Earning her stripes: Tiger "mommy dearest" Mother may have some important points

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"There are so many ways to end up in a good spot."
A parenting book - Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - exploded on the internet and came to my attention with an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal and several reaction pieces, of which NPR's interview with the author is most telling. As someone who taught a parenting course and is currently advising parents of at-risk children, naturally my curiosity was piqued. It took me a total of three tries to get through the excerpt, not because she was a poor writer, but because she was rousing the teenager out of me: I recognized her, and her words were like poison to my senses. I did not want more parents getting the idea that somehow, authoritarian parenting was the ideal for their child. But I'm glad I finished the article and read other reviews that actually bothered to digest what she had to say, because the tiger illustrated some very important parenting techniques hidden beneath the simplified pitching of Western versus Chinese style.

This book is meant to provoke, not to give an accurate or scientific account of ideal parenting, or Chinese parenting. A few details about the book stood out in subsequent reactions to her questionable approach. In the NPR interview, it was pointed out to her that her husband, also a Yale professor, had the kind of up-bringing that she seemingly railed against conceptually (but not in practice). Yet there he was, achieving a similar kind of success she was having. How could you say one style is superior to another if the results match? She conceded the point, adding a further crucial piece to the picture: she was co-parenting with a fun-loving parent, and her family "did have a lot of fun." Another notable detail came with the revelation that her daughters were allowed to read and criticize the menu script of her book. How un-authoritarian of her! You could even say, if we were to simplify it in her terms, "Western." Chinese kids don't criticize Chinese parents! Right? Finally, her book ended as her children reached their teenage years, which would be the most notoriously difficult time to parent. It's also the age at which earlier parenting style would start to become more apparent in their children, the first appearance of the result of earlier parenting years. There are plenty of prodigal children who don't function well beyond the parents' claws, and her children are yet to be tested. I wouldn't claim success - the kind that she would care about - just yet. The good part was about to begin.

It should be stressed that strategies like hers are not new; they're just being repackaged as a remedy to cure a deteriorating society. When results are lacking, people naturally look at imposing structures as a way to counteract what feels like chaos, invoking a sense of control over what seems to be out of control. It's a wishful strategy, and not particularly creative, though not necessarily ineffective. What she was practising, upon closer inspection, was actually towing the line of authoritative parenting rather than authoritarian, the latter of which would be the kind of dictatorship a "tiger mother" may inspire. She waged an easy argument against permissive, indulgent parenting, which exists, well, everywhere. Even China! Needless to say, the whole deal with her argument concerning Chinese vs Western parenting style is more of a marketing ploy than a thoughtful observation based on any kind of fact. Nevertheless, there are some very important pointers to take away from the provocative piece.

Based on the excerpt and her interview, the potentially long lasting success of her children may be attributed not to her military-esque, insanely obsessive and controlling behaviour, but to other known beneficial forces at work:
  1. "Earn your play": Amy's right - hard work is extra hard at the beginning, and nobody likes doing things she feels overwhelmed about. Children master a lot of things that are hard, and they would need to do so in order to grow and survive. Amy enforced discipline in her children, with a never-say-die attitude that's important to success. Practice makes perfect - that's not just an empty motto, it's a living truth (though dependent of where you draw that perfect line). Working hard is really hard to instill, and yet necessary for long term success. It is most likely to lead to at least small successes that could do wonders for the coveted self-confidence. It teaches commitment, faith in success, and sense of internal locus of control. Many depressed folks suffer from external locus of control - they believe their life is not in their hand. I believe in working hard and playing hard, if not equally so. The work ethic and commitment principle could be applied to any aspect of their life. Sadly, Amy was pretty entrenched in a couple of areas of the girls' life, and seemingly forgot all about play. Applying a fitting principle to different but similar situations is part of an important learning process, and what makes for further successes later on.

  2. "A parent is not a friend": Related to the idea of discipline is that of parenting. In an attempt to bond with children and be accepted as "cool" by them, sometimes parents forget that they're not their children's peer. Children have their autonomy, but they need the structure to learn at least the establishment of boundaries. Parents look out for their children's safety and well being because children are just not cognitively and emotionally fully developed yet to make long term, complicated decisions. They provide rules so children know what to expect. Being a parent is also kinda like being a leader, giving parents the chance to model leadership style. It's a source of comfort to know that you can rely on someone to keep an eye on you like they're supposed to. Perhaps it explains why people in time of great confusion would turn to god as the ultimate parent, and why AA would work for some folks. Time and time again, I would see troubled folks searching for that strict, parental figure to "straighten" them out. What they needed was proper parents, and not older friends who couldn't take care of themselves never mind their own children. Amy was a total dictator in many instances, but she definitely tried to be their parent rather than their friend.

  3. "Be where your children are": I'm talking about time and effort spent with the children. Amy was not simply throwing money at her children, or enrolling them in programs that function mostly to babysit like a lot of other well-to-do, ambitious parents. She spent hours going over their work, devising practice tests to help them do better. She was their teacher and their parent, all the while giving them the sort of attention that many children crave. Scarily obsessive, sure, but it's more time spent building a bond with the children. I bet it's why some of her intuitive but stubborn behaviour paid off - she spent enough time working on them to have some understanding of how they worked. And it's probably why she could throw her relationship with the children into the battle of wills and not be afraid that something would break. Parents' relationship with the child is their biggest, and best, leverage.

  4. "Do as you say": Role modeling is so important for kids, and actions speak just as loudly as words. Parents often make the mistake of not following their own rule and expect their children to. Do as I say and not as I do! Children sometimes would adopt the opposite way of being from their parents, if their experience led them to believe that their parents' way was undesirable. But that would only lead to children knowing what to run away from, while learning nothing of what to run towards. They would have to learn that elsewhere, if at all. Whereas if you show them that you are responsible by your actions, they will learn what responsibility look like. Respect yourself, and you'd teach your children to respect themselves. It maybe harsh to reject your children's hand-made birthday card, but in the context that they had forgotten your birthday and made half-hearted attempt at a gesture, rejection could communicate to the children your own self-respect and standards. Amy worked just as hard as her children, and was there with them all the way. Her line was hard but consistent, creating a very reliable role model that her children could count on. This in turn could foster a sense of stability, a sort of security that could be a foundation for inner strength further along in life.

  5. "Love is a doing": It's so important that her hardcore approach was encased in a loving context. Amy showed her children that they were loved, not just silently but with expressive physical bonding, like snuggling or sharing jokes. This is not the case for a lot of kids suffering through "tough love." Their parents are unwilling or unable to show any "soft" side, opting instead to remain in their "bad cop" role. I'm not sure how much of it was shown to her children, but enough that they were able to express anger (in Lulu's case) - a complex and difficult emotion to express by children of strong willed parent to said parent - and open affection for her after fiercely fought battles.

  6. "Greater expectations": Holding your children to a standard that you know (and hope) that your children can achieve is not a shameful thing to do. While we speak of the stress and the weight of expectation, it can actually be quite beneficial to self-esteem. Children internalize parenting style learned earlier on, including expectations, and it's a form of self-respect to expect great things from yourself. From my own experience, having parents who simply assume that I could be great at everything I did helped me to tackle most things like I could master them if I had put in the work. It has its downside, but it gives me a sense of mastery and a "let's do this" attitude that you just can't build fast enough with successful experience. Expectation can also be used like that rabbit being used in dog race to motivate the dogs: expectations motivate, so long as the next point is in place.

  7. "A challenge I can do": Amy did not simply expect her children to be instant genius at everything. She found multiple ways to work with her children to get there. She gave them the tools to handle their challenge either directly or through enrolling them in programs that would help foster their skills. It's important to feel competent, and having few tools with which to wrestle difficult challenges would only create a greater sense of self-helplessness, leading to the bad kind of stress and the anxiety that comes with it.
Amy's daughters may or may not be miserable later in life, but should they be successful, functional folks, I would be more inclined to attribute it to the above factors. Her approach, while not as drastically or distinctly "Chinese" as first appeared, is questionable as a necessity in producing her desired result. As stated in the opening quote of this post, taken from Amy herself in the NPR interview, there are many ways of arriving at the same place (both good and bad). Most children function just fine when they grow into adults with responsibilities, even though no parent is perfect, because we are resilient, creative creatures by nature. My belief is that it's our successes AND mistakes that produce the unique grooves our children take on. There are very special, very successful people out there who came from a very special, but painful place. There are also very special, very successful people who came from loving, affectionate homes. There are of course successful, miserable people and contented people doing work others may not consider "successful." The interaction between parents' personality, parenting style, life circumstances, and the child's temperament/personality (partially genetically determined) combine for interesting results, some of which may be predictable while others not so much. So the most important question a parent faces is this: what kind of a child do you want to raise? What is successful to you?

Perhaps the decline in math and science grade average compared to other countries reflects a shifting attitude of parents in America (or North America): grades are great, but we don't believe that's all there is to success. There are stories of people making it big without academic success - look no further than past president George W. Bush, a proud C student. The land of opportunity promises success to a host of people taking different routes: basketball players, rappers, movie stars, reality TV stars, game show winners, college drop-out entrepreneurs, etc. If you hold a different attitude than this, and you attempt to apply techniques that reflect this more lateral attitude, it shouldn't be too surprising if the child doesn't perform as you would like. In the greater cultural context, depending on the extent to which the child identifies with her heritage, her new American (or North American) attitude may be the end of your academic dream. Should you be inclined to go nuts for success in a specific area of your child's life (like Amy did), you may end up with a genius who finds it difficult to 'have a good time,' something that Amy admitted to be struggling with. In a culture were "fun" is paramount, I could only imagine that not being able to join in would pose tremendous difficulty with relationships later in life. In a recent film, The Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010), you could see the product of over-mothering on a child's attempt to flesh out the rest of her humanity, as Nina struggled to become a woman in spite of her mother's dream of eternal innocence pushed through her. Overbearing mothering is a bit more complex than that, as shown by Amy in her memoir, but you get the point.

It's very well that all of that drilling could produce another Amy Chua, a successful, functional, contributing member of society. Various versions of similar parenting practice unfortunately also produce the greater percentage of my clientele, so I'd be a bit more hesitant to follow suit, availability bias be damned. If you value your child's enjoyment and success in life, I'd suggest some slight modifications to the Tiger stripes. Success tends to couple with failure, joy with sadness or anger. You can't be expecting kids to learn how to achieve one end of the spectrum without learning how to deal with the other. Amy only prepared her kids to not say "no" to challenges, but they may very well be ill-equipped for life's many inflexible "no" to them. Mistakes are a fact of being human, and at some point, acceptance is the only way through to the other end. I suppose this might be the challenge they may face later on, along with a host of other conflicted feelings and psychological repercussions from such extreme parenting, and it may give shape to very "special" women. Everyone has something to work through though, and it shapes who they are. Is it a psychologically damaging card to deal? That's for the children to find out, through their experience, detached from their mommy dearest.

Brilliant children still have to start somewhere. And that's where parents have their control: shaping the rest of their child's life, starting with who they are.

Here's a brief clip on what's considered bad parenting by Lawrence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, on BigThink:



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