Why American Mothers are Superior

I really did not have time to write this today, but two articles I read made me drop what I was doing. First was the Wall Street Journal article by a Yale law professor who says Chinese mothers are superior because they produce more mathematical and musical prodigies.

The reason, she says, is because none of them accept a grade less than an “A”, all insist their child be number one in the class, they don’t let their children be in school plays, play any instrument other than piano or violin, etc.

She says that this whole thing about people being individuals is a lot of crap (I’m paraphrasing a bit) and gives an example of how she spent hours getting her seven-year-old to play a very difficult piece on the piano. She uses the fact that the older daughter could do the same piece at that age as proof this was reasonable.

There are a few areas I would take exception with her article. First is her grasp of mathematics and logic. It is clearly impossible that every child in China is number one in the class, unless every classroom in the country has a thirty-way tie for first. Second, as my daughter asked, “There are 1.3 billion people in China. None of them ever got a B?” Third is the issue of claiming your parenting is such a great success when your children are not yet out of high school.

I don’t teach at Yale, but I do have a Ph.D., have published several articles in academic journals, founded two companies, and won a gold medal in the world judo championships. I raised three kids to adulthood. As for the companies, they paid enough to support the kids in what they wanted to do. That individualism crap?

Well, the first one went to NYU at age 17, graduated at 20 and if you google Maria Burns Ortiz you’ll find everything from her acceptance speech as Emerging Journalist of the Year to her stories on Major League Baseball investments in Venezuela for ESPN to Fox News Latino. Plus, she has a good husband and she is a wonderful mother.

She never took piano lessons but she is an amazing writer.

The second daughter, the Perfect Jennifer, received her Masters and teaching credential from USC at 24, after taking a couple years off after her B.A. in History. She teaches at an inner city school in Los Angeles. This isn’t her fall back plan in a bad economy. This was her first choice profession and her first choice school. They are lucky to have her and she’s happy to have them.

My third daughter was in the last two Olympics, won a bronze medal in Beijing and has now gone professional as a fighter in Mixed Martial Arts. Ironically, she was the one that played bassoon and attended a science magnet. She volunteers at a school in Watts where her older sister did her student teaching.

And STILL, I would not venture to lecture other people on how superior my parenting skills are because a) there have been times when I could cheerfully have smacked each one of them with a two by four and only my maturity, Catholic faith and felony assault laws of the state of California stayed my hand and b) as Erma Bombeck said, no mother is arrogant because she knows that, regardless of her other accomplishments in life, at any moment she may get a call from the school principal saying that her child rode a motorcycle through the auditorium.

If I got a call like that, I wouldn’t even be surprised. I would just reach for my credit card to give the principal the number over the phone and go searching the house for my two by four.

The second article I read was by Vivek Wadhwa, in Business Week, who said that Chinese and Indian engineering programs graduate several times MORE students than the U.S. but the quality of these students is generally much poorer than American students.

When I was in graduate school, I used to think arguments such as Wadhwa’s were just sour grapes from American students who couldn’t cut it, and their teachers who let them slack.

Then, I graduated, became a professor for many years and an employer. I see exactly the differences Vivek describes between American and many international students.

When I ask the latter questions such as,

“If you were going to redesign programming language X, what would you do?”

They will tell me what X does in great detail but not answer the question.

American students are more likely to jump in with ideas about how to change X, replete with statements like “X sucks because…”

My twenty-five years of experience, agrees with Wadhwa’s research findings in that the international students I have met are far less likely to question results. Of course this isn’t true of all of them. It’s silly to generalize to every member of a nation of a billion or half-billion people.

American students remind me of the nursery rhyme:

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
And when she was good
She was very, very good
And when she was bad
She was horrid

My husband is brilliant. This is why I married him. He went to UCLA on a National Merit Scholarship, double majored in math and physics and then went on to graduate work in physics. He taught himself Calculus in elementary school and then taught himself as much physics as he could before going to college. His parents pretty much let him do what he wanted to do, which was read physics books.

My older brother has a degree in Computer Science from Washington University in St. Louis. Like most of his friends, he majored in computer science because he was really interested in math and computers. When we were in college, around 1975, I saw my first “personal computer”. One of my brother’s friends had built it from parts.

I’m a statistician because I really love statistics and fortunately for me, it pays money.

In America, people in math, computer science and other sciences generally chose those fields because that is what they want to do. They have a genuine interest, to the point of passion, and will often spend crazy hours working in their labs.

Chinese and other international students often spend crazy hours, too, but not as often for the same reasons. A lot of times it’s because of a language barrier – and they have my respect. I spent a year as a student in Japan. As a professor, I once taught a Directed Studies in Psychological Research course in Spanish. Functioning in a second language is damn hard.

The international scholars I know, far more often than American ones, chose their field for practical reasons. They could get a job. The salaries were good. Their parents really wanted them to become a doctor/ engineer.

Sometimes these Chinese (and other) students change while in America. Not always. Lots of middle managers like people to do exactly what they’re told. Not always the best thing for business but perhaps best for the comfort and convenience of that manager.

Schools really like people to do what they are told, and universities just love having graduate students who will pay high out-of-state tuition, teach for low wages, or even work in the lab for free. Hey, don’t blame us if 30% of the students we admit are from other countries, they did the best on the tests AND had a 4.0 GPA. You should have studied more, you lazy slackers!

Someone ought to ask WHY we are measuring what we measure. These tests we give, and the other admissions criteria were not handed down by God. (I know because I did my dissertation on intelligence testing. Most of these tests come from The Psychological Corporation, Pearson Education and the Educational Testing Service. God doesn’t work at any of those places. If you don’t believe me, call their switchboard and ask for God’s extension.)

Why does it matter if your child is a musical prodigy? What the hell difference does it make if your child can play some complicated piece on the piano at age seven?

My youngest daughter, the world’s most spoiled twelve-year-old, plays drums. She practices about an hour a week. She likes the drums. I want my daughter to play an instrument, if she is interested, because it might be something that brings her joy as an adult.

She is on the student council and, this last report card, she brought home her first B+ in a year. We kind of grumbled about it, but that’s all. High achievement is important in life, but it is not all of life.

WHY does it matter so much if you have a 4.0 GPA? I did not have the best behavior or GPA as either a high school student or undergraduate. Looking back, I wonder whatever possessed the admissions staff at Washington University in St. Louis to look at my SAT scores and overlook everything else, but I will be forever grateful that they did. I doubt many universities would admit a student like me today, particularly not at age 16.

What I did have was an intense desire to learn about the world.

As an undergraduate, I took a graduate course in economics because it sounded really interesting and asked the professor’s permission to enroll.
He happened to have been chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (under Richard Nixon, but he was still a great professor nonetheless). I also took courses on Urban and Regional Economics where I got to see real-life applications of matrix algebra.

My point (and by now you may have despaired of my ever having one) is that my undergraduate education gave me the gift of professors willing to respond to my interests, enough time not to interfere with my relationship with the library, and classmates I argued with for the pure intellectual exercise.

When my youngest child is ready for college, I will look for a school that will give that to her. If it is an Ivy League school, that’s fine.

Dr. Chua is raising her children to fit into the Ivy League mold.

Me, I’m raising my children to be themselves and to mold the world to fit.

How is that working out ….

There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think several times, “I love my life.”

So, it works well for me, and for my family, all the way down to the two-year-old granddaughter whose latest favorite saying is,

“I a lucky kid!”
(Well, right after, “Grandma, buy me an iPad for Chrissmas!” )

Dr. Chua’s definition of success is to have children who are musical and mathematical prodigies.

Mine is to have children who learn well, live well and love well.

She’s a success by her standards as I am by mine.

(But I still won’t be surprised if I get that call from the principal. )


My day job :

Games that make you smarter. Don’t let your kids get dumber over the summer. We have three games that run on Mac and Windows. Check them out here.

Mom and kid

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  1. A lot of American parents are inadequate like the gay couple on Modern Family(it’s a show). they represent bad american parents(not that all American parents are bad and not because they’re a gay couple. They spoil their children. They lie and lie and lie telling them they’re amazing at everything. Well, the truth has to come out one way or another. I don’t like Amy chua’s parenting methods. I’m pro-freedom. But lots of parents spoiled their kids like the gay couple on ‘Modern Family’.

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