I've been moving slowly through the book. I understand that many comments have been taken out of context and that the author, Amy Chua, has rather bravely admitted that some of the choices she made as a parent are ones she would not repeat. But as a family therapist, educator and former teacher who has seen more than my share of child abuse and neglect, I don't care to read the justifications of depriving a child of the chance to use the bathroom, eat or sleep in favor of learning a piano piece, no matter how much cuddling came after the child finally accomplished her task.
Still, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" has hit a nerve because there are elements of her parenting approach that are difficult to dismiss entirely. From my vantage point, she has highlighted a glaring weakness in what has come to be distilled down as the "Western" approach to parenting, which is that we are, in many respects, at risk of launching children into adulthood who are not resilient, confident and capable of managing the challenges of grown-up life.
Kids need to experience frustration and disappointment as they grow up, and they need strong, caring parents who can handle their upset without either caving in or morphing into tiger mothers and fathers who rule with an iron hand.
In my book and my parenting presentations around the country, I talk about the importance of being what I call "the captain of the ship" in a child's life: confidently sailing through calm and stormy seas without jumping ship when the going gets rough. I use my right hand to represent the parent, and the left hand to represent the child, with the right hand above the child's when the parent is occupying that captain-of-the-ship role.
Any time that parents feel compelled to use fear, threats, bribes and punishments, their hand is below the child's. In other words, whenever parents feel needy or desperate, they will resort to trying to overpower their child to get them to fall into line.
But this approach always comes at a price, if not in the moment, then down the road. Kids whose parents try to be "in control" versus "in charge" grow up without feeling the comfort that comes from knowing that if they do slip up, or hit a big bump in the road, they can lean on the loving guidance from their caregiver, relying instead on their peers to get them through rough spots, at great expense.
I've seen countless kids and teens rebel, defy, become aggressive, depressed, anxious and/or begin to rely on substances in the absence of strong, compassionate and reliable parents, when they stumble along the road of life.
I respect Amy Chua for being honest in her memoir, and am glad that she's able to reflect on some of her parenting decisions with candor and even remorse. The conversation her book has precipitated is a crucial one. But rather than move into fear-based parenting, driven by the simplistic notion that if we continue as we are, Chinese children will succeed and ours will fail, let's pause and consider that there is a better way than either totalitarian or laissez-faire parenting.
Parents do need to parent. That means not indiscriminately handing over the computer/TV/video game/car keys. It means recognizing what your child's passions and gifts are, and providing them with the structure and opportunity to develop them. It means having family dinners (see Laurie David's great book on this), playing checkers and staying engaged with the kids, even if they want to isolate in front of a screen in the room -- especially if they want to isolate in front of a screen in their room.
I could go on; this topic is near and dear to my heart. But for now, this is my battle hymn. To be continued...
For more, please take a look at this video that I recorded on the subject.