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Calling Chinese Mothers ‘Superior’ Is Insensitive to Working Families

There’s something cynically appropriate about the Wall Street Journal, of all papers, running an excerpt of Amy Chua’s parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Just like the op-ed pieces that run roughshod over the experiences and needs of most working families, Chua’s piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” is an embarrassing display of the economically privileged putting the blinders on while passing judgment on the less fortunate.

By now her essay has made the media and blogosphere rounds, so I’ll summarize quickly and cut to the crux of the matter.

Chua’s explanation for why the stereotype of brilliant Asian children is mostly true consists of anecdotes drawn from her experience as a child, mother, and friend of equally tough-loving parents. Failure, quite literally, is not an option for her children. Bringing home a grade below the mark of an “A” cannot be tolerated. A violation of this rule means constant harangues; a barrage of nasty statements aimed at the child like stupid, worthless, and disgrace. Extracurriculars are limited to piano and violin practice. Her child wants to perform with the school theater? Forget about it. The upbringing is puritan and exacting, but the love conveyed is through the enormous attention given to the child.

I’m not here to dwell on whether this approach to parenting is abusive or harmful to a child’s future well-being. Banning a kid from watching TV, playing video games, attending sleep away camps, and participating in sleepovers probably has its merits in the short-run. But depriving a child a chance to interact freely outside of formal strictures also seems pedagogically inane and at times lethal; Campus Progress superstar Catherine Traywick reminds me young Asian-American women are more likely than any other social group to consider, or go through with, suicide.

Perhaps most frustrating about Chua’s essay is how impractical her approach to parenting is for most American families. It’s terribly time-consuming for the parent to be so thoroughly hands-on. With public funding for after-school programs constantly gutted, parents are in a bind to manage their careers, personal needs, and the primary task of nurturing their kids. Beyond the interpersonal development school plays and athletics programs afford, they also take the load off parents who work well past 5pm. Moreover, for many parents, affording nannies and private care services is fiscally unviable.

And while this may be a bit gauche, let me pry into Chua’s finances as a full-fledged professor of law at Yale University. The average salary [PDF] for someone of her rank is $174,000. She joined the institution in 2001, likely as an associate professor, good enough to haul in nearly $70,000 in earnings. Her workweek is generous—one of the benefits of living in the ivory tower is the workload is light, and you can take a lot of work home.

Compare that to the life an average American worker. A typical woman earns $668 a week; a man earns slightly more in the same period–$821, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics findings. That’s an average of $745 a week: meaning two working parents make less than half of what Chua earns annually (and likely work twice as much).

It’s unclear whether Chua grew up in a single- or two-income home. She attributes much of her parenting savvy to her imperious parents. That they were successful in this lifestyle is likely, and doesn’t take away from my point—single wage earners were the norm when Chua was a child, and wages rose year-to-year, assuring a middle-class lifestyle on the back of a single parent’s paycheck. Then wages began to flat-line beginning with the Carter administration, culminating with 2007, when family income actually fell compared to the previous year. And, household income today is only $7,000 more than it was in 1973, using 2008 dollars.Despite more mothers entering the labor field and contributing to household earnings, family income has inched up a weak 16 percent across three decades. The belt tightening isn’t limited to families. Low-wage workers in 2011 are worse off financially than they were in 1979. Even Taking into account minimum wage, inflation, and qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the same worker would fair better earning minimum wage alone in 1979.

Today, the wage picture is quite different than when Chua was growing up, and federal standards for making it easier for dual working parents leave us wanting more.  Consider the provisions meted out for giving birth to a new child. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which really only covers 60 percent of work places, enforces 24 weeks of combined protected job-leave for a two parent family. It does not guarantee an income for the time off. As of 2009, Germany offers 47 weeks of paid leave, and another 123 weeks off. Our neighbors to the north assure new parents 28 weeks of paid leave, and 25 weeks of additional time off unpaid.

And while there are several tax credits available to help shoulder the burden of raising children for families with low to moderate incomes, it’s hardly enough. Besides, the tax cut deal President Obama brokered with Senate Republicans and that was written into law before the New Year actually increases taxes for 40-50 million of the poorest Americans. Tax credits for having children are available, at times adding up to more than $4000 per child, but throw in the cost of education and manipulations to how much Pell Grant money can go to families receiving other types of aid, and it become more apparent what is offered does not suffice. Dual-parent families who are low-income are on the hook for roughly $8000 a child, per year, based on an index of average expenses published by USDA in 2008. If two caretakers earn middle-class incomes, expect the costs to double. Staggeringly, by the time a child is 17, a family with an income of $98,000 spends nearly $23,000 on her. 

Now consider that many families have had their credit lines truncated since that study was released.

Professor Chua, I do not doubt, does not mean to disparage most working families directly. Judging by the title of one of her recent works, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, she is likely sensitive to the plight of many whose financial fortunes have been depressed in this economy. Still, the taxonomy of her parenting belongs to the science of wealthier people. Nevermind that she apprises us of a type of mothering that can only be viewed as a shibboleth to many; following her lead is, above all, a monetary pipedream.

Whether we’re to condemn her or the lawmakers who’ve allowed social policy to fall behind the cost of living is up for debate.

Mikhail Zinshteyn is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can e-mail him at mzinshteyn@googlemail.com.

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