Is Amy Chua the world's worst mom?
As someone who advocates for unstructured, creative, child-directed play, I would expect to roundly denounce a mother whose strict regimen left her children little, if any time, for free play. Clearly, we have some differences of opinion. But that said, in an age of helicopter parents and bubble-wrapped kids, I find some aspects of the tiger mom approach refreshing. These include:
Setting limits at home: While many parents these days limit their children's freedom outside by refusing to allow them to walk a half mile to school or do anything beyond the range of their watchful gaze, these same parents are mysteriously apathetic when it comes to setting limits inside the house. Once indoors, no longer subject to the threat of the kidnappers and pedophiles who allegedly lurk at every corner, children are free to sit listlessly on couches for hours and stare at screens.
Spending quality time: The sheer amount of time that Chua invested in actively engaging with her kids at home is impressive, even if it was excessive and somewhat dictatorial at times. I believe in child-directed play, but I also believe in families exploring and learning together. For too many families, "quality time" means merely being in the same room while each plugged into a different device.
Holding children to high standards: In a day and age where the lowest-ranking little league team gets a trophy, it's worth questioning whether concern for our children's self-esteem has gone too far. Should we really reward our children for half-hearted efforts because we fear that pushing them will damage their fragile egos? Today's helicopter parents simply don't give their children enough credit. Kids are capable of doing amazing things when they aspire to high standards, but it's up to us to establish these standards and reward only genuine efforts.
Teaching focus and discipline: Adults tend to mistake free play for aimless running and screaming. It's not. As they play, children teach themselves essential life skills, many of which involve practice and discipline. Can't climb that tree? You'll have to keep trying. Can't dig a tunnel through a sand castle? Keep trying. But today's children, facing a constant barrage of electronic distractions, lack the focus and discipline that's required to gain a sense of mastery, whether it's reaching the top of a jungle gym or learning French piano compositions.
While I respect these elements of "tiger parenting," I do see some disturbing parallels between the ferocious tiger mom and the stereotypically overprotective Western parent. Both have a tendency to constantly hover and continually micro-manage their children's lives. The motives may be different -- a tiger mom hovers to push her kids to excel, while a helicopter mom hovers to protect them from all the world's dangers.
But the outcome for children is the same: a decisive lack of freedom to explore, discover, and create on their own. Tiger moms rear children who are very good at playing piano pieces, but who would feel helpless if asked to compose their own. Meanwhile, helicopter parents rear children who can navigate foreign worlds from video game consoles, but who can barely navigate the world outside their front door.
What we need is an intermediate approach -- one that imposes structure, boundaries, high standards, and discipline without sacrificing whimsy, creativity, imagination and self-direction. Here's an emerging term that nicely sums up such an approach (since we seem to love using metaphors to classify parents): the "bulldozer mom."
A bulldozer mom clears a path for her children, but allows them the freedom to explore along the way. She recognizes that structure within the home is not a bad thing, particularly when it comes to limiting screen time, but that some time for unstructured outdoor play is equally important. She gives her children credit for what they are capable of, pushing them to continually challenge themselves, but she doesn't deny them opportunities to choose the challenges they want to pursue. She knows that mastery comes from discipline and focus, refusing to let her children get away with halfhearted efforts, but realizes that mastery on the playground is as vital as mastery in the classroom.
Giving our children freedom doesn't inevitably lead to failure, nor does it inevitably lead to abduction. We can still set our children down the right path, but first, we must unleash them.