disengage from life’s frenzy. Indoors I get the same “high” watching a favorite Michael Jackson DVD, which gets my body pulsating to the beat. Sitting for a few minutes with one of my cat’s purring in my lap, makes me pause, enjoying the moment. And when I lay my head on my pillow at night, I thank God for all our blessings, and pray that all may live their best lives. This prayer alone has helped me fall asleep, because it stops the “ants”- automatic negative thoughts, dead in their tracks.)

Many people with cingulate problems have an automatic tendency to say no. Fight the tendency. Before answering questions or responding to requests in a negative way, take a breath and think first whether or not it is best to say no. Often it is helpful to take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then take five seconds to exhale, just to get extra time before responding.

When you are stuck on a thought, it is often helpful to write it down. Writing it down helps to get it out of your head. Seeing a thought on paper makes it easier to deal with in a rational way. When repetitive thoughts cause sleeping problems, keep a pen and paper near your bed to write them down. After you write out a thought that has “gotten stuck,” generate a list of things you can do about it and things you can’t do about it. Use this simple exercise to unlock the thoughts that keep you up nights feeling tense.

(Blogging has been a God-send. It’s been cathartic in that I’ve been able to exorcise “demons” that have probably been roiling around inside my gut for too long, not only personal ones, but thoughts about the world in which I live.)  

When all of your efforts to get rid of repetitive thoughts are unsuccessful, it is often helpful to seek the counsel of others. Finding someone to discuss your worries, fears, or repetitive behaviors which can be very helpful. Often just talking about feeling stuck will open new options.

(Coffee with friends has always been a great way to share problems and gain new insights, and perhaps discover helpful suggestions, and sometimes, even answers.)

Exercise can also be very helpful in calming worries and increasing cognitive flexibility. Exercise works by increasing brain levels of l-tryptophan. L-tryptophan is a relatively small amino acid and has trouble competing against the larger amino acids to enter the brain. During exercise, more of the large amino acids are utilized to replenish muscle strength, which causes a decrease in the availability of these larger amino acids in the bloodstream. When this happens, l-tryptophan can compete more effectively to enter the brain and raise brain serotonin levels. In addition, exercise increases your energy levels and may distract you from the bad thoughts that tend to loop. I often recommend exercise for oppositional children as a way to improve their l-tryptophan levels and increase cooperation.

(Kristina’s exercise class has been a life-saver. During these last 5 or 6 years, it has been a healthy addition to my routine, not only for my physical well-being, but for my mental and emotional well-being as well. I can feel the difference in my mood and my energy level, when I’ve been remiss in my exercise routine. The same can be said for my visits to the chiropractor and massage therapist. They’re not luxuries; they’re necessities.) 

Low serotonin levels and increased cingulate activity are often associated with worrying, moodiness, emotional rigidity, and irritability. There are two ways that food can increase serotonin levels.

Foods high in carbohydrates, such as pastas, potatoes, bread, pastries, pretzels, and popcorn, increase l-tryptophan levels (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) in the blood, resulting in more l-tryptophan being available to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. The calming effect of serotonin can often be felt in thirty minutes or less by eating these foods. Cerebral serotonin levels can also be raised by eating foods rich in tryptophan, such as chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, peanut butter, eggs, green peas, potatoes, and milk. Many people unknowingly trigger cognitive inflexibility or mood problems by eating diets that are low in l-tryptophan.

For example, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets that I recommend for low-dopamine states (related to prefrontal cortex underactivity) often make cingular problems worse. L-tryptophan is a relatively small amino acid. When you eat a high-protein diet, the larger amino acids compete more successfully to get into the brain, causing lower levels of brain serotonin and more negative emotional reactiveness.

(Diet remains an ongoing challenge, but at least I’ve eliminated as much sugar as possible, and replaced simple carbs with complex ones, and continue to ramp up my intake of fruits and veggies. But I’m no angel; every now and then I “sin.”)

Dr. Amen also prescribes reciting the Serenity Prayer, as a way to combat repetitive negative thoughts. “The Serenity Prayer is repeated by millions of people around the world, especially those in twelve-step programs. It is a beautiful reminder that there are limits to what we can do in life and we need to respect that. Many people find it helpful to repeat this prayer every time they are bothered by repetitive negative thoughts. I recommend that you memorize at least the first (three) lines of the prayer (change it as needed to fit your own beliefs).”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next.

-Attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr

 As we age physically and mentally, our quality of life can suffer. Money certainly helps sustain a certain lifestyle, but is it substantive if we’re unable to reap the spiritual rewards as well? I’m trying to remain as agile as possible, mentally, physically and emotionally so that I can continue to write, and enjoy life’s small pleasantries, until I no longer can. Changing my brain, has helped change my life, for the better.

our best lives, hugs for…hugmamma.