Made In America

An email I received referred to “ethnic parenting” as the new rage – what I think of as “the flavor of the month.”  This was a reference to bestselling books extolling the virtues of first Chinese, then French parenting methods.  Fortunately, recent articles have been providing pushback to the general theme taking hold that we don’t do things right as parents here in America.

One of our strengths as Americans is our interest in new discoveries, a willingness to learn from new findings, and to be open to new ways of doing things.  That doesn’t mean that “new” is always better, or that we should be intimidated by those who may do things differently.  Child-rearing methods in particular, are entwined with specific cultural, social customs and values.

This point was brought home very well by two recent articles in the New York Times.  In the first, “Asian Men Can Jump”, the author, Gish Jen, writes about his talented athlete brother  and describes how their Shanghai born parents were consumed with getting him into medical school.  They did not root for his athletic accomplishments.  This leads him to compare the parents of Jeremy Lin  –  the latest basketball marvel –  to both his own and Amy Chua’s (Chinese tiger mother) parents.  He cites Chua’s recalling her immigrant father rapping the kids on their knuckles whenever they mispronounced a Chinese word, and asks how it is that Jeremy Lin’s immigrant father encouraged his son to follow such an untraditional path.

Jen wonders if the places from which the Chuas and Lins emigrated were a factor in their parenting styles.  The elder Chuas came from a Chinese enclave in the Philippines, where faced with a hostile native population they protectively emphasized tradition.  The Lins, on the other hand, came from Taiwan, where being Chinese included many Western notions.  For example, there students can apply to college on a track emphasizing their special gifts instead of grades and scores.  His parents’ willingness to support Jeremy’s special gifts must have played an important part in his success.   

Along somewhat different lines, a second article points to other values in child-rearing that are part of the “American Way”.  Writing about building self-control, the authors describe Chinese parenting as emphasizing child training, using methods that come at great cost to parents and children.  East Asian students study up to 14 hours a day.  Parental pressure in South Korea is so intense that the government has hired inspectors to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew on private tutoring.

 The authors point out to American parents that children can learn self-control without such externally imposed pressure, and that children have a role in shaping their own behavior.  They write, “Rather than force activities onto an unwilling child, take advantage of his or her individual tendencies.  When children develop self-control through their own pursuit of happiness, no parental hovering is required.”   They clearly do not mean by this letting children do whatever they want.  “Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort.” 

Perhaps their most important point is that “An internally motivated approach to building self-control plays to traditional American strengths”, and that self-motivation may be connected to other of our American values like independence of thought and willingness to speak out.  In other words, they are pointing to methods that not only are in tune with things we believe in, that are not only part of our culture, but that also lead to characteristics which have long been our strengths.

In both articles, the authors are pointing to the benefits that can come from our own ways of raising children – ways in accord with the things we believe in.  At the same time, in the first article referred to, the author wonders if other people watching Jeremy Lin, “might come to better appreciate how complex Asian culture truly is . . . . how poised to enrich America in yet more surprising ways.”  He is pointing to Lin’s contribution to team work, to his not seeking star treatment in the sport or in the family.

But America has always been enriched by its multicultural population.  The point is that Lin’s parents, who had already been exposed to some of our ideas about education, felt free enough here to support their son in the “something” he was “crazy about”.  If he brings to the sport a certain humility that may serve as a model for other young people, all to the good.  He will have brought something from his own culture from which ours can learn. 

The point is, we can admire certain characteristics of other cultures but need to remember that nothing exists in a vacuum.  We may like the results of other ways of rearing children but the methods are not those we might comfortably embrace.  

Please, let’s stop attacking parents and children “made in America.”

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