[Note: If you don't immediately recognize the satire here, read this first.]
A lot of people wonder how American parents raise such fools. They wonder what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my boys, Marco, Nico, and Leo, are always allowed to do:
- run into the street (looking both ways before)
- crawl under the dinner table during dinner
- blow bubbles in the milk with a straw
- fart (extra credit if it’s in the bath tub)
- tell us parents when we make a mistake
- do stunt jumping on our trampoline
- confiscate all the pillows, cushions, sheets, and blankets in our house to make a fort
- climb trees and buildings
- run away during a piano lesson if the music’s B-O-R-I-N-G
Even when Chuanese (a peculiarly superior subculture of the Chinese race) parents think they’re being nice to their kids, they usually don’t come close to American parents. For instance, my Chuanese friends who consider themselves loving parents let their children play once a week for a half hour. For an American parent, it’s the everyday play grind that gets tough.
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Americans and Chuanese, or Asians more generally, when it comes to parenting. For instance, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people (15-24 years old) in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan. Here in U.S., Asian/Pacific Islander American females have the highest rate of suicide among females between 15-24 years old.
Here’s Marco doing a crazy trampoline trick he made up himself. What kind of parent would let their little kid do a thing like that?
American parents foolishly believe that nothing is more important than happiness. In addition, though, they believe that children have an innate desire to accomplish worthwhile things in life and to be creative. To accomplish these things, though, you have to be happy. This often requires aimless, enjoyable activity – i.e. free play. While playing, children may seem to accomplish nothing, but with patience and some adult guidance, American parents claim their kids can channel their joy of playing into very productive, creative results – a virtuous circle of happiness and accomplishment.
American parents can get away with things that Chuanese parents can’t. When I was young, my parents let me read only what I wanted to read, rather than read that boring stuff that my teachers assigned to us. So, I never read any children’s literature, which upset my teachers. My choice was to read nothing but baseball material – the sports pages of newspapers and baseball player biographies. As a result, I learned to read quite well, and I taught myself how to calculate batting averages and ERAs by the end of second grade.
As an adult, I do the same thing with my boys. My oldest son Marco (6) hated his piano lessons which were forced on him by my Chinese mother-in-law (!). The video below shows his first recital playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which was a complete disaster. A Chuanese mother like the eminent Amy Chua would have locked Marco in a padded cell with a piano for a week after that until he mastered a Bach fugue (good for math skills!!!). Instead, I told him he could play any music he wanted, and I helped him discover subversive 1960s folk rock (good for drug-enhanced soul searching ). Now, he’s practicing every day, playing tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Here’s Marco’s disaster in his first piano recital. After this, I hugged and kissed him, then we played bouncy ball.
The fact is that American parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Chuanese (especially those charming Communist Party dudes across the Big Pond). For instance, two years ago, I completely renovated my front and back yards to make them into outdoor family rooms. Now, these yards look nothing like those of my neighbors, and kids come over every day to play with abandon. Neighbor parents complain that their kids are playing far fewer educational video games and are creating secret clubs with secret rules that have nothing to do with school.
I’ve thought long and hard about how American parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the American and Chuanese parental mind-sets.
First, I’ve noticed that American parents are extremely concerned about their children’s happiness. One of the fundamental ideals of American national culture is “the pursuit of happiness.” Keep in mind that happiness is a tricky concept. Americans tend to define it in terms of their own subjective inner state. On the other hand, Chuanese define happiness, to the extent that they permit themselves to acknowledge it, according to an objective, socially-defined benchmark (e.g. a grade, a test score, mastering a difficult-but-unappealing piano piece).
Paradoxically, while American happiness is about an inner state, it manifests itself most when one feels that he or she has made a significant contribution to the lives of others. In other words, it is an inner state expressed best through a selfless dedication to others. Often, but not always, our economic system rewards us for enhancing others’ lives.
Because American parents understand this subjective nature of happiness, they also understand that they can’t tell their children where to find happiness. They can facilitate this search, but ultimately, American parents’ job is to help their children find their own path. If these parents are successful, their children will live happy lives, fulfilled by the positive impact they have on the people around them.
Chuanese parents are only focused on how their children measure up to objective social standards, and believe that their children’s happiness will take care of itself if they meet these standards. Usually, Chuanese children are rewarded economically for meeting these standards, but if they happen to make a positive impact on other people’s lives, it’s a mere coincidence.
Amy Chua won’t let her girls do anything musically other than play classical violin or piano. Meanwhile, Marco just invented a new dance for Talking Heads music. Which kid would you rather be?
Second, American parents believe that their kids owe them nothing. I love my boys. I mean, I LOVE my boys. When I try to get them to do something – yes, push does come to shove sometimes, and I can yell pretty loudly – the focus is on how they can learn to live happy, successful lives. It’s not about me. It’s about them and their life. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of impact do you want to have on the world? My job is to help them create their dreams, and then to help them to achieve them. If I can do that even decently well, they’ll LOVE me too. I’m not worried.
Third, American parents believe that their children do their best when they are doing what they want. Of course, I don’t want my kids to be axe murderers or drug addicts. Deep down, I don’t think most kids want to do something like that, either (excepting sociopaths like Jared Loughner). We American parents have faith in the innate goodness of our children, so we view our jobs as helping them get in touch with that goodness, and then helping them go wherever it propels them. I have aspirations for my boys as high as Amy Chua does for her girls, but I believe that they’ll get there (or not) according to how well I help them find the fire in their own soul, and then channel that fire.
Here’s a story in favor of this seemingly foolish American approach to parenting. My son Marco is a decent reader for a kindergartener, but he’s far from the best in his class. Amy Chua would be quite disappointed in my wife and I – after all, we both were top readers when we were his age. We haven’t even considered calling him an idiot and locking him in his room until he can pass a reading comprehension test on a Harry Potter book.
Instead, our energies have been focused on helping him find his intellectual passion. So, every time he voices a bit of interest in something, we scurry like madmen trying to set up his deep dive into the subject. We buy lots of books and other items, take him to special museums or parks, and talk up the subject for as long as he’ll listen. The first three or four times we tried this, we failed to spark any significant interest.
Just now, though, I think we’ve found something that really gets him excited: geology. Last weekend, we took him and his brothers to an ancient seabed two and a half hours from home that allegedly had fossils from sea creatures millions of years old. We climbed over a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign and searched around there for an hour. The boys were getting mighty cranky.
Then, finally, I found a fossil of an ancient clam. It was dramatic, to say the least. Marco saw that and went wild. He found at least a dozen others on his own.
This week, I’ve purchased about eight books on various aspects of geology. He’s been pleading with me to read them to him every night. He’s beginning to understand that my reading to him will not nearly satisfy his curiosity in these geology books, so he’s going to have to learn how to read them himself.
In addition, I bought some geodes at a toy store. Now, I’m about to buy some bigger ones from an online store that specializes in them. Every morning and evening, Marco can’t talk about anything but fossils and geodes. I’m now thinking about taking him on a trip to a dinosaur excavation site this summer.
It’s hard to say how far Marco will go with this interest in geology. Ultimately, that’s not my wife’s and my decision. It’s his.
If, or should I say when, he loses this passion, my wife and I will keep listening closely, ready to pounce again. What we absolutely won’t do is force him to dedicate long hours to something he can’t justify pouring himself into.
Of course, he won’t be passionate about everything he encounters at school, but I firmly believe that, once he pursues a couple of intellectual passions (the more, the better!), he’ll recognize for himself the connectedness of all academic subjects.
For instance, let’s say he’s still crazy about geology five or ten years from now. While English literature might not captivate him, he might realize that a strong command of language – reading and writing – are absolutely essential to his dreams of making geological discoveries. The historical context that certain works of literature provide might also prove very useful to understanding the history of geological discoveries.
Ultimately, though, my wife and I have little control over all this. We’re just counting on the probability that Marco will find these passions for himself, and that they’ll propel him to learn, to be happy, and to be fulfilled in life.
But we might be wrong. He might be someone who only responds to Chuanese abuse. Left to make his own choices, he might be a “B” student in life, or worse (YIKES!!! the Chuanese out there gasp in horror.). He might never be truly happy. He might never find a way to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
That’s the chance we’re willing to take. We’re foolish American parents. We put our faith in Marco’s own pursuit of happiness, even though we don’t really know what’s inside him. I can’t wait to see how he and all those other children of foolish American parents turn out. In the meantime, we’ll have an awful lot of fun with Marco every step of the way to adulthood. Heck, when we look back, we might all conclude that the journey was the reward. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Chuanese parents.
Here’s our back yard on Halloween night, 2010. It was like a rave for toddlers and elementary school kids. Very Un-Chuanese…