“Tiger Mom” and the Culture of Shame

January 2011  |  Status: Complete

Amy Chua’s WSJ article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, has been circulating on the interwebs for a couple of weeks now. Together with her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her story has generated a deafening controversy — after all, Chua appears to endorse an extremely strict, academic achievement-oriented, dictatorial style of parenting. No sleepovers, no school plays, no grade lower than A, and no music except piano and violin. This is about as politically incorrect as one can possibly get in the Western hemisphere.

Predictably, the blogophere explodes all over Chua. The New York Times calls her a “wimp” for being overprotective. Betty Ming Liu argues that parents like Chua are why so many Asian-Americans are in therapy. Some people even wonder whether child protective services should be called on Chua. One response is brimming over with the F-word; another takes a more reserved approach, comparing different educational philosophies. Meanwhile, over at Quora.com, an anonymous Asian-American tells the story of a sister who committed suicide one week after her wedding, having been raised with a similar style of parenting.

Some of the harsher responses, to be fair, seem a bit misguided. According to another article on WSJ, Chua wasn’t the person who picked the sensational title of her first article, and the online excerpt doesn’t mention any of the doubts that she began to have when her younger daughter staged a dramatic rebellion at the age of thirteen. Chua insists that her book is a memoir, not a parenting guide. Also, popular arguments about how Chua must have ruined her kids’ life seem to jump to conclusions. So far, there is no evidence that the Chinese-American Yale law professor caused any long-term damage to her daughters’ self-esteem or their ability to interact socially. One of her daughters actually claims that her mother’s strict discipline may have made her more independent. There is even some pretty persuasive evidence that the message of the WSJ article is not at all what Chua intended.

But this post is not about how strict or lenient a parent should be. I’ll leave that topic for better informed people to discuss. This post is about a troubling idea, which seems to manifest itself in every aspect of Chua’s parenting style, regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of that style. The idea is that shame is an acceptable, or even preferable, means of getting people to do things. Bloggers can disagree all day long about whether Chua is actually “Chinese”, but this idea of hers is indisputably Chinese, or more generally Eastern. And it is very, very problematic.

Shame or Be Shamed

Anthropologists and sociologists use the term “shame society” to describe a society in which shame and the threat of ostracism are the primary means of controlling undesirable behavior, both in children and in adults. Shame society is usually contrasted with “guilt society”, in which guilt and the threat of punishment (both in the hands of humans and gods) are the primary means of controlling undesirable behavior. Japan is a stereotypical shame society. Western Europe and North America with its Judeo-Christian heritage are often classified as guilt societies. The culture of shame, however, is not limited to Japan and China. Similar cultures are found throughout East Asia, and also in a certain subset of Islamic cultures where certain sexual relationships are considered so shameful as to warrant “honor killing”. The culture of shame might not be an exclusively Eastern thing, but it is certainly much stronger in the Eastern hemisphere.

Amy Chua’s “Chinese” parenting style is strongly motivated by, and also makes heavy use of, the notion of shame. It is considered shameful for parents to have children who perform poorly at school, because it means that “parents are not doing their jobs”; and it is considered shameful for children to perform poorly at school, because it means they’re not doing their jobs, either. There is a ready arsenal of insults that a parent can throw at a child in order to induce shame; Chua cites a few, including “garbage”, “stupid”, “worthless”, and “a disgrace”. The last item on the list is the most revealing of its purpose, but others are equally effective at inducing shame.

Note that it is usually the child who is labeled stupid and worthless; it wouldn’t make much sense to apply those adjectives to a particular action of the child’s. Unlike guilt which is usually attributed to actions (e.g. “laziness is a sin”), shame always attaches to the person (e.g. “you are a lazy person”). Shame is also transferable, unlike guilt. A child who does something shameful makes her parents also shameful. (By contrast, a child who commits a crime in a guilt society does not make her parents also criminals.) Shaming makes a person, as well as everyone else who is related to her, worth a little less than they used to be. Shame is visceral. It operates by irritating a human being’s primitive desire for self-worth. It is therefore extremely effective, but it is also thoroughly dehumanizing. Whoever said “hate the sin, but love the sinner” most certainly didn’t think high of a shame society.

Shame is closely tied to other people’s expectations. There is no shame in doing something if everyone already expects you to do it, or in not doing something if nobody expects you to do it anyway. Chua’s children are shamed when they perform badly at school or when they cannot play a tricky piece of music, because their mother expects them to excel, and it would be a shame to disappoint her. “Chinese parents”, Chua writes, “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”. But shame goes further than that. It’s not just parents with ambitious goals; it’s the whole society that sets expectations. Just read the list of things Chua expected of her daughters. Top of the class in every subject except gym and drama. No school plays or random extracurricular activities. Plenty of piano and violin, but never any other instrument. What the hell is wrong with gym and drama? Why are school plays not worth excelling at? Why is guitar not an option? What about painting and all the other artsy stuff? Short answer: because those other things aren’t as highly regarded as math, literature, piano, and violin.

Chua argues that her educational philosophy is not just about getting into Harvard but about “helping your children be the best they can be”. That sounds good until you realize that, at least in the case of her own children, Chua limited the scope of this (otherwise wonderful) principle to those subjects and skills which it would be shameful for an upper-class “Chinese” parent not to make her children learn. Again, this is all about other people’s expectations. Like shame, expectations are transferable. Society expects parents to expect good girls to play the piano, but not the electric guitar. Similarly, parents are not expected to be thrilled at the prospect of their child playing Villager Number Six in a school play. Gym and drama are for dumb kids with attractive bodies. The same goes for the performing arts, except a small subset of Western chamber music. Smart kids don’t play sports. Or at least that’s the expectation in most parts of East Asia. To diverge from those stereotypes would bring about a cascading attribution of shame to everybody involved.

The Culture of Shame

When your life choices always involve avoiding shame by shaming other people, what results is not a “virtuous circle” as Chua’s stereotypical “Chinese parent” thinks, but a vicious circle of dehumanization and moral hazard. In this web page, James Atherton nicely summarizes the difference between shame cultures and guilt cultures. (The tables can appear broken in some browsers; drag your mouse over them to see white text.) The most troubling elements appear in the “shame culture” table’s bottom-left and top-right cells. Even if you did something wrong, in a shame society, you don’t have to feel bad unless other people know about it. This leads to a culture of corruption and secrecy. On the contrary, even if you did nothing wrong, you’re supposed to feel ashamed if other people think you did. This leads to a culture of conformity and stagnation, where people frown upon anybody who dares to challenge the status quo. In such a society, Rosa Parks would never have been able to stay in that white-only seat. Other passengers would have shamed her into submission, and the dishonor would have been hers alone.

There’s a reason why South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. (Ever heard of the Korean girl who killed herself after becoming the No. 1 student? She feared the shame of ever becoming No. 2 again.) There’s also a reason why Japan had been a one-party state for almost half a century until recently, why the Chinese don’t revolt against their Communist overlords, and why honor killings still happen in some Middle Eastern and African societies despite express prohibition by their governments. All of these are at least partially caused by a culture of shame, conformity, and the inevitable resistance to social change.

The culture of shame perpetuates itself by shaming whoever dares to differ. Shame is such a visceral motivator that even the law can’t do much about it. Even today, another generation grows up all over East Asia and elsewhere, having been ruthlessly shamed all their lives, and ready to shame another in their turn. Shaming leads to contempt, and contempt leads to hatred. Just like Chua couldn’t tolerate “wasting” any time on school plays and sports camps, a culture of shame cannot tolerate those who violate its idiosyncratic norms. In addition, the culture of shame takes any criticism to be a personal insult, because criticism-as-insult is what they’re most familiar with. Add contempt and hatred to a feeling of having been insulted, and the next logical step is war.

This is not to say that guilt societies are the way to go. The culture of guilt also has its share of serious problems, which is beyond the scope of this post. All I’m trying to point out is that the culture of shame, with all of its potential and actual dangers, permeates every corner of the parenting style that Amy Chua describes (or recommends, depending on the interpretation) in her WSJ article.

Two Types of Timidity

Chua argues that children are strong, so they can take a few blows to their self-esteem. Indeed, she says that this method can be far more effective than the Western style of parenting, not only in making children get straight A’s, but also in strengthening their self-esteem and independence. But the method she advocates was imported straight from a culture which only survives by sucking the blood of its members’ self-esteem and independence. Paradox? You’ve got it. Is it dangerous? You bet.

In the WSJ article, Chua seems to think (or seems to have thought, until her younger daughter’s rebellion) that Western parents are timid, because they don’t trust their children to withstand blows to their self-esteem. But she who judges, is judged in turn. There’s a sense in which The New York Times got the “wimp” label just right. After all, Chua couldn’t trust her children to be able to rise to their best without having to suffer the dehumanizing culture of shame. She also couldn’t trust herself to be able to say “fuck you” to her native culture’s expectations and prejudices without considering herself shamed. She was too timid to take a step beyond her cultural heritage, and too afraid that her children might discover a passion in some subject, hobby, or musical instrument with which she wasn’t familiar — or worse, which would make her shameful in the eyes of other “Chinese” mothers.

Chua prepared her children to be successful in the “Chinese” sense, to go to Harvard like she did. But did she prepare her children to become free human beings, not encumbered by past generations’ dehumanizing habits? Only time will tell, and only Chua’s two daughters will know. The dangers of shaming may have been mitigated by their mother’s abundant displays of love and the presence of their easygoing father; but again, it’s too early to judge, and every child is different. One thing, however, is clear: Don’t try this at home. Few things are more irresponsible than gambling with a person’s lifelong moral outlook.

There’s one thing, though, that we should learn from Chua, despite all the messy publicity she’s been getting lately. It’s something that too many parents, both in the West and in the East, including Amy Chua herself, seem too timid to teach their children. Whatever you do, be the best that you can be. Yes, it’s the unqualified, unprejudiced version of Chua’s educational philosophy. This is an excellent principle, provided that it is understood in a way that doesn’t involve shattering a person’s self-worth. Still, many parents and teachers are secretly afraid that their kids might follow it all the way through, and so they create all sorts of trouble trying to limit the applicability of this principle. Why? Because doing your very best also means making your very own choices, and nobody knows where those choices will lead.

Don’t bother with those dumb prejudices. No human being needs to be ashamed for who he or she is; so if anybody says otherwise, you have the right to tell them to get lost. Find your passion, and push your limits. But don’t do it because you owe it to your parents, or to anybody else. Don’t do it because you are expected to do it. Don’t do it because you fear the shame and ostracism you would suffer if you didn’t do it. Also don’t do it to avoid guilt and punishment; that’s just as dehumanizing as shaming. Do your best, because you owe it to yourself. Do it because you’re precious. Do it because you are a unique and lovely human being. Do it because you, and nobody else, deserve the very best that you can achieve.