About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Conflicted Parent

If you've been reading the Wall Street Journal, or even just little ol' Twitter or your Facebook feed, chances are you've run across this article, an excerpt from the author's upcoming book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

I'm not going to reiterate what the author says, except to say that she holds "Chinese" parenting up as superior to "Western" parenting.  Predictably, many responses have appeared, including this one by a Chinese mother who realized that her adopted child was not able to live up to "Chinese" parenting expectations, causing her (the mother) to adjust accordingly.  Similarly, another article has praised what it labels "laissez faire parenting", which is what Chua would call "Western" parenting.  There was also a very sad article from a woman who felt that, in hindsight, her parents' "Chinese parenting" contributed to the sister's suicide.  While I personally doubt you can draw such a straight connection between suicide risk and parenting style (if you could, strict parenting would undoubtedly be touted as a public health risk), I ache for this woman's loss and for her pain at remembering how harshly she and her siblings were raised.

There is also a response of sorts to these responses from Chua herself.

Despite what I didn't like in Chua's article -- her arrogance over the "superiority" of "Chinese" parenting, her not allowing her children sleepovers or play dates, her description of making her daughter practice HOURS a day, and denying her daughter bathroom breaks until she learned a difficult piece of music -- there are a few points she made that strike me as undeniably true.

1.  Children are not as fragile as we often think they are.  Crying over having to work hard on something is not going to "ruin" them.  "Western" parents are often too concerned with "self-esteem" and not empowered enough in their relationships with their kids to INSIST that the children follow through (with respect!), despite the difficulty of the math, the music, the reading, the writing, etc.

2.  Nothing is "fun" until you are competent at it.  And to get competent at ANYTHING you have to put in the time.  Children need to understand this.

For me, the discussion of "Chinese" and "Western" parenting reminds me both of the dangers of essentializing (certainly, not all Asian -- or even all Chinese -- parent the same way) as well as the political nature of parenting, which I've written about before.  There is nothing we do as  parents, really, that is not judged -- if not by others, than by ourselves.  I shudder to think about what Chua would think about my parenting, but then again, I'm not asking for her opinion.

Both my husband and I were raised in houses that fell somewhere between the "laissez faire" style and the one Chua upholds.  Our kids are probably raised in a slightly more laissez faire household than either of us were, but then again, they are also being raised -- let's be honest -- by schools, aftercare programs and babysitters too.  They have, IMHO, *plenty* of structure in their lives and I think of their home life as being the place where (hopefully) they can relax a little.  Often, they are in school and aftercare for  a total of 10 hours a day.  The last thing they want -- or need -- when we pick them up at five is for their parents to tell them they have hours of practice to finish or extra math homework that we think they need because the schools aren't hard enough.  (A topic, obviously, for another post.)

Reading about Chua's incredibly strict methods with her children, as well as the responses of the other authors, I ponder how *I* parent and whether I've been strict enough.  While I keep a fairly tight watch on my kids' homework -- and come down fairly hard on them if they don't get the grades I think they are capable of -- I leave their free time choices pretty much alone.  One kid reads voraciously, listens to lots of music and writes stories, draws and plays soccer.  Another watches more TV than I think is preferable, but also devours books and loves sports and is particularly talented at baseball.  The little one still spends lots of time in his imaginary world, but is well-liked by his peers, plays well with all children (something I am immensely proud of), and enjoys drawing, being read to, and playing soccer. He also sings in a kids' choir.

The older two used to take music lessons but, after three years of hating it, I let them quit.  I certainly know Chua would not have allowed THAT.

When they were taking lessons, the expectation was to practice an hour A WEEK.  (Chua discusses multiple hours a DAY.)  Often, the kids did far more than that.  But an hour a week -- 20 minutes three times a week -- was my minimum requirement.  My goal was to get them to WANT to play, not to associate practice with fighting with their mother (which happened anyway, a fact that perhaps underscores Chua's point that you might as well harangue them with even higher expectations).    In the end, they both took to sports and not to music.

You can tell me I failed at parenting them in music.  I would respond that part of that "failure" was the result of a tension between me and my husband.  Music is important TO ME, but he really doesn't give a rat's ass (though if they had wanted to be musicians and worked at it without our having to prod them, he would have enthusiastically supported their interest).  He didn't want to be involved at all in making them practice (or in taking them to lessons), but then he wouldn't back me up when I tried to make them do it.  While a friend of mine has told me privately that she thinks it's NOT important for parents to have a united front, I disagree.  Particularly in issues of education, if the parents aren't on the same page, the children will have a hard time knowing which parent to follow.  I ended up giving into a reality that saddens me:  the kids didn't want to practice and I had no "back up" from their other parent, so turning them into musicians failed in part because it was so exhausting for me.  

That smarts a little, in large part because, in this instance, I was the "Asian" parent and my husband was the "Western" one and, in the end, his view won out (though more by default than by vigorous debate).

However, that was a story of parenting them when they were younger.  Curiously, my oldest (just 14) is now asking to return to piano lessons.  We've had several heart-to-heart discussions about this; I am more than willing to spend the money IF I don't have to harass her to practice.  If I do, then the music education is not worth it to me.  I don't want to spend my time  having to convince her to practice, particularly when I know there will be no Amen chorus coming from her Dad.  But I suspect, since this time it is HER asking to take the lessons, rather than MY introducing them, we may have a more successful experience this time around.

So, she'll re-start at 14, obviously "behind" her peers who have slogged through 8 or 9 or 10 years already on the piano.  But here's the beauty:  the ability to learn does not "expire" as quickly as people think it does.  She still CAN learn the piano if she wants to, and she can do it without a parent having to spend time sitting next to her while she cries over the keyboard, or without one parent telling the other she's being "too harsh".

Sounds like a win-win to me.

Thank God, because even if I have a *slight* tendency toward an "Asian" parenting style, I'm married to somebody who is firmly in the "Western" one.

I suppose I can thank Chua for helping me realize the diversity in my marriage. :)


  1. Woo hoo! Perhaps Western parenting is not all failure afterall: your kid now wants to take piano lessons, after you gave her a break from the beggin and cajoling to get her to practice. Yes, you "gave up" -- but your kid came around. Sounds win-win to me. After all, here in the Western world, it is SELF-initiative and independence that is praised and admired, not robot-like following of commands.


  2. That "tiger" parenting style is an extreme and children will appear to be achieving but really lack the joy and social/emotional development that children should be experiencing. As a teacher, I've had writing conferences with 7 year old students with these kind of parents who could not think of anything they "enjoyed doing with their family" when given a writing prompt. They said, "I just study by myself and practice lessons every day." What do you like to do? "I don't know," they reply. "What do you wish you could do?" "Go outside to play and have a friend." How SAD is that? During a parent/teacher conference the most important concern they have is the "ranking" of their child in my class!!Ranking? REALLY? What about that your child never says a word, has no friends and told me "I don't know how to smile?"on picture day.
    The balanced approach is like yours where children have expectations for high achievement but to also thrive emotionally and socially. This comes with parents that spend time with them and prioritize play dates and sports as an important part of their development.

  3. Anonymous -- Thanks for your comment. I feel compelled to say that the children I have known whose parents arguably fall into the "tiger" style are still boisterous, fun, and certainly have friends and know how to smile on camera day. Perhaps another variable is *how many* such families live in a particular community; if a child has many friends whose parents have similar expectations and parenting styles, then he or she will not feel unlike his or her peers. (Where we lived in NJ there were many Asian and South Asian children; I think they felt rightfully proud of their communities and generally felt that they knew kids who, like themselves, were held to very high standards.) Those children definitely had friends. I am now living in a very "white" community (literally and culturally) and "tiger" children would stand out more here than they did in NJ. (And it is, by the way, something I miss about NJ -- other parents' high expectations arguably pushed me to have similar ones.) As I indicated in my post, not everything about so-called "tiger parenting" is negative.


Politeness is always appreciated.