An essay claiming that Chinese mothers are superior to Western moms has the Internets buzzing, which is sure to boost sales of author Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, released today. I'm just hoping that the piece, which ran in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, isn't a true reflection of Chua's parenting style. She seems to be advocating practices that are, quite frankly, abusive, such as calling your children "fatty" and "lazy" and even "garbage" as a way of motivating them to achieve in school and in life. In her world view, parents know best, and have a duty to drive their children to excel academically and at parent-chosen extracurricular activities, while denying them autonomy, playdates and any hobby that might not get them into the best college.
Given that I have a Chinese mother and I am one myself (okay, I'm a half-Chinese mother) I feel the need to combat the notion that raising children with an iron fist is the best choice. I have seen the damage that impossible-to-please Chinese parents have wrought on their children, who end up depressed, acting out sexually and struggling to form healthy adult relationships -- despite that Ivy League degree and high-prestige job that their parents are so proud of. As Julianne Hing blogs at the Atlantic, Asian-American women "are especially prone to depression and suicide; scientists have linked that in part to cultural pressures to succeed." Although the subhead of Chua's essay mentions "happy kids," nowhere in the body of the piece do I see any evidence that her parenting techniques have led her children to develop confidence, independence or happiness -- just to achieve high grades and play musical instruments well.
My biggest argument with Chua's essay is the idea that parents face only two choices: to be authoritarian or to be permissive. She portrays Chinese parents as the achievement-focused dictators of their children's lives, and Western parents as pushovers who praise their children for sub-par efforts in a misguided attempt to build their self-esteem. Not only is this a sweeping cultural generalization, there is a middle way, as Heather Turgeon points out in Babble.com, in which parents set boundaries, rules and high expectations for their kids -- but also respect them as individuals; care about their thoughts and needs; and give them the nurturing and loving support they need to tackle life's challenges.
Chua has ably pointed out the flaws in the permissive parenting style. But that doesn't mean she's right either. The danger of authoritarian parenting is that if you make every decision for your children until they turn 18, and never let them fail, they'll be unprepared to cope in the real world as autonomous adults. At some point, they are likely to either go wild with their newfound freedom, or collapse under the weight of their first failure. Thus, we see straight-A students binge drinking and engaging in risky sex in their freshman year of college or becoming suicidal after receiving their first-ever A-minus or worse. Not to mention the many children who are simply unable to achieve those straight As in the first place, and spin out of control on their dictatorial parents' watch.
I've requested a review copy of Chua's book, which I hope will be more nuanced than the excerpt implies. More than one friend has asked my opinion of the essay -- and been relieved when I said they weren't failing their children by yelling at them too little. What do you think about the differences in parenting styles that you observe around you? Are you tempted to adopt any of Chua's extreme parenting techniques?
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