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One of these women can’t be right

Let’s all give it up for an Ivy League law professor intent on ruining any fun that parenting might entail

In 1998 a then-relatively unknown developmental psychologist, Judith Rich Harris, published “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.”  Her thesis was that much of the child-rearing outcomes that our culture attributes to nurture was actually attributable to nature (i.e., genetics) and adolescent peer networks.  While not denying parents could screw-up their children through abuse or outright neglect, her parenting advice basically consisted of raising your children in an geographic area in which their peer were likely to be a positive influence and simply try to enjoy them.  As Harris herself summarized “Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.”

Today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine piece No More Mrs. Nice Mom by Judith Warner profiles Yale Law Professor Amy Chua and her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” “a just-published parenting memoir that clearly aspires to become a battle plan for a new age of re-empowered, captain-of-the-ship motherhood.”  As Warner describes Chua’s book:

“Tiger Mother” is the story of a woman who runs her daughters’ lives with an iron hand, breaking every rule of today’s right-thinking parenting (praise your kids, never compare them to one another, don’t threaten to burn all their stuffed animals if their piano practice is imperfect, don’t tell them they’re “garbage”), all in the guise of practicing Chinese parenting, which, in contrast to the flaccid, touchy-feely Western variety, stresses respect, self-discipline and, above all, results. Chua, who is Chinese-American and a Yale law professor, pushes her children to get straight A’s, forces them to spend hours each day practicing piano and violin; they are not allowed to pursue loser activities like playing the drums, “which leads to drugs,” she says, in a typical turn of phrase that may or may or may not be facetious. She refuses them playdates and sleepovers and TV and video games, and she demands unstinting obedience and devotion to family, all of which leads, unsurprisingly, to no small amount of crying, screaming and general tension.

At least one of these women’s parenting advice cannot be right.  If Harris’ thesis rang true in an era of relative prosperity–just stay out of their way and your children will be fine–Chua’s approach plays off our current economic anxieties (and our fear that China will dominate the 21st century the way America dominated the 20th)–parents must work exhaustively to insure a good outcome for their children.  I am more in Harris’ camp: both my wife and I were raised by caring but basically hands-off parents and feel we and our siblings turned out okay.  We employ a similar approach with our children.  My oldest daughter repeatedly complained that we hadn’t pushed her hard enough until she was recently accepted into Reed College, her first choice, surprising no one more than she surprised herself.

Don’t Chua and parents who use her approach find this constant micromanagement exhausting?  Aren’t they worried about raising neurotic children?  I’m not afraid of hard work but I’m no fan of unnecessary and unpleasant work either.  Even if Chau’s approach was proven to be more effective than Harris’ in raising successful children–not sure how we could ever agree on the exact definition of “raising a successful child”–I still wouldn’t follow it. Parenting is hard: why would anyone want to parent if we take all the pleasure out it and turn it into an endless series of taskmastering?

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  • California observer

    Neither the “fun” part of parenting nor the “useful” part is the same for all times, people, and cultures. Unthinking obedience and practice are wonderful skills for certain cultures and economic climates; creativity and independence are useful in others (and I hope in the near future, as that’s what I’ve emphasized with my kids instead of obedience).

    As for fun….maybe Tiger Parents actually *enjoy* being martinets. Maybe the kids do too (one of the Tiger Kids just wrote an public open letter supporting her Tiger Mother).

    So both women could in fact be right, each in different circumstances.

  • How about NEITHER of them are right? There is not a good answer to this problem. Each child is different; each parent is different. So while there are a few good hard and fast rules, such as “don’t put your kid in the oven”, all other rules are much more subject to interpretation. What benefits one child may harm another greatly. The parent’s job is to KNOW the child.

    • The title of this blog acknowledges the possibility that neither of them are right. If one of them had to be right, I would have titled the blog, “One of these women is wrong.” As anyone who has parented two children would acknowledge, different kids require different parenting styles. However Harris and Chua have different parenting philosophies: Harris is basically, “do no harm and try to enjoy”; Chua is “mircomanage until miserable.” I don’t see how one could blend these two approaches.

  • As a parent to three children, I can say without hesitation that it can and usually does take employing many different parenting philosophies in order to raise children. Some work better than others at different ages, stages, and situations. I envy the parents who say that one philosophy works for them across the board for their lives must be much easier to manage than my own (note my sarcasm)!

    I like MJ’s advice much better — KNOW the child — and parent accordingly. My children are similar in many ways, but very, very different in others. The fact that I have to travel this semi-blind highway of parenthood, constantly discovering what works best at each age or stage is what makes our journey so wonderful and I can’t imagine it any other way.

  • MJ

    Yes, all children are different and are very likely different at varying stages of their lives. What worked when my son was 3 no longer works now that he is 11. The most important key to parenting is committment. Know the child and do what is best for the child. There is no one size fits all approach that will work. Completely hands off is irresponsible. In my opinion, letting them run the street with whomever they choose is akin to just letting them be raised by wolves. Micromanaging is also irresponsible. How will they learn if they can’t do things for themselves? I remember those college freshman would could not self-regulate because they had never had to do so. They partied and flunked out. The key is knowing what to micromanage and when to do so. But never, ever use the completely, 100% hands off approach. Knowing your child and teaching your child to THINK is crucial. (Greg, you are not a hands off parent. You spend way too much time and energy on your kids to be considered that.)

    • MJ-

      Upon further reflection, what I find most interesting (and disturbing) about the “Tiger Mother” story is how this law professor and her daughters are considered “successful” when they are apparently miserable. One would think being successful and being miserable is antithetical. However, I believe our culture has become so fixated on the accoutrements of success that many believe one who accumulates the credentials of a prestigious education, cultural refinement, dignified employment and material plenty is a “successful” person even if that person is woefully unhappy.

      Silly me: I thought the reason one strove for a prestigious education, cultural refinement, dignified employment and material plenty was to be happy. I did not realize they were the ends themselves. While not denying that depression as an organic illness exists, I believe one reason for its greatly increased prevalence in our society is this confusion of means and ends. “Tiger Mother” simply takes this confusion to its logical extreme.

      • I agree that society equates accomplishment with happiness. I think when you ask most parents what they want for their children, they will say for them to be happy. But they think that happiness comes only with great achievement. Maybe they should listen to the song “Red Dirt Road”.

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