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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