The Tiger Mom and the Real Debate

Okay, I know you've all been waiting for me to weigh in on the "Tiger Mom" issue.  But, really, does anybody who knows me think that I'm just going to say, "Oh yeah, we're totally like that"?  For those of you who don't know me, I suspect I'm pretty universally regarded as not exactly a strict parent.

For those not familiar with it, Amy Chua launched a national debate with her article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" in the Wall Street Journal.  Chua has more recently said that, first, she didn't pick the title of the article and wouldn't have put it that way, and also that her book is about how she learned to back off of this model, and some if it is meant humorously.  But that doesn't stop the debate from going on about whether or not the "Tiger Mom" model is the best model of parenting.  Chua's children were not allowed to:
• attend a sleepover
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• watch TV or play computer games
• choose their own extracurricular activities
• get any grade less than an A
• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
Her backing off from this model included letting one daughter quit violin.  A subsequent Time Magazine article, "Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?" brought the question of whether or not we should follow Chua's example to ensure greater success for our children.

The problem is, that we're asking the wrong question.  There are clearly some extremes in Chua's model, and there are clearly some ways in which her model works towards creating the outcome she desires.  Children perform better when they're rewarded for trying, for example.  When you reward the effort, children learn to keep trying, rather than give up.  Chua's example of not accepting a card her daughter made because she could tell it had no effort put into it may sound extreme, and her language was extreme, but the concept was solid.  Her daughter admits she put no effort into that piece, and that she learned by doing it over.

This isn't the question that we should be asking, however.  Instead, we should be questioning the initial assumption of what kind of children we want to produce.  While a few articles have pointed at this, saying that Chua's model creates good outcomes for certain types of professions, it doesn't work for enhancing creativity, for example, most articles have taken at face value that what she wants to produce is what is good, and the only option for what a child should grow up to be.  And Chua is raising intelligent, cultured daughters. But not all children are equally suited for the violin or piano.  Some have gifts in other areas that Chua is neglecting--the not being allowed to be in a school play, for example.  Is it more valuable to be a violinist than to be an actor?  Chua allows only one answer to this question, and we accept it at face value, and then avoid the real discussion by trying to decide if she's right that she would produce a better violinist.  The question is, do we want to all be violinists?  She says her children can't choose their own extracurricular activities because they won't choose valuable choices, but she has set the values to only allow one outcome.

If what we want for our children is financial and material success, Chua's model is a good one.  It had a greater likelihood of producing it.  But is financial and material success all we want for our children?  The old saying, "Money can't buy happiness" has some elements of truth to it.  And even happiness isn't the only thing we might want for our children.  We might also care that they're good citizens, or that they're creative and artistic, or that they bring meaning into their lives, or that they bring meaning into the lives of others.  We need children to grow up to be doctors, but we also need children to grow up to be poets and philosophers.

But beyond this, all these things are thinking of childhood as a means to an end, something Chua admits.  She's not focused on happy children, but on making sure they have the tools they need for adulthood.  But children are not just future people, they're people in their own rights, right now.  I let my child have a say in what her extracurricular activities are now not because of what it might mean for her future, but because of who she is right now -- a person.  She's a person with interests and passions of her own, even during the early elementary years.  And often they're not my own interests at all.  Her tastes are not always my own.  But I help her to develop and explore them.  I'm a guide, not a god.  I teach, guide, encourage, and share along her journey to adulthood, but I don't make the person she will become.  She is already a person right now.  

None of this means that childhood is without its limits--homework has to be done, and if it's not done at an acceptable level, or if grades come in too low, we, too, will make a child sit down and do it right.  But I encourage not only her social development, as well, but her social being right now.  Childhood is not just a means to an end.  It is not only a state of future potential.

Similarly, in Unitarian Universalism we've been growing in our understanding of children's spirituality as, well, something that exists!  We're not just educating them for the adults they will become, although we don't want to neglect that, we're also teaching them to be fully who they are now, and in touch with their own spiritual beings as they currently are.  That means encouraging their natural awe and wonder.  It means talking with them about their budding sense of justice and peace.  My daughter has had, from a young age, a strong sense that there is, as she puts it, "someone who looks out for all of us."  I help her by sharing the theological language for these concepts, by exploring the questions in this concept and alternative concepts, and by helping her touch base with this ground of all being that she senses.  I share our Unitarian Universalist values and ideals.  I am with her on her spiritual journey.  As a minister, I've long said that I'm the minister for the children, too, not just the adults. 

The Tiger Mom debate makes for great headlines and people can have great fun getting worked up about it, but let's not just take the debate on face value.  Look deeper to the question of what the values underlying the assumptions are.  That's where the real debate should be.


Kate said…
You hit the nail right on the head! Well said.

I linked this post in my "Friday Five" over at Kate's Library
Cynthia Landrum said…
Thank you, Kate. And thanks for the link!
Alex said…
Tiger Mom is good media fodder because of the extremes that she goes to in the rearing of her kids. Shows like Nenny 911 (or whatever it's called) thrive on the opposite end of the discipline spectrum.

It sounds like you're striving that the reasonable middle: The kids are encouraged to be themselves to explore the world at the same time taught discipline to do the work that needs to be done.

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