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By Request: On Manners and Parenting

January 27, 2011

What I’ve done today is supposed to be rather elegant, but we’ll see how that works out. I’ve combined two blog post requests which I’ve received into one post, which I think will end up dealing with just one thing that’s related to both topics.

The first request I received was from my half-sister, Morgan, to speak of (and I quote) “the lack of kindness and manners… how the progression of good manners has slowly DIED.”


The second request I received was from my high school Psychology and Sociology teacher, Ms. Turner. She linked me to a great article entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, and asked that I give a commentary on it. There was something in there about an interesting perspective without firing off a post devoid of thought, so I hope I can do some justice to that.

To answer a thought that I predict may be brewing in a few minds right now, no– the reason these two requests are being lumped together is NOT because Chinese mothers have all the good manners and kindness. The connection I’ve come up with is just a little more societal, but we’ll see what you think of it.

First, though, I’d ask you to read the article that was linked to me, simply in the interest of knowing what I’m talking about:

However, for the “too long; didn’t read” crowd, I will give the rundown. Amy Chua is a Chinese mother, and she’d like to tell you why Chinese mothers (a term she admittedly uses loosely to include Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish, and Ghanian parents she knows who also qualify) are better parents than their Western contemporaries. There is a laundry list of activities her children were never allowed to do, including “Attend a sleepover”, “Be in a school play”, “Complain about not being in a school play”, or “Get any grade less than an A”. Even when Western parents think that they’re being strict, she tells us, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. Her example is that “strict” Western parents make their children practice their instrument for thirty minutes or maybe an hour, while Chinese parents will extend this to two or three hours. Chinese parents always feel that stressing academic success is good for a child, and no Chinese parents feel the need to stress that learning is fun. The majority feel that their child can be the best in academics, and that successful academics reflect successful parents–and it shows. Chinese parents spend up to 10 times as much time each day drilling their children in academic activities, while Western children are more likely to participate in sports teams. Apparently while Western parents give up in the beginning when a child resists the imperative to practice, practice, practice, the Chinese tenacity which forces their children to override the tendency not to work eventually becomes a virtuous cycle. The children will tend to practice in habit, and when they excel at activities they will continue to practice and improve. Then, when a child excels, Chinese parents will praise and admire their child for the developed abilities that came from the practice. Chua also relates a personal anecdote in which she forced her child to keep practicing a particularly troublesome piano piece which later evidenced a breakthrough.

Chua lists three differences between Chinese and Western parents which allow Chinese parents to “get away with what they do”.

1. Western parents are extremely anxious about each child’s self-esteem, while Chinese parents believe that a child’s ego will be strong enough to withstand shaming and improve afterwards (though she points out that when children do excel there is plenty of ego-inflating at home).

2. While Western parents are of the opinion that it is the parents’ responsibility to provide for their children, Chinese parents are of the opinion that children ultimately owe everything to their parents (probably in part from Confucian ideology and the amount that parents have to care for their children).

3. “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences. It’s not that Chinese parents don’t care about their children. Just the opposite. They would give up anything for their children. It’s just an entirely different parenting model.”

Phew! That was quite the summarization. Okay.

So what I want to get at with this blog post is the connection between the loss of manners/kindness and the advantage Chinese parents have over their Western peers. Because I think we can attribute much of both matters to a single facet of Western society–in particular, the United States (of which I have experience. If you’d like to talk about the societal forgoing of manners in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, Antarctica, the North Pole, Middle Earth, Midkemia, Niflheim, Mars, or really any society that doesn’t model itself after the industrialized United States, be my guest. I just can’t do it).

Anyway, what I’m bringing to the forefront here are two things that really add up to one issue. It’s the Cult of Individuality, and the way individual self-esteem is being approached from primary school on up these days.

In America, out of the choices between society and individual, the emphasis is undoubtedly on the individual. We know that. The Constitution, the entire American feeling, American literature and propaganda, everything that any American has been brought up on will emphasize how important individual rights are, how important it is to be yourself in the face of adversity, and to pursue the things that make you uniquely you. There are bestselling books in Barnes & Noble and Borders dedicated to being the very best you that you can be.

This is the Cult of Individuality. A person’s identity and the expression of their every individual choice is paramount. Each individual decision is to be made, regardless of the faces in which such individual decisions will fly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an American, born and raised, and so to some degree I am also affiliated with the Cult of Individuality. I treasure my essential self, my identity, and to a large extent I will go to lengths to protect my sense of self.

However, the American society takes such notions to an absurd length. “Everyone is special”, we’re told for years. “Everyone is special in their own special way”, a notion that Amy Chua notes and at which she scoffs. I have to agree with that scoffing. While I do not disregard that each person is able to contribute something in some area, there are realistic limits to such contributions. More on that later.

The second informally named “thing” that makes up this issue is the education system’s determination of self-esteem in the importance of a student’s academic and personal success. In recent years, the connection between achievement and self-worth, self-esteem, has been definitively correlated in the field of psychology.

Unfortunately, the modern American education system has taken this the wrong way. The decision has been to promote student self-esteem, in the hope that this raised self-esteem will lead to increased academic achievement.

This is wrong.

Those students who continually are able to reach academic success therefore will have a higher sense of self-esteem. Those who are unable to reach academic success for whatever reason will not benefit simply from an increase in the level of their self-esteem, unless that increase creates in turn increases the motivation for the student to spend time pursuing academic success.

The other effect of this practice is to create a sense of capabilities which is not in alignment with the student’s actual range of capabilities. This inflated ego is bolstered at any time the issue of self-esteem is brought up in the classroom. “You can do whatever you set your mind to”, “Anyone can do whatever they want, if they work hard enough”.

It’s a bullshit piece of propaganda designed to bolster self-esteem in the endless pursuit of higher test scores.

Finally tying back into the previous point, we can talk about the societal decline in terms of kindness and manners, if anyone is still reading my opinion on the subject.

Between the vast American propaganda serving the Cult of Individuality and the American education system placing such a heavy emphasis on self-esteem (to the point of egotism), the children born after…1995, 2000? have been inundated with messages that shape their lives.

That shaping is turning our youth into a generation of egotistical, selfish, lazy, narcissistic individuals– the kind of individuals that are already prevalent in the American society. With a regime of positive reinforcement regardless of effort or achievement, the rampant ego inflation causes these citizens to believe that all achievements hinge on their personal contribution, and any negative outcome is caused by some external, uncontrollable force– never by the failure of these people to have made a negative choice, taken the easy-not-correct course, or simply not having the necessary skills and abilities. It’s always the fault of everyone else that a project fails. Bad luck was the cause. There’s a conspiracy to prove that this person isn’t as good as they believe.

And maybe there is. When a person is wildly incompetent, people will do their best to prove the presence of this incompetence, in an attempt to root it out.

But back to kindness and manners. When one believes oneself to be the font of all positivity, and others the source of negativity, where does one learn the value of another human? Other people become barriers, or at best necessary consumers of this godly individual’s precious time and resources.

Where in American society do we teach a person to be humble, to treat others as equals? Where do we teach a person to strive to recognize their own flaws, to place self-blame when it really matters?

Largely, we don’t. We teach people to strive for the stars, devote all of their energy to overcoming obstacles (either physical, mental, or person: naysayers and bureaucrats, simpletons without vision the lot of them), and never compromising the goals of their individuality for others.

It’s no wonder we’re slowly losing manners and kindness in general. No one teaches them anymore.

I will, briefly, give a few comments on the Chinese style of parenting. It is effective: as shown by Amy Chua, Chinese daughters and sons will eventually overcome the natural “child’s laziness” to form diligent work habits. That diligence can overcome even natural disadvantages to produce abilities that are at least worthwhile, if not the greatest in a field. That distinction, however, should be made. As much as Amy Chua scoffed at the notion of individual contribution in a “special” way (as noted in her twisting of the saying, that “even losers are special in their own special way), there is something to it. Chinese parents may believe that their children can be the best in academics, and in each activity they pursue, but that is simply patently untrue in most cases.

This is a simple case of numbers. There are almost seven billion humans on this planet, parents. Your son or daughter is simply one out of an amazingly large mass. There is simply no way for even every Chinese child to be the “best” in all of the activities that they pursue– there are simply too many people. Forget adding in the rest of the races of the world, even one race has far too many individuals for even the most strict and uncompromising society to always raise a “best” child to go with demanding parents.

Chinese expectations (as generalized in the above article) work extremely well to foster good behavior to build skills, but in dreadfully limited areas. While it is important to exceed in schoolwork, and the art of learning an instrument (or multiple instruments) is invaluable, there are other things of value in this world.

Consider. We raise children to perform well in some mathematics, some science, english writing and speaking skills, operating computers, simplistic art, and history. Some schools require a minimum of physical activity.

If all that a child strives for can be housed inside a school curriculum and a music lesson, that child’s world is far too small to include anything that is beautiful or otherwise valuable to the human race.

There are those who farm our food, create beautiful pieces of art beyond finger painting and Crayola crayons, repair cars, refine oil, grow amazing plants for a variety of uses, build houses, govern sewage and sanitation, create the layout of a city, repair roads, provide electricity, create clothing, write books (not essays), provide entertainment, hold religious services, teach classes at both the elementary level and in higher education, hold political office, staff our police force, serve in our military, and so much more.

None of these occupations readily fall under the skills and abilities which are conveyed through academics or in learning a musical instrument.

I agree that the methods of the Chinese parents impose fantastic learning habits upon children. However, I do not think it is appropriate that those methods limit the scope of a child’s curiosity and fascination with the world, which is exactly what happens when the child is allowed to focus on three things: my instruments, my schoolwork, and maintaining my body to get me along to those first to focuses–how annoying.

And really. Why can’t we play instruments other than the piano or violin? Your musical taste it so limited, Amy.

Well, that was a pretty long one! As always, I’d love to get comments, questions, and thoughts on this blog post. Especially if you have a request for a future topic, please leave a little something below this post! Have a great day.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. chris permalink
    January 27, 2011 3:38 am

    You bring up several excellent points in this post, and although I will not say that Americans are completely right in how they approach teaching their kids, I have to say, teaching everyone to act and react the same way is a little disturbing and I think eliminates some of the innate imagination that humans have. Thats not to say that the Chinese way of raising a child is completely wrong, but the idea of someone telling me what I must learn, and what I must do for a living, is frankly, repugnant. I feel like it is a similar situation to the film I watched in Sophmore year English, “The Dead Poets Society”. I believe you have seen it, so you will know what I’m talking about, and I can see both sides of the aurgument, often your parents just have your best interests at heart, but in the end, if what you are being forced to do makes you unhappy, then why do it?

    • Walker permalink
      January 27, 2011 10:19 pm

      Going off of what Chris said, if we raise a generation to believe/react/think the same way causes that generation to not have those “out of the box” ideas that can solve issues brought up by anything.

      I do believe that neither way is the best but we Americans allow more creativity which I personally believe to be a wondful opportunity while the Chinese force more time to be given to academics or music or whatever which I think is also needed (but in moderation). You need time to not only experience what others want you to experience but you also need the time to be able to experience what you want.

      • January 27, 2011 10:52 pm

        Beautiful. That’s exactly what I think in terms of the education: We need discipline combined with the flexibility to allow creativity. It’s all about balance, balance, balance, and I think the next post I’m going to write will be about just that.

  2. MsSaraTurner permalink
    February 1, 2011 11:13 pm

    And I’d like to once again pose this question: Does society create the institutions or do the institutions create society? Is there a correlation here and if so, now what?

    On a different note, MILES I LOVE IT! I assure you that I am going to be linking this piece over, and over, and over again b/c I think it’s something that people- teachers and parents especially – need to read. As I said when I recommended the article, you can’t argue w/ her success, but it is just that- HER success. Perhaps there is a happy medium between East and West? Maybe there’s something to be said about some of the old school ways?

    • February 2, 2011 12:14 am

      If you really want to get into that one, society came first when people were able to meaningfully communicate. According to Socrates, that was because we aren’t self-sufficient; we form societies because eventually (with enough participants) each need can be filled. It follows, then, that institutions were created either to fill a need or to control the population somehow. Obviously, by this point, society creates institutions that create society, ad infinitum.

      And I’m glad to hear it! If I’ve written one article that’s had a great impact and should be shared, I’m happy to have accomplished something.

      As you say, it’s a happy medium that we could see being the key. Hopefully that happy medium between East and West would be able to instill the amazing habits of the East with the freedom of the West.

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