My son had his first ever day of school this week. Here in Australia we've just had our summer break, and now it's the beginning of the new school year. As I made his lunch and packed his school bag I was filled with self doubt. I always seem to have this reaction - any kind of challenge or milestone is met with a meltdown of self questioning and accusation within me. Perhaps that's why Amy Chua's tract on effective mothering – ‘Battle Hym of the Tiger Mother’, has had such an impact recently in the media and book sales. If every other 'western' mother is as self questioning and self accusing as me then it's no wonder we're so easy to sucker money out of.
Sometimes reading someone you really disagree with has the positive affect of helping you reconnect with what you really think, and as I read about her boot camp style of mothering (no sleepovers, no play dates, no grades acceptable less than an A) I started to feel my strength and belief in myself as a mother, and a liberal Westerner, returning.
I also started to form a more nuanced understanding of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and Chinese communism in general. Sorry to get all Freudian on you, but if this is what a lot of Chinese mothers are like then the disasters of the last half century in China were not all due to Western Imperialism or Chairman Mao. Seriously, what kind of trauma and repression does this sort of parenting lead to? We probably wouldn't know, because along with this tradition of parenting (if we are to believe Chua) comes some other strong Chinese traditions, of 'eating bitterness' – that is, not telling of your sadness or pain, and ‘saving face,’ - not admitting to any kind of problems outside the privacy of your family.
I read about this in a recent New Yorker article on the burgeoning popularity of Freudian psycho analysis in China, and while I’m sorry to hear the West is exporting its most expensive and least effective form of therapy East, it also makes me hopeful that the Chinese might soon begin to embrace other, more effective and accessible forms of psychological help, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, that could work effectively with Chinese medicine. It also makes me confident that, just as Freud and Jung and the whole concept of psychology and analysis went huge around the second half of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, the concept of the individual self is about to go huge in China.
Amidst all this new prosperity and the terrible hardships their last half century and the recent industrial revolution have wrought, the human rights movement in China is, I predict, about to be assisted by a new mass movement: the quest for personal happiness and meaning. This will combine with political movements and consumer consciousness to create a grave new threat to the hegemony of the Communist party, and the typical Chinese Mother. (My apologies to all the many millions of Chinese mothers out there who do not raise their children in Amy Chua’s way. I am using shorthand.)
Once our economic survival as a family is assured, and once we feel safe enough individually to look within – that is, when a critical mass of people reach the middle class, what is our next task as a human being, and as a family, to be? This, I think, is the question raised by Amy Chua’s style of parenting and the state of China at the moment, as millions of people find they have a reached a point where they have the luxury of choosing what they want their lives and their children’s lives to be. Is a mass population of ever more wealthy, ever more driven people really to be desired? Even if they do play piano to concert level standard and excel in academic studies, it’s not possible for every child to come top and to win. If that’s the sole goal of child raising it will lead to a state of barely concealed and incessant civil war, accompanied by wide spread feelings of failure and self loathing. It will also lead to a generation addicted to escape from the pressure – through drugs, depression, or immigration. All of which I think is coming.
And this is when a softer, more questing and questioning style of parenting will perhaps start to be more comprehensible to mothers like Amy Chua, who at present are so critical of western style of parenting that emphasises social connectedness and self esteem over academic achievement. If your child isn’t classical pianist material, if they obviously are not going to make it to the top, then what is the use of him or her? What is the point of their existence in the world, and how as a parent can you best prepare them?
As I send my son off to school I feel confident I am hoping for the right things for him. I want him to keep unfolding as a person, so that he can fulfil his own unique destiny. I want him to find activities he enjoys and can become good at, and people he loves who love him. I want him to be challenged to fail and to succeed and to explore. I want to equip him to make his contribution to the world and to society – whether that’s by his simple individual example of who he is, or through something that he makes, or something that he does. I want him to play his unique part in our extraordinary human tapestry. I don’t know what that’s meant to look like. I don’t know what that will be. All I can do is keep watering the little plant that is him unfolding, talk lovingly and encouragingly to him, and ensure that the sun shines on his garden. That’s what I wish for every child.