Corporal punishment is the unspoken dark side of Asian and Asian Pacific American parenting, and if the whirlwind created by Amy Chua’s sardonic Tiger Mom memoir wasn’t enough to roil the interwebs, the much less funny Wolf Dad will.
A Chinese writer publishing a provocative essay in the English-language Diplomatsays that “Wolf Dads,” or yet another distorted form of sado-masochistic pressuring of kids to be Harvard-ready, has found its latest expression in Xiao Baiyou’s parenting manual — complete with detailed explanations of how and where to use a rattan cane on your child for maximum effect but minimal tell-tale bruising.
In Xiao Baiyou’s book, mothers are expected to devote their whole lives to the perfect cultivation of concert-pianist/surgeon cherubs, while fathers enforce through fear what constant reminders won’t. Describing how “Wolf Dads,” “Tiger Moms,” and “Harvard Girls” use a Chinese-language website to whip each other into a frenzy of personal attacks and anonymous trolling/stalking (just like unbridled bullying on American parenting sites, fancy that!), we learn:
Because there are so many housewives on the website, many have posted a defense of Liu Yiting (“There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife!”) – but many a Chinese “tiger mother” and “wolf father” must be wondering if staying at home full-time to torture your child is a noble sacrifice if all that happens is that one day your child will stay at home full-time to torture her child.
Setting aside the gender-prescribed roles here for a moment (do no dads feel similarly imprisoned in their cruel overseer roles? why is the stay-at-home-parent presumed to inhabit a prison?), the writer ends by observing that a 16-year old Beijing teen who is pursuing his PhD in math has mastered inverting the head trips laid on him by his parents. He demanded that they buy him an apartment once he finishes his degree: “Since it’s his parents who constantly want him to stay in Beijing long-term, Zhang argues, it’s actually his parents putting the pressure on themselves to buy him a house.”
The furor over Wolf Dad’s book has now spilled over from the Chinese social network where a Chinese-English biliterate informant spilled the beans, to NPR, which has amplified the buzz surrounding Wolf Dad to American English-language media. Louisa Lim of NPR uses some of Xiao Baiyou’s choicest quotes to illustrate his methods:
For each violation of the rules, such as sleeping in the wrong position, the penalty is to be hit with a feather duster on the legs or the palm of the hand. If it doesn’t leave a mark, then it won’t make an impact, Xiao says.
“From 3 to 12, kids are mainly animals,” he says. “Their humanity and social nature still aren’t complete. So you have to use Pavlovian methods to educate them.”
Xiao’s method involved all of the children watching each punishment. Any transgression of the rules by a younger sibling would also earn a beating for the older siblings, for failing to be a good model. Despite the sometimes daily beatings, Xiao sees himself as the best dad in the world and repeatedly claims his unorthodox methods “have no shortcomings.”
A sane parent might wonder how Xiao Baiyou has time to generate over one thousand rules dictating the proper ways to eat, sleep, and study. His “Wolf Dad” method requires twenty-four hour vigilance — possibly more time than even Amy Chua invested in her kids.
My concern with the widespread freak-out Chua’s book provoked was that someone would see the high academic achievement of her children as proof that a certain harsh form of parenting “works” to create children who’ll attend elite schools. I was worried that despite her professed tongue-in-cheek tone, non-Asians would take her book as a parenting manual, complete with inadvisable psychological warfare over toys (“I’ll put your dollhouse in the car and give pieces away one by one if you don’t learn this piano piece”). There isn’t much physical punishment in Chua’s Tiger Mom (she slaps her daughter once), but there’s plenty of psychological brinksmanship and pressuring.
But with Xiao Baiyou’s Wolf Dad, we’ve crossed into the dangerous territory where previously only American religious fundamentalists who love corporal punishment care to lurk. Recently, reports of a family that beat their children with a half-inch plumbing pipe according to the teachings of a fundamentalist Christian childrearing book caused outrage within Christian homeschooling communities when a child in the family suffered a beating so severe she died. Word of another similar death after years of abuse emerged more recently. Followers of Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child, which uses Biblical passages to instruct parents to strike their children in the name of raising good Christian children, are encouraged to smack infants as young as six months old, and establish domination over their children by hitting them until they are “without breath to complain.”
There are uncomfortable parallels between Chinese parents who embrace Wolf Dad-style father as harsh disciplinarian, and American Christian evangelicals. What they share is a patriarchal, authoritarian vision of parent as unquestioned leader of the family who can use any and all methods at his or her discretion to achieve “results” (a model Christian child, a model Harvard undergrad, or for Chinese born-again Christian families, both). What they also share is a deep investment in the development of their children coupled with intense attention to their upbringing — a kind of conscientiousness that could be positive in reasonable moderation, but that can also can go off the rails to horrible extremes. Tough Chinese child-rearing that relies on corporal punishment to force children’s achievement is excused, if not praised, using a “cultural argument” that ignores the class background, personal failings, and aspirational underpinnings of excessive parental pressure. Likewise, evangelical Christians who draw authority for their parenting from the Bible to extract good behavior try to shield the extremes of their approach in a “religious freedom” argument that ignores how these teachings enable people’s worst excesses and flaws. See for example how well-intentioned parents are willing to excuse the occasional Lydia Schatz death:
why the Pearls’ teachings hold so much appeal for conservative, home-schooling parents who are, overall, ‘highly motivated to spend time with their children, love their children, willing to make sacrifices for their children, want the best for their children. They are not, in general, people prone to neglecting their kids or motivated by abuse and anger,’ she says. ‘So when people criticize the Pearls and in the same breath misrepresent parents who use Pearl parenting, those parents easily tune out the criticism.’
So here’s the problem as one might see it after hearing about the “Wolf Dad” or the Pearls: is it that light spanking mostly works, and most parents can exercise enough self-restraint to keep from deeply harming their children (thereby excusing extremist applications of spanking as regrettable improbable events), or is it that corporal punishment as a disciplinary method is rotten to the core simply because it’s subject to distorted uses? Is it right to let the extremes define the middle? Do we let the extremes take on the burden of guilt the middle occasionally feels when pushed too far? To dwell on these questions is to stay within the frame that says corporal punishment is necessary to guide children’s behavior. And to accept these frames by pointing to outcomes is to say a God-fearing or high-achieving child is worth the damage.
What if we started with the premise that it isn’t? What if loving but firm teaching of your children is possible without hitting?
Plenty of people have refused both the “cultural” defense and the “religious freedom” defense. Look at the parents of one of the 10-year olds featured in the NPR story — these children wrote a sassy guide about how to evade your parents’ discipline. Their parents’ views?
“Mostly we respect her decisions and treat her as an equal. Chinese parents like one adjective: ‘good’ or ‘obedient,’ ” Chen says. “I don’t want her to be an obedient child. It just means you’re in the system, you can only follow orders. It’s only when you think outside the box that you can become creative.”
After the children wrote the guide, one parent promoted it on Chinese social media sites where it received much praise and stimulated discussion. Look at the evangelical Christians who are starting to speak out and reject the “biblical” teachings of the Pearls. Not all Chinese nor all evangelical Christians believe in authoritarian interpretations of culture or the Bible; in fact, increasing numbers don’t.
I’d like to see us drop our “cultural” or “religious” defenses for really what’s a preference for doing things the familiar, and authoritarian, way. Why, for those who shrink in horror from the Bible being used to justify beatings of children, would it be okay to justify starving and beating children in the name of high academic achievement or absolute obedience? For every Tiger Mom or Wolf Dad, for every child on whom the rod is used either sparingly or plentifully, there are now many more examples of parents learning to use gentler means to set boundaries and encourage pro-social behavior from their kids.
By saying that Xiao Baiyou and the Schatz family (whose daughter Lydia died from a severe spanking) are part of the same authoritarian parenting spectrum, I want to clarify that it’s the authoritarianism they share that finds expression no matter culture or religion, and it’s that authoritarianism — absolute domination over a child as one’s “property” — that we should decry. It isn’t good for children, and it isn’t good for the parents. “Culture” fogs our vision, just as “religion” that sacralizes abuse hides what we all know must not be allowed to stand.
Xiao Baiyou’s son says of the way he was raised: “‘Though Dad likes using traditional educational methods, he may not fully understand the exact forms and he chose his own way,’ he told a TV program. ‘There may be some distance from the best results.’”
Entry into the “Harvard of China,” Beijing University, wasn’t enough to make the son endorse his father’s methods.
What it will take is for more Chinese (all parents, actually) and Christian parents speaking out and showing the way toward emotionally intelligent tools that work. That movement started when Amy Chua opened the floodgates to the pain absorbed by millions of diasporic Chinese who’d grown up under harsh childrearing, and when Lydia Schatz’s death sparked revulsion and outrage among evangelicals. It shouldn’t require traumatized adults with shattered senses of self, hospitalized children, or slow-motion self-destruction found in the poor mental health or high suicide rates of pressured Asian Pacific American kids to encourage parents to find more evolved ways of both raising children and encouraging them to flourish in the world.