Monday, January 10, 2011

1/10/11 Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

Yesterday this article in the Wall Street Journal (we're print subscribers) caught our attention, starting with the brash headline and the in-your-face expression of the author: Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.

Dave was mostly put off by the article, but I was very intrigued at the author's confidence and conviction and fortitude. She knows she'll be lambasted for her methods -- the story about berating her 7-year-old daughter and forcing her to work for days until she was able to master a piano piece is chilling -- yet she's unshakeable. Why can't I have that kind of self-assurance?

But the discussion of this article had even more impact on our boys. Gabriel in particular was horrified to hear that an A- grade was not accepted. "What if you just get something wrong?!" he asked. I took some sick pleasure in telling the boys that a Chinese mother would respond to their rudeness and saying No very very differently: "You'd be sleeping on the porch if you talked to a Chinese mother the way you talk to me!"

Today at work, I had a very interesting discussion with 2 coworkers and my manager, all of whom were raised in Asia (China, Korea and Singapore) by Asian parents. My closest coworker from Korea said she had to stay at school until 10pm. My manager said absolutely he was raised that way, but no one considered it cruel, it was just the way it was. He added that it depends on the kid; the article author is a little extreme, but certainly he and his wife have a much higher standard for their children than Western parents. He also pointed out that the suicide rate for Japanese and Korean teenagers is very high, and that many kids flounder in college when they're on their own for the first time. My two female coworkers said they don't want to raise their daughters that way at all; my manager has two sons (and a full-time mom wife who has the time to implement the tougher rules) and says they walk a cliff; they push their sons as far as possible without pushing them over the edge.

I have no interest in forcing the kids to play violin or forbidding playdates, but it did get me thinking about Gabriel's schoolwork. He had to take a math test again after the holidays, because he'd done so poorly on something of a mid-term exam before the holidays. His teacher explained that kids who'd gotten a 3 or less (out of 6) were re-tested, and that Gabriel knows the material but he can't read his own handwriting. When we talk to Gabriel about his sloppy homework and middling math grades, he retorts that it's stupid and he doesn't care.

Superior Chinese Mother never had a force like Gabriel to reckon with, but there's something to her conviction. Most of the discussion we have with Gabriel's teachers, school and CDC, surround a "positive" approach and rewarding him and giving him incentives. Some of that, especially regarding baseline cooperative behavior in school, has always made Dave and I uncomfortable -- why should he get a special reward just for meeting a basic expectation, like coming in to class after recess without causing trouble? And some of it just plain doesn't work -- there is no incentive to persuade him that he must take more care with his work.

I talked to my mother about this on the way back from work today, and she suggested getting a 5th-grader or someone to review his homework. This got me thinking. A hired tutor is more logistically possible and will have more authority over Gabriel (a 5th-grader has no prayer against Gabriel). But one way or another, we need more help.

While picking up the boys, I talked to the CDC director about the logistics of bringing a tutor in after school, and we'll talk to the principal about it Friday, at a meeting that's been scheduled for weeks to review his behavior issues. Ironically, his behavior at school and CDC has been much better in recent weeks, so our meeting Friday will refocus toward schoolwork.

I was inspired.

I told Gabriel on the way home tonight that sloppy work is no longer acceptable. I told him he now has to get at least a 5 out of 6 on his math tests, and that we will hire a tutor for him if he doesn't. I am serious. Superior Chinese Mother would say always a 6, but Inferior Western Mother has done little more than glance at his mistakes and tell him not to handicap himself with carelessnes. His firm "yeah this is stupid" attitude will only get entrenched if we don't tackle it head-on now. If he truly didn't have the aptitude for math, I'd approach this differently, but actually that would be an easier problem to address. Not giving a sh*t is a much harder one.

So boy, was he surprised tonight when Dave and I reviewed his homework line-by-line, and two past math tests. Dave made him redo every problem he got wrong, and explain his reasoning. As we expected, all his mistakes are because he's careless and sloppy and makes assumptions. One of my Chinese-raised coworkers said today that when a kid is sloppy, that means he needs more practice. She is absolutely right, and Gabriel is going to get that.

However, Superior Chinese Mother is a Yale Law professor, and probably didn't have the problem of an adorable 4-year-old girl completely distracting her sons when they get home and have to do their work. I wanted to review Gabriel's test when I got home, but realized I was already tracking very late for dinner and I had no choice but to set his work aside until Dave got home.

I asked myself briefly if I was overemphasizing homework -- the granola-y schools are nothing like that -- but no, Gabriel's awful attitude is a problem in class as well as at home. And it's only going to get worse as he gets older. His personality and will is much much too strong to let this go.

Just to give an example what we're up against: tonight after lights-out, Gabriel kept messing around and making noise, keeping Julian awake. Dave warned him, then started taking things away. Gabriel being Gabriel, this only caused escalation -- he was furious and started screaming at the top of his lungs. This gave Julian an excuse to get out of bed.

I went up to his room and without a word, took his wrist and led him outside, where I made him sit on the porch in his pajamas. That's a rule around here: screaming gets you sent outside. I had to do that last night too, and like tonight, it was cold, about 45 degrees. So much for that "and he never did it again...."

I left him outside for about 2 minutes, then opened the door and asked him, "Are you ready to be quiet now?" He was huddling on the bench, and had pulled his PJs down around his feet and hands. He glared at me and said through clenched teeth, "OF COURSE NOT." I closed the door without a word.

After another 2 minutes, I pulled him in and brought him upstairs. At his bedroom door, I motioned him to go in his room, and told him to go to bed without saying a word. He stood and stared at me, icicles shooting from his eyes. I lowered my face to his and said in the most menacing tone I have, "YOU GET IN THERE *NOW*." He stood his ground. I told him he'd spend a solid 5 minutes outside in the cold if he wasn't in bed by the count of 10. He didn't move.

Outside it was again. I put him on the porch (secretly relieved that he cooperated with this step) and went to my car. "Where are you going?" he demanded. I was just going into my car to check its outdoor temperature reading, but his question gave me an idea: driving away might freak him out more than anything. So I did. I started my car, and drove away. It was 44 degrees.

I drove around the block, about 2 minutes. To a Chinese mom, I was being too easy on him. To a Western mom, this is child abuse.

When I returned, I motioned him to go inside and told him to once again, go straight to bed without saying a word. "What, did you just drive around the block?" he demanded, not at all nonplussed. I led him all the way to his bed and told him to climb up right now.

And he resisted again. I told him taking him outside was taking up too much time, now I was just going to start spanking. He held his ground for a moment, then climbed up while still glaring at me in the eyes, then sat on the edge of the bed. I told him to get all the way up, he refused.

What would Superior Chinese Mom do? Climb up to a top bunk bed and chase a defiant almost 9-year-old on her hands and knees? Probably. I started to, but he rushed away, and I left quickly before he had a chance to escalate. He's really getting too old and too fast to be chasing.

Experience reminds me that this will all be forgotten tomorrow. But I'm not forgetting about coming down much harder on his schoolwork. I regretted for years that I didn't have more pushing when I was a scatterbrained boy-crazy teenager. My working mother didn't have the time, my divorced father didn't have the interest, and the post-hippie-era culture didn't support it. I struggled with feelings -- and grades -- of academic inferiority, and it wasn't until graduate school that I unlocked my door: I need a lot of repetition and practice for things to sink in. Not that I wish I'd been raised by Superior Chinese Mother, not by any means, but I would have benefitted greatly from more attention.

So I can thank Superior Chinese Mother for some very interesting discussions today, some feelings of superiority of my own, and new gumption to stand up to my iron-willed son. Maybe someday he'll thank her too.


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