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Judith Acosta

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Tiger Mother Trials: Balancing Eastern and Western Parenting Styles

Posted: 01/25/11 06:48 PM ET

Interestingly enough, we sold the publishing rights for our book "Verbal First Aid for Children" to a Taiwanese publisher the same day that "tiger moms" went viral.

For those of you who already know what Verbal First Aid is and how it applies to children, you may know why I think it's "interesting."

Both for those who have not yet heard of Verbal First Aid, it is simply the therapeutic use of language to facilitate physical healing in real time. It is simple, effective, free and potentially life-saving. All you need is you, your desire to be of help to a child in crisis and carefully chosen words.

At the same time American parents have been engaged in animated debate about traditional Asian parenting, parents in Taiwan are about to be exposed to an American-born concept that is quite different stylistically from the more martial approach Amy Chua has presented in "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

First, The Commonalities

From what I understand about Tiger Mothering, the emphasis is on performance, perfection and consistency. As a result, there is an underlying (albeit unspoken) belief that the child's unique individual needs or emotional style are not quite as important as his conforming to both the broader culture and the expectations of the family. There is also a fundamental principle of parenting that is quite different from the one most modern Americans seem to favor. Parents are parents, not friends. Parents are the leaders of the family and are to be respected and obeyed. I, personally, don't have any problem with this. It's all about how it gets done.

There are at least two things about Verbal First Aid with which the parents in traditional Asian homes will feel immediately comfortable:

  • The emphasis on the use of benevolent and clear authority when we deal with a child (or an adult) who is ill, in pain or frightened
  • The concept of mind/body medicine or energetic healing (that what we think and see in our minds is instantly translated into a biochemical response)

In any case, authority is a fundamental component to Verbal First Aid (as it is to Ms. Chua's parenting program), and without it, therapeutic suggestion can fall flat. In this respect, Tiger Mothers would feel very comfortable with this position and form of therapeutic communication.

The Challenges

What appears to distinguish Amy Chua's cultural parenting protocol from Verbal First Aid are the following central principles:

  • The need to establish rapport and be present in the moment
  • The need to accept a person's individuality
  • Combining one and two, the concept of pacing, in order to lead a person to health with therapeutic suggestion

In Verbal First Aid, the person in the helping position leads by pacing, not by marching orders. Authority is the start of a healing relationship, but it is not where it ends. This is where Verbal First Aid starts to differ from traditional Asian child-rearing.

Every person processes information in a unique way. For example, a person may be inclined to be more auditory, or more kinesthetic, or more visual. In conformist protocols, this is not taken into consideration. In a conformist culture (familial or societal), expectations concerning performance are more universal. Individuality is contraindicated if you want to maintain that level of achievement and social cohesion. The imposed agenda (win that competition, get an A, etc.) is primary.

There is no doubt that this approach has merit, as Chua's memoir attests.

In Verbal First Aid, however, where the agenda is healing, this "inclination" is tremendously important -- and valuable. In order to help a person heal with the therapeutic use of language, we need to know (among other things) how they process the world around them so that we can speak to them in a way that they can readily receive and interpret for the express purpose of healing. In order to do that, we must be present with them and see them clearly. Our own agendas ("He should respond like this...") get in the way.

If a person is kinesthetic, we would speak less about "seeing the wound close" and more about feeling the skin and tissue knitting together comfortable and seamlessly so that it is smooth and clear. If a child is visual, we would not ask him to imagine the sound of the door closing. We would ask him to try to see the door closing in his mind. With an emphasis on conforming, we don't take the time to capitalize on the uniqueness of each person. These differences, by the way, are not very hard to discover. Usually within a short time, a person will reveal his preference by the words he uses in ordinary conversation. Kinesthetic people tend to say "I feel." Auditory people will often rely on "I hear you" or "Do you hear what I mean?"

Rapport and pacing, which are core to the effective practice of therapeutic communication, are also somewhat different than the process Chua describes. Rapport (the patient's feeling that she is being understood) and pacing ("moving" with the patient so we can then lead him or her with therapeutic suggestion) take time and emphasize, once again, a patient's individuality. While we are all hopefully working toward the same outcome (healthy children, a good attitude about work and school, respectful behavior and an ability to honor others), the method is slightly different.

This sweet story is a beautiful example of rapport and pacing:

A while back, Rose Hartney, the Administrative RN at Nyack Hospital Emergency Department, was at the end of her shift when the ambulance brought in an agitated patient who was screaming that she was the master of her destiny, the captain of her ship and no one was going to tell her what to do. Rose took the handle bars of the patient's wheel chair, leaned over to her so the patient could see her and said, smooth as silk, "Can we give you a ride to your destiny? It would be our honor. We're here to serve you." The patient moved along happily and gave no further complaint.

There are an infinite number of ways to pace, both verbal and non-verbal. If a sick child is struggling with the pillows on her bed or ceaselessly adjusting herself in a chair, we can easily mirror or pace her discomfort verbally by saying, "It looks like that chair hasn't let you get comfortable quite yet." Or to someone who's just told you about an accident, say, "Yes, it sounds like it was a very scary moment."

Once rapport has been developed this way and we have demonstrated (through pacing) that we truly see the child or patient, we can then lead him or her with suggestion more successfully.

A Harmonious Balance

Hopefully -- wherever we live and however we are raised -- we are all leading our children toward the same goal: the capacity for physical self-healing and emotional and social well-being.

For me, the beauty of all these things is that, despite the differences, it does not take a single thing away from the expectation of achievement or from Chua's status as a Tiger Mother. While many of the stylistic nuances are quintessentially American, the underpinnings are universal.

In fact, the expectation for success is always included in what we say to a person in need of Verbal First Aid. That is part of how it works. And, perhaps, that is how it will be understood in Taiwan, and later, in China, where the concept has already been taught and received with great love and appreciation. In Verbal First Aid, there is a blend of that which is traditionally Eastern and that which is essentially Western. The purpose for good parents -- wherever they live -- is the same: to help children heal, know what gifts for recovery they already hold within them and live balanced, meaningful lives.

 
 
 

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