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Friday Nugget Blogging

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“Let’s look it up on that poster, then, Mom. I might be wrong about TV, but I’m pretty sure children do have the right to set their own bedtime.”

Nope. (The “poster” where we looked this up is a list of rights enumerated under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which hangs in our dining room. It certainly does not specify the right to go to bed when you like, but it does mention the right to “play and to rest,” “join and assemble other groups,” develop one’s “personality and talents to the full,” and the rights to freedom of speech, belief and opinion, among a range of others.)

All this came to my mind this week when observing the public reaction to Amy Chua’s WSJ editorial on the superiority of “Chinese Mothers.” I should say I have great respect for Amy Chua as a scholar, and I even got some insights from her piece. Though there’s plenty to find outrageous in her valorization of the extreme child-rearing practices she describes, turns out a lot of that valorization was the Wall Street Journal’s doing, not hers. Her memoir, she argues in an interview with SF Gate reporter Jeff Yang:

“is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Fair enough. But I do want to address the claim that tiger-parenting is “Chinese” as opposed to “Western” – a claim she stands by in this interview, and one that can’t help but be wrong, in all the many, many ways that most dichotomous, essentializing, “either this or that” statements are wrong. Let me just explore a small bit of its wrongness: the notion that adults owe duties to children being “Western”, since this insight got some play in the comments thread on Scott’s earlier post:

“Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The understanding is that Chinese children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud. By contrast, I don’t think most Westerners have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband, Jed, actually has the opposite view. “It’s parents who foist life on their kids, so it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide for them. Kids don’t owe their parents anything. Their duty will be to their own kids.”

And yet the notion that parents and other adults owe children things is the entire basis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty which China has ratified and which is in fact the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world precisely because so little in it is objectionable to most societies. The one government who hasn’t ratified may do so soon, making this a universally ratified set of aspirations. The assumption in the treaty is simple: children are human beings and they are entitled to enjoy rights, whose duty it is for their families and guardians to ensure and protect, and for which they owe nothing in return but equivalent respect for other peoples’ rights.

Of course the existence of the treaty doesn’t mean that everyone will act in accordance with it or even agree with it, and the treaty places a lot of emphasis on the rights of parents to determine how to best meet the interests of their children. But it does suggest that the idea of children as holders of rights as well as obligations is not purely “Western.” (And the notion that children owe their parents respect and obedience is hardly non-Western.)

The dichotomy Chua describes between authoritarian and democratic parenting styles might be better described as a continuum, rather than a clear distinction. And I would be surprised if most parents aren’t somewhere in the middle. But the tension is not between Western and Asian values. It’s between parents who take the idea of child rights seriously and those that don’t. There are certain plenty of the former and of the latter in all societies.

For my part, I prefer the former, but that doesn’t require me to be at the far end of the ‘permissive’ parent continuum in the way Chua caricatures “Westerners” or even, as some have pointed out, professional, upper-middle-class Westerners. My kids watch much less TV than the national standard and what they do watch is regulated. They are permitted screen-time on phones and computers only at certain times (not in the car, for example), for certain periods, and under certain conditions (chores and homework first, no mean texting allowed). They are allowed sleepovers or social activities only one night a week. They are required to watch the news: rather than drill them on math, they get drilled on current events, geography and political rhetoric. They are encouraged but not forced to take music, and must practice only as much as their teachers require; but in the hours this frees up that their tiger cub counterparts are spending on scales, they are required to do other structured activities: assist with the care and training of our dog, engage in family time, help prepare, eat and clean up after family dinners, do yoga. They are encouraged to play sports or extracurricular activities but not to the exclusion of all these other important things, as some families allow. Even unstructured down-time is written into the schedule.

Ultimately, it’s all about balance.

My son may not like that he can’t set his own bedtime, but he understands the difference between privileges and rights, and the balance between rights and duties, and the need to balance his own interests with his responsibilities to his family. And he tells me feels secure knowing he has some rights, where to look them up and how to invoke them. This provides a sense of confidence and self-worth – that his place in society depends simply on the fact that he is a human being – which is just as real as the confidence that comes from mastering piano (or in his case, soccer). Plus it leaves him keenly attuned to the rights of others, attentive to their feelings, willing to share the field rather than insist on being conspicuously better than everyone else. Besides being athletes who also manage to get good grades, my kids are developing skills in empathy, listening, balanced assertiveness, curiosity, generosity and respect for others’ cultures and beliefs.

These are values at the core not only of human rights culture but of Asian spiritual traditions. And they are skills young people need to become (and later to raise) successful citizens not of compartmentalized “civilizations” or elite economies, but of an increasingly globalized world, a world characterized by globalizing values intersecting with myriad particularisms.

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