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« To a Daoist, the Trolley Problem is not a Problem at all | Main | Further to the Daoist Trolley (non)Problem »

May 10, 2013


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Funny enough, I just finished The Book of Lord Shang last week. Legalism is on the mind. A few thoughts as to its applicability here:

1. I think its iffy. Razib Khan had an interesting post over at his site a week or so ago titled "The Seriousness of Theology." He makes the basic case that sacred texts do not matter - or in his words, "Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit.... almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit."

To apply the same concepts to this topic, what is and what is not the "Chinese way " of doing anything is unlikely to have anything to do with ancient Confucian OR Legalist texts. While an intellectual like Amy Chua (who wrote a book on the rise and fall of civilizations...) is likely to have read these texts, the odds of her "drawing on them" to inform her parenting is small, and smaller still with all of those parents in the study (more on them in a minute). Parenting styles differ across the Christian world in vast ways (compare parenting in liberal America with that in sub-saharan Africa or Latin America!), despite the devout faith many of these Christians profess in the Bible. Theological and philosophical tradition has a much smaller influence on these things than the difference incognition and family structure between cultures.

2. One aspect of the study makes me weary of drawing universal lessons:

"The vast majority of parents were foreign-born in Hong Kong or southern China, with relatively low educational attainment and a median income of between $30,001 and $45,000 in each of the study’s three phases, spaced out equally over eight years."

I submit that in this case, class matters.

Since I was a child I have been friends with Asian Americans whose parents qualify for the Tiger label. These children were very successful, and pretty well adjusted to society. Their parents were also well educated. Many were quite rich.

I saw a different world when called to serve as a LDS missionary. I served in America, but was called to an Asian speaking language (Khmer), and spent most o my time in inner city low income areas that Asian minority groups (mostly Khmer, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Lao) called home. Those two years were a rude awakening to what life is like for too many Americans. Relevant to this topic, most of these families were headed by parents who could barely speak English, did not have much money, and often were single parents. The Tiger Parenting style here was extremely, terrifyingly destructive. (This falls under standard missionary job description; helping families heal). I spilt tears over these families. Time and time again I saw a generational disconnect that brought about hatred and violence - I will always remember when one teenage girl we were teaching informed us that she had hid all of the knives in the house because she was afraid they would be used as weapons if they were left in their normal places.

So what was the difference between these kids and those I knew growing up? Education and class.

Well-to-do parents have more resources and more time to discipline and develop their child. Can you imagine Amy Chua sitting next to her daughter's piano for 8 hours if she had been a single mother, responsible for providing for all of her kids, as well as feeding them, cleaning after them, etc? It would never happen. (And it would be hard in a house where both couples work 50+ hour jobs). The extra resources available to the well-to-do parents allows them to structure their discipline in a way their lower income counterparts just can't manage.

More importantly, well educated parent's language skills and education allows them to bridge the cognitive gap between the two generations. By and large the biggest reason the two sides were fighting were the basic cultural and cognitive differences between Westerners and Asians. The parents thought like Asians; the kids like American teenagers. This was the crux of the problem - the parents wanted their children to treat them the same way they had treated their parents -- and that just was not something the young'uns could do. Parents with better English and higher education understood the culture of their children much better, and could point to their own lives (and the thinking that went along with it) as an example of success. The lower income/less educated parents had a much harder time of things. Their "legalist" resulted in heartbreak.

Final thought - I would be interested to see if these same results could be replicated in Hong Kong and South China itself. The cultural dissonance between authoritative Asian parenting styles and Western rebellious teenage counter culture would be much less. I would not be surprised if kids in China succeed better with this type of parenting than their 2nd gen Chinese American counterparts.

Great piece, Dr Crane!

(One minor thing: the author of the study in question is Kim Su-Yeong; Kim is her surname, not Su. It is confusing, though, because she uses the 'Americanised' name order of given-sur, rather than sur-given.)

But yes, I was very wary of the 'Tiger Parent' thesis when it came out; it struck me as reading 'Asian-ness' in far too essentialist a way, and misreading the intellectual legacy, as you point out, of Confucianism. It isn't just Mencius, either - Confucius himself, even though he advocated study of the Classics of the Zhou Dynasty, could not rightly be considered a fan of rote learning (LY 13:5). I think that jives pretty well with his overall anti-authoritarian (but not anti-authority) bent.

Also, I have been away for far too long; but I also wanted you to know that I enjoyed your piece on what Mencius might have to say about Wolfowitz, and shared it on my own blog. Thanks again!


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