01/22/2011 02:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Putting My Head in the Tiger's Mouth

I thought this week I would put my head in the lion's mouth -- or more accurately, into the tiger's mouth -- and add my voice to the chorus of cheers and jeers directed toward the Tiger Mother. For those of you who have been busy raising your children and not just reading about raising children, the Tiger Mother is Yale Law professor and menacingly Type-A personality Amy Chua. In her memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," she writes of setting fire to her child's stuffed animals, throwing a four-year-old's handmade birthday card back in that child's face because it wasn't good enough for Mommy, and making her kids watch TV clips of House Speaker John Boehner sobbing while he recalled his childhood. Actually, I made up the part about Boehner, but the rest, apparently, is dead true.

In interviews about her book, Chua has set fire (figuratively) to even more stuffed animals, justified parental brutality as only a lawyer could, inserted foot further into mouth, and sold more books. There's been debate about Chinese-American parents and the demands they put upon their children. Far more revealing about human nature was Nicholas Kristof's recent piece in The New York Times. He wrote that Chinese educators believe that too much discipline and a madness for testing are simply crushing creativity. You mean, it's possible to listen to your teachers, ace your tests in school and grow up to become a bore, or worse, a banker? Happens.

Most parents get into the game with little or no practice. Sorry kids, but intellectually we don't know what we're doing. We're all instinct and gut, and it works pretty well, because the relationship between parent and child is self-correcting. You act like an asshole to your kids, you get that back. If you pay attention, you can correct. The wheels come off, however, when parents, who are physically larger than children, start to bully them and take unfair advantage. That's not nice, and that's why the "Tiger Mother Method" seems wrong to me. Oh, I know she's backlashing against the parent who says "good job" for even a bad job, and the kind of school sports where everybody gets a trophy even when they suck. That's not real either and leads to, in Judith Warner's words, "pathological ninnyishness in kids."

We all have found ways to torture our children. We make them listen to The Beatles. We make them watch "The Big Lebowski." We make them write things on paper. All monstrous demands and onerous tasks, but necessary. Well, maybe liking "The Big Lebowski" isn't necessary, but the rest of it is, and the reason that's good is that it helps the family, that societal microcosm, cooperate. When parents go wrong is the moment they force their experience on their children, believing without question that their traditions and past personal history will define their child's future. That doesn't work so well, and it seems that if you went to Yale, it can be especially bad.

Stuffed animal photo by Christopher Paretti via Creative Commons License.