Amy Chua, in her new book, blatantly extols the Tiger Mother approach to parenting – implacably insisting, demanding, and controlling her children’s lives. Rules, expectations, and no sugar-coating the criticism – that’s what really works. It explicitly rebukes the focus on “self-esteem” that, for her, is the regrettable group-think of modern life here in the West.
Frankly, I love the boldness – even despite her deliberate provocations – and I’d be thrilled if her book actually generates a useful conversation about good parenting.
Her big point is that parenting through a chaotic world is a job that requires Mom to be fiercely, unapologetically focused on actively directing her kids, and that Chinese mothers have a leg up: they deploy the backbone and emotional leverage conferred by a 5000-year-old culture – ascendant again. Tiger Mom’s clear duty is to demand that her children navigate excellently in a remorseless world they’re both moving through – and also shaping.
In my work, I particularly notice two styles of parenting here in the U.S. – neither of which would meet Ms. Chua’s approval. One style is to be so busy and overwhelmed that the parents are just barely running in place well enough to maintain middle class respectability – career, housework, cash flow, and the endless, accelerating choices. They’re just too busy, too exhausted, and too stressed to even try to minimally go toe-to-toe with their kids over “stuff” like cell phones, TV, video games, and the internet – let alone attitude, disrespect, and dubious peers. They’d be offended to be called negligent, but they just wring their hands or cross their fingers in hopes that the kids won’t turn out to be what we’re all worried they’re becoming: shallow, selfish, oblivious – and unemployable.
The other kind of parenting style is to be the totally-engaged “helicopter” parents who hover – pick up and drop off the kids at school five days a week, completely choreograph the extracurricular activities, fuss about the friends, and monitor homework as well as the completion of any other school assignments and projects. They’re pseudo-Tiger Moms. They’ve got the energy, but they’re not as solidly confident about insisting on sustained effort and achievement, and don’t want to be totally controlling – for fear it will damage the child’s self-esteem.
I should also add that either style can produce parents who think “being there” for their child means being automatically, aggressively adversarial toward the school if it dares to discipline or give their child a low grade – an unintended consequence being the continuing, diminishing “authority” of the school.
My biggest beef – and the focus of my coaching and consulting to parents – is the absence of sober, clear-eyed parental learning. Yes – some children need, and thrive under, close parental supervision, direction, nudging, and constant involvement. If that’s what they need, and what helps them, that’s far more important than staying late at work.
Other children need looser reins and less pushing, not micromanagement-level control. But the parents of those kids still have to stay “on duty” – engaged, having expectations, and therefore noticing whether those loose reins are getting results rather than being the cover for avoidance, poor performance, excuses, and wishful thinking. The obvious point is that children need what they need, not what parents want them to need, which is only figured out by parents who are active learners themselves. Children need active engagement by parents who are sending a firm message: we have expectations and we’re here with you for the long haul.
Finally, one of the most important expectations parents should have of their children is that they behave. Poor behavior at age seven is not the sign of an artistic temperament or a free spirit. It’s avoidance – rude, disruptive, not nice, not right, and, most importantly, hurtful to the child allowed to behave badly. There’s plenty of time to develop individuality – later.
Acting out and sabotaging school due to lack of self-control fictionalized as the child “being different” isn’t just wrong – it’s ridiculous.
Apart from the clearly unrealistic and provocative things Amy Chua advocates, having expectations and making them stick is crucial. You don’t have to be a Tiger Mom, but your kid needs to know he or she can’t outlast you, just wear you down. Manners, cooperation, and effort should be non-negotiable – it’s not that you’ll scream and yell; it’s that you won’t let go of it until your reasonable expectations are met.
One of my pet phrases is: “Good parenting is hard, inept parenting makes everything even harder.”