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Should American Parents Emulate
the Chinese?

February 12, 2011 by Murky Waters

You're probably familiar with a controversy that's been making the rounds in the media and on the Internet about a book by Yale law professor Amy Chua called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It documents her endeavor to raise her two daughters in what she calls a traditional Chinese parenting style. That basically means that the parent lays down the law, and the children, theoretically at least, shut up and do what they're told. Her young daughters were forbidden to watch TV, expected to get straight A's in school, and made to practice piano and violin for hours at a time. To enforce these rules, Chua resorted to a variety of threats and insults that would send many of us Westerners running to call Child Protective Services. Boot camp, in a nutshell. So your kids want to laugh and play and have a carefree existence? You need to set 'em straight, because, as Chua said on the Today show, "It's a tough world out there."

I first learned about this story from a Time magazine article entitled, "The Roar of the Tiger Mom." The author, Annie Paul Murphy, begins the piece by describing the outrage of readers after a previous article on the same subject. Here's an excerpt:

It was the "Little White Donkey" incident that pushed many readers over the edge. That's the name of the piano tune that Amy Chua...forced her 7-year-old daughter Lulu to practice for hours on end -- "right through dinner into the night," with no breaks for water or even the bathroom, until at last Lulu learned to play the piece.

For other readers, it was Chua calling her older daughter Sophia "garbage" after the girl behaved disrespectfully -- the same thing Chua was called as a child by her strict Chinese father.

And, oh, yes, for some readers it was the card that young Lulu made for her mother's birthday. "I don't want this," Chua announced, adding that she expected to receive a drawing that Lulu had "put some thought and effort into." Throwing the card back at her daughter, she told her, "I deserve better than this. So I reject this."

Another creative technique of the Tiger Mom parenting style, according to the article, is to threaten to burn your daughter's stuffed animals unless she complies with your demands.

In full disclosure, before I continue, I must admit two things:

  1. I haven't read her book. I got my information from the Time magazine article and a couple of other online sources, so it's entirely possible that I don't know the full story.
  2. I'm not a parent. There are probably some out there who believe that a childless person has no business commenting on parental issues. Brace yourselves, because here it comes anyway.

There are few things in this world that piss me off more than child abuse, and I'm not one of those who believes that any kind of strict parenting is abusive. In my mind, there is a very clear line that separates strictness from abuse, and which side your behavior falls on is determined by the question, "Are you being intentionally cruel to your child?" In other words, if you are treating your child harshly, is there some constructive reason for it, or is it for your own sadistic enjoyment?

It is hard for me to see how forcing a 7-year-old girl to play piano for hours without dinner or bathroom breaks is anything besides pointless torture. It certainly won't increase the girl's appreciation for playing piano. It seems obvious that Chua's treatment of her daughter Lulu reflects the woman's feelings of hostility toward the girl, and Chua has gone to great lengths to dress up her actions as the latest feel-good yuppie trend. The use of the phrase "Battle Hymn" in the title of her book seems to confirm this state of conflict with her daughter. There are, no doubt, millions of parents out there looking for such high-minded justifications for similar harsh treatment of their kids. Why? Sigmund Freud would have some ideas on that subject. Go google "Oedipus complex."

Maybe you agree with the Tiger Mom approach to parenting because you really want to help your kids achieve their potential. In that case, does success mean they achieve the things you want them to, as Ms. Chua seems to suggest? Or should it mean they pursue the things they're actually good at and interested in? Who should make that decision? In China, it seems, the parents do. This whole issue brings to mind a recent column by Somebody Else, entitled "The Future has Already Arrived," about how we waste our lives trying to measure up to our society's standards of greatness. When does it end? At what point do Amy Chua's daughters get to pursue something that gives them personal satisfaction?

The Time magazine article seems to give Chua a pat on the back for her parenting style. The usual assertion is made that American parents are too soft and permissive, that our kids are lazy underachievers, and as a result the US is falling behind the rest of the world. It's true that too many American parents are apathetic about their kids' school grades, their behavior, and the way they spend their free time. That part I agree with. There's no doubt that parents need to give their children more guidance in those areas.

What the Tiger Mom model of parenting lacks are two key components that affect your child's chances of true success. The first is respect. If you don't show your daughter respect, how will she ever respect herself? And if she doesn't respect herself, she probably won't believe that she can be successful. Chua claims to be preparing her daughter for success, but her actions seem designed to undermine the girl's self-confidence. It's abuse, no matter how much Ivy League frosting you put on it.

The other missing ingredient in the Tiger Mom plan is the fact that it doesn't allow the child to develop his or her creativity, and to find a true passion in life. We've heard the story over and over again: the most happy and successful people are the ones who follow their dreams, not the ones who follow some ironclad regimen dictated by their parents and society. I believe this to be one of the secrets of Western prosperity -- we allow ourselves, and our children, to be happy. Blind obedience and adherence to tradition are not conducive to innovation, because the very concept of innovation requires that you do something that hasn't been done before.

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