Last weekend, an essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal by Amy Chua titled, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior -- an excerpt from her recently published book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press 2011). The piece caused quite a dialogue in the halls of Owning Pink when blogger Suzanne Bouffard brought it to our attention, and we knew we had to bring the conversation to the mainstage. "Can a regimen of no playdates, no TV, no computer games and hours of music practice create happy kids? And what happens when they fight back?" Check out our Roundtable on the topic as well!
This piece was constantly flying across my radar this week, but it took me awhile to read it, between chasing my 11 month old around our snowed-in house and working at my developmental psychologist job. I feel compelled to respond both as a parent and as a researcher – and then as someone trying to find the balance between the two.
As a parent, I believe wholly and passionately that it is my job to help my son become his own person, and to own all the parts of himself. It’s my responsibility to help him find, flourish in, and contribute to the world with his own unique talents, energies, and passions. Every day, I look at him and wonder “Who are you going to be, and what are you going to contribute to the world?” Contrary to Ms. Chua’s generalizations about Western parents, I’m not obsessing over his self-esteem or trying to make him self-focused. Instead, I’m trying to help him figure out how he’s going to play a meaningful part in this world – on his own terms. I don’t know what he’ll do when he grows up, but I’m willing to bet it’s something I can’t imagine myself. And for me, that’s the point of being a parent. It’s often said that our role as parents is to bring up the next generation to contribute more to the world than we have. But if we are the ones choosing what our children’s contributions will be -- rather than making our own contributions and then helping them make theirs -- then parenting is just a giant Ponzi scheme.
So where I take major issue with Ms. Chua’s piece is in her belief that parents should dictate their kids’ pursuits. She makes some valid points about helping kids learn the value of hard work and practice, but I am disturbed by her belief that she should choose the area in which they apply those values. What a flat, boring world we would live in if there was no room for the next generation to be creative and inspired – high-achieving and efficient, perhaps, but interesting and beautiful, not so much. Here’s an example: Chua says that it is not an option for children in her culture not to play music, and it is not an option for them to choose something other than violin or piano. As a dancer and jazz musician, it makes me very sad to think about a world with no music other than classical concertos. And as a logical human being, it makes me perplexed to try to understand how we could even have meaningful classical music with only violins and pianos. There is a real and meaningful connection between originality and beauty.
As a researcher, I know that there are certain parenting styles that are associated with better outcomes for kids, ranging from academic achievement to mental health. Generally speaking, decades of research have found that children are most well adjusted when parents are warm and affectionate, responsive and nurturing, and encouraging of their children’s development in everything from language use to making independent choices. But it’s a little more complicated than that: those “ideal” parenting styles differ according to families’ ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. One reason is that the same core behaviors and values can look different according to different cultural contexts. What’s considered “warm” and “accepting” in one culture is different in another. And that’s why some research shows that Asian and Asian-American kids fare better with the kind of parenting strategies Ms. Chua describes than White kids do.
How do we reconcile these things when it comes to helping each other be effective parents? (A lot of times, there’s a good argument for leaving other parents alone and letting them make their own choices, but there are times and places where it’s important to support parents in doing what will help their kids thrive in the society where they live, for better and for worse.) We live in a very diverse society (happily, as far as I’m concerned), and what’s right for some kids and families isn’t right for others. This is why we can’t apply a standard curriculum in all of our schools, why we offer school plays and football in addition to violin and piano lessons, why some parents get their advice from psychologists and some from churches. It’s also one of the reasons we get into such heated debates about “good” and “bad” parenting, and about whether and how anyone should dictate or even shape others’ parenting styles.
It’s easy to say that we should all do what’s right for us, but what happens when our kids learn together, work together, and live together – which they should and will do? What do we do about the fact that some of these differences are responsible for stark and sometimes damaging disparities among different segments of our population? And how do we own ourselves and our cultures in ways that allows everyone else to own theirs, and that allows that diversity that I so value for myself, my son, and our world to flourish?
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