Sunday, February 6, 2011

'Tiger Mom' sparks debate over parenting style

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/6/11

Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” has caused a “cat fight” among American mothers. I’ve not read the book, but given how anxious American mothers are about parenting styles and choices, I’m sure the publishers knew they had a gold mine, especially one that so harshly critiques American middle class working moms.

I’m not going to comment on Professor Chua’s parenting decisions. I think that evaluation is best left for her daughters. Nor will I enter the fray as to whether “Chinese” parenting is better, worse, or the same, as “Western” parenting because it is ridiculous. It wasn’t that long ago that our hyperventilating talk show hosts and the Internet echo chambers were eviscerating an Asian parenting style in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho, Seung-Hui.

More thoughtful observers have opined that the passionate discussions following the publication of “Tiger Mother” is just a reflection of Americans’ growing anxiety about the rising Chinese economic tiger, its role in financing our government, and its recent military flexing. Leave it to jingoism to obscure the more obvious underlying tensions of social class, ethnicity, and gender.

Professor Chua’s parenting decisions reflect an upper middle class background and aspiration for her children. The examples of what her children were permitted to do and not do draw pretty distinct class boundaries every bit as effective as private schools and gated communities.

One reason for American parents’ anxiety is the many cultures found in the United States. Few societies are as diverse as ours. Some cultures’ parenting is very strict and demanding, like the Chinese, especially for their girls. Others are looser, like the straw dog that Professor Chua compares her style to. When parents agree on how to parent and then engage in similar practices, a sense that “everyone does it this way,” produces confidence in those practices. But America is culturally diverse and given our culture of individualism, we think we make up parenting all on our own ignoring the cultural foundations of our individual choices.

Are there any Tiger Dads? Apparently so, but they sound distant and judgmental in Professor Chua’s description. Do Tiger Dads change diapers? Do they read to their kids? Or is there a distinct gendered separation in raising the kids? In the U.S. we see that style of parenting, but we also see dads involved in the daily care of their children. Are dads as anxious about what Professor Chua suggests? They seem to get a pass.

Why do different styles arise? Parents raise their kids to be “successful” in their society, as they define it. They pass on “survival skills.” In a caste-like society, where rulers hold entire families responsible for the acts of sons and daughters, parents raise their kids to conform to authority, especially to parental authority, lest a free-spirited offspring leads to a pogrom of the village. In societies with relatively little social mobility, parents are going to raise their kids to be successful at their station in life. In a society where a mixed-race boy of a single parent can grow up to be president, kids are going to be encouraged to be whatever they want, to “dream,” thus parents encourage a vast array of activities, with a goal of a well-rounded, popular, well-adjusted child. America emphasizes “me” over “we”; authentic self-expression over the party line.

Parenting styles also emerge from emulating high status groups. China is an ancient society. Despite its communist revolution in the 1940s, the basic social structure and culture of the society has not significantly changed. “Scholar-officials” have ruled China for millennia, not entrepreneurs, hucksters, or talented people. The academic emphasis in Chinese parenting is not an accident, it is the primary (perhaps only) means to advance in society. Academic achievement is important in the U.S., too. But there are too many examples of people who are rich, successful, and respected, who dropped out of the most prestigious educational institutions. Such an outcome would shame Professor Chua’s family but not the William Henry Gates Jr. family.

School is not the only place to learn self-discipline, which is the core of the Tiger Mom style. In the U.S., there are many avenues to learning self-discipline: academics, the arts, religious devotion, sports, household chores, and combinations of them. Kids need structure and stability, which is a parent’s responsibility. Not all parents discharge that responsibility, but there are many paths to achieving structure and stability for kids, not just by grabbing the Tiger’s tale.

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