Tiger Mom Amy Chua has received a lot of heat the past few weeks over her parenting style. In her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she asserts that Chinese parenting is functional and goal-oriented. It employs a parenting technique that many Westerners, particularly Americans, find harsh and emotionally abusive.
Ms. Chua has received an enormous amount of criticism related to her tough-love style, which includes rejecting from a daughter a poorly made birthday card, calling her garbage, refusing to allow sleepovers or participation in school plays, and refusing a bathroom break until a daughter mastered a piano composition.
Whether or not you agree with Ms. Chua's approach to parenting, it brings up an interesting issue--when intercultural relationships involving children fail, how does the American judicial system evaluate the appropriateness of multi-cultural parenting models in child custody actions?
Ms. Chua and her husband reflect a growing trend in multi-cultural relationships. Ms. Chua is an American-born woman raised in the Midwest and California by Chinese immigrants, who are the source of her parenting model. Her husband is Jed Rubenfeld, a Jewish man raised in New York City who, according to Ms. Chua, is much more emotionally-driven and permissive in his parenting style. They have two daughters, who by all accounts, including their own in response to heavy mud-slinging thrown at their mother, are well-adjusted.
According to a 2010 Pew Research Study, by 2008 1 in 7 new marriages in America were between interracial or inter-ethnic couples. This reflects multi-cultural Americans marrying, Americans marrying foreign-born individuals, and foreign born couples from the same or differing countries marrying each other and raising their families in the United States. It does not include the many additional multi-cultural relationships involving children but not marriage.
Cultural differences profoundly influence parenting techniques. Dr. Stephen P. Herman is an internationally recognized forensic psychiatrist who has served as a as a child custody expert throughout the United States for over thirty years. He is the author of Parent v. Parent, How You and Your Child Can Survive the Custody Battle.
Dr. Herman has extensive experience in examining multi-cultural custody issues in American courts. Some cases relate to rarely observed cultures, such as a New York divorce action involving two members of the Roma culture (Gypsies). He notes that Roma fathers automatically receive custody of children upon a divorce. However, a New York court declined to defer to Roma cultural norms and granted custody to the mother, who was consequently barred from her community for seeking outside help.
Other cases relate to cultures more commonly found in the United States but which have elements of parenting techniques that differ from the emotionally-based American model that Ms. Chua criticizes. Dr. Herman points out, for example, that the Samoan culture deems corporal punishment in many different forms as more acceptable than the current American standard. See e.g., The Battered Child, which points out that Samoan child protective service providers consider physical discipline one of the areas that is likely to be misunderstood by non-Samoans.*
Even culturally mundane stereotypes may suddenly be exaggerated to raise flags in custody actions, ranging from the overly-emotional Mediterranean style of expressing anger to the cold, indifferent German who can't express loving sentiments.
So where should courts draw the line? Dr. Herman encourages that the judicial system take the following steps in determining how much, if any, deference should be given to cultural beliefs in assessing whether behavior is an acceptable or unacceptable form of parenting:
1. Identify our own cultural ignorance as evaluators and seek to question and perhaps suspend our biases.
2. Examine how that culture's family laws differ from American ones.
3. Review available literature and interview members of the culture to confirm that the parenting style is an acceptable norm within that culture or whether it is in fact a combination of culture and abuse.
4. Evaluate the bonding attachment between parent and child. Dr. Herman points out that irrespective of different parenting techniques, there are certain cross-cultural universals to healthy parenting.
5. Determine the parents' plans for raising their children to see if there is a logical connection between the behavior and developmental goals.
6. Spend time with the child and his or her educators to see how, if at all, the particular parenting child impacts the child.
Given the infinite number of cultural combos and uniqueness of each family, there can be no clear-cut formula. However, applying the above principles, Dr. Herman believes that the American judicial system can meaningfully assess how much weight should be given to cultural considerations and evaluate when a behavior has reached a point where it is considered excessive cross-culturally.
Notably, Dr. Herman also points out that ultimately many children of divorce who are the subject of shared custody or visitation end up observing different standards in multiple households (e.g., going to Church with Dad but not with Mom), and are no worse for the variations.
When you analyze Ms. Chua's parental style under Dr. Herman's suggested guidelines, no matter how uncomfortable or distasteful some of us may personally find some of her techniques, it is obvious that she seeks to discipline rather than abuse her children. It is also apparent from her daughters' academic success and, more importantly, their strong and recent defenses of her as a mother that a strong bond exists between them.
In the end, putting my own biases against this parenting style aside, knowing these truths I find myself surprisingly respecting her choice.
*Helfter, Mary Edna et al., Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999.