December 31, 2011

Wolf Dad, Tiger Mom, And Why Trying To Be A Good Parent Is A Bad Idea


best mom ever

Part 1 here

The people who read books like Chuas hoping to learn something start from a wrong motivation: they aren't looking to raise better kids, they are looking to be better parents.  If you don't see how those are different, your kids do.

By example: the NYT's "Motherlode" section has a year-end summary,  2011: Stories That Changed The Way We Parent.  Sounds important.  Let's see how many are for the advancement of children versus the pretense of parenting:

Amy Chua
Jerry Sandusky
Gender-Neutral Parenting
HPV Vaccines For Boys
The Digital Classroom

The actual sacrifice of parenting, the one that happens anyway but is resisted bitterly to the dismay of all, I've only really seen described once.  I hate quoting famous thinkers explicitly because it puts a distance between the reader and the ideas, it makes them less personal, but sometimes it can't be helped

Did you see that wonderful melodrama, Stella Dallas with Barbara Stanwyck? She has a daughter who wants to marry into the upper class, but she is an embarrassment to her daughter. So, the mother - on purpose - played an extremely vulgar, promiscuous mother in front of her daughter's lover, so that the daughter could drop her, without guilt. The daughter could be furious with her and marry the rich guy. That's a more difficult sacrifice. It's not "I will make a big sacrifice and remain deep in their heart." No, in making the sacrifice, you risk your reputation itself. Is this an extreme case? No, I think every good parent should do this.

The true temptation of education is how to raise your child by sacrificing your reputation. It's not my son who should admire me as a role model and so on. I'm not saying you should, to be vulgar, masturbate in front of your son in order to appear as an idiot. But, to avoid this trap - the typical pedagogical trap, which is, apparently you want to help your son, but the real goal is to remain the ideal figure for your son - you must sacrifice that.


The book title says he beat his kids into Peking U, but actually he did something else:

"From 3 to 12, kids are mainly animals," he says. "Their humanity and social nature still aren't complete. So you have to use Pavlovian methods to educate them."

This is where all the enlightened humanists in the audience are supposed to freak-out.  Kids aren't animals, individuality is important, blah blah, but what's important is the word Pavlovian: his violence is not random, it is not surprising.

I could be wrong, but it appears from these articles that Xiao doesn't beat his kids into Peking U out of anger, but out of a system.  Not saying corporal punishment is the way to go, but I am 100% positive it isn't the beating itself that molded the kids, but the very clear rules and consequences, which requires an awesome level of energy, vigilance, and self-control on the parent's part, which is why most people who beat their kids only get high school dropouts.  Parenting requires consistency.  Protip: this is even more important for The Autistic Child.

This is very similar to the mechanism of (preventing) PTSD: you can be the drunkest parent imaginable, and the kid will make it as long as your terribleness is a known quantity, your immensely violent behavior predictable, and the kid has some control over the consequences, e.g. if he does X he'll get his hand put in a microwave, but if he doesn't do X he won't.  As long as the kid can make sense of the story of his life, if he understands its narrative structure-- even if it is made up (Life Is Beautiful)-- he can make it. 

Remember the judge who beat his teen daughter?   What made the beating worse is that
it made no sense.  The amount of beating had no relationship to her behavior, it was entirely dependent on how he was feeling that day, not what she did.  As a judge he had sentencing guidelines for different crimes; as a father he freelanced, and terribly.  That's what made it particularly damaging.  This is the phrase that accompanies all abusive relationships: "I never know what kind of mood he'll be in."  The beatings come from rage, which makes them sound like hate.  Xiao beat his kids more than the judge did, but you don't get the feeling that Xiao hates his kids.


Wolf Dad is Chinese, actual Chinese, and his main audience is other Chinese. Well, sort of.

The fact that he attributes, publicly, his children's success to his method suggests that he is not behaving like a Chinese Dad, but a Westernized Dad.  Real Chinese dads may tell you that they beat their kids, but they do not go around bragging about their childrens' successes, let alone as a consequence of their awesome parenting.  Hence, this is for a very specific Chinese audience, i.e. ones interested in taking credit for their kids' successes, i.e. westernized. Xiao may not let his kids watch TV and Youtube, but I will bet every cent I have his readers do.

Xiao's oldest child, 22-year-old Xiao Yao, has his doubts about his father's methods. "Though Dad likes using traditional educational methods, he may not fully understand the exact forms and he chose his own way...

Not just apply the traditional methods-- understand the methods.  Even though he is full-on Chinese, these aren't his methods, he is pretending at them, adopting them.  In America, kids of immigrant parents get caught in this fatal loop, too.  They partially speak their parents' language, have a fair grasp of the traditions but spent most of their American lives trying to be American.  But when they grow up and have their own kids, they try to make their kids more like their parents-- they put them in language classes, they try to saturate them in their heritage, but it's fake and it doesn't stick.  How can you expect to make your kid more Chinese than you are?   We're back to the fundamental error: why, if the parent got through life without much of the old ways, do they think their kids desperately need what they didn't?  And the answer surfaces: it's not for the kids, it's for them.  You can make up for the fact you know little of your heritage by having your kid do all the work of adopting it.

The delicate line I'm walking is that teaching them traditions is in itself positive; but they are utter wastes of time when it is for the parent.  Amy Chua's kids are being raised "Chinese," but really they're being raised Jewish-- which is also a pretense, they're being raised American.  I'm sure they like "authentic" Chinese food from restaurants and know how to spell Hannukah,  but the way they think is American.  The way she thinks is American.  All I need to know is that she identifies Chinese and married a white guy to know that one of her daughters is going to be named Emily or Sophia.  Note: not Chinese names, but predictably the names affluent Americanized Asians give their kids.  She is oblivious to those forces, yet those are in fact what control her.

I'm not at all criticizing her, Sophia is a beautiful name no matter how common, but when you look at the forces that make "you" you, all of the manufacturing and alchemy you try are weaker than reality.  And, if that reality includes a substantial dose of American media, you don't stand a chance.

Americans fear the rise of the China, but that China that you see risen was made by Chinese  over 50.  Their kids, confused by conflicting cultures pictured on the internet versus outside the window are in no position to "take it from here, Dad, we got this."  Those kids who are growing up with money, the young college grads and urbanites who are in possession of the few, but nonetheless inflated employment positions are going to be frustrated when they try to balance their own desire for wealth branding with the minimal opportunities for advancement.   America may have been destroyed by its 50 year olds, but it will be resurrected by its 20 year olds.  China has the exact opposite demographic problem.  China appears to be one generation behind the U.S. in terms of personality disorders, and if the rise of psychiatry over there is any indicator, i.e. the single best indicator ever, boy oh boy are they in for it in 2025. 

That's Wolf Dad.  His beatings are trivial in comparison to the other, now unrepeatable factors he had going for him and his kids: real estate rich; private tutors and lessons; an expensive  "international" high school that was taught in English.  That's not Chinese parenting, that's WSJ America parenting.

If he or anyone else want to brand themselves as a "parent," that's their business, I guess, though the Chinese media is now attacking Xiao for finding a loophole in the Chinese system: because his kids were born in the U.S., they get to take an easier entrance exam to Peking U. 

But that is the least of China's problems:  the real problem for China is that they'll probably go  back.


See also: Why Parents Hate Parenting