Like so many parents across the country, we at the Parenting Center have had strong reactions to the recently published book , The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, in which the author applauds the strict parenting style and high expectations of the typical “Chinese Mother”. On the one hand, it is easy for parents to look back and see everything that isn’t/didn’t turn out how they wished and ask, “What if I were stronger/more insistent when they were younger? Would my child have turned out differently?” There is also something appealing on the surface to her self-assured stance: All you have to do is believe that your child is capable, hold firm to that belief, and s/he will achieve (and thank you for it, no less).
That is all great and while there is value to building upon your child’s strengths and being steadfast in upholding your values, one can go too far. We couldn’t help but wonder if some children, with different temperaments, might be crushed by her techniques. There is no acceptance of children’s uniqueness – both their gifts as well as their struggles. Part of raising resilient children involves nurturing them, accepting who they are, allowing for mistakes, helping them to problem solve and make decisions on their own, so they can become self-determined people who know themselves and what they want, and learn how to get along with the give and take of life. Such a rigid approach as Chua recommends seems to deny children the opportunity to experience life’s lessons on their own or allow them the gift of finding their own passions.
In our work with families, we do see the converse – those that are too lenient and coddling, not communicating high enough standards or expectations, and therefore not promoting perseverance and responsibility in their children. There is some truth to the fact that some American parents cater too much to their kids, worry too much about their children’s happiness, and don’t instill enough of a work ethic. This extreme end of the continuum is also a problem. The ideal is to find a balance in the middle where children are expected to achieve to the best of their ability, respecting who they are at any given time in their development. We see children as maturing and changing over time.
As adults, we aren’t expected to be gifted in all areas. Ms. Chua suggests that all Chinese children will play the violin or the piano (with perfection), and not “waste their time” on school plays or art classes. As one mother we know commented: “I can’t imagine my kids not socializing or being banned from school plays or events. How, then, do they learn to deal with their future bosses and co-workers? To interact with clients? To find a healthy and happy relationship? I can’t imagine how that kind of overly rigid parenting leads to happy, self-fulfilled kids.” We hear from coaches of kids who have talent, but who have been pushed by their parents, that the kids often burn out right before college scholarships are given out or maybe even worse, once they are in college. We have all heard of children raised in this manner, who peak and burn out at a very young age, while others are just hitting their stride in professional school. So, who is really ahead?
Why should children have to be stellar in certain prescribed areas? We worry that although what Chua is suggesting might work for some children, her inflexible methods could crush others, rather than push them to succeed. We repeatedly hear from parents whose children compete in the big leagues (Julliard, Olympics…) that their children’s motivation and success comes from within the child; the parents are simply supporting that inner drive. A healthy goal of parenting is to raise children to be the best person THEY want to be, not the best person the parent wants them to be.
Chua’s book has sparked a valuable and important conversation about how best to develop perseverance in kids and help them to achieve their best. It has encouraged many parents to think about their values and how their parenting approach can result in their children adopting those values. We hope most people are able to find a healthy balance between encouraging achievement and perservance and allowing their children to find their own voices and be their own people.