The press lit up in January with the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her account of choosing to raise her Chinese-American daughters in the style of the prototypical Chinese mother’s "take no prisoners" philosophy. And as events and circumstances change concurrently, I’ve had to consider the strengths and weaknesses of that approach.
There’s an image of a successful Asian student in almost all of our schools, and behind that image is another – a demanding and exacting mother. A woman who won’t tolerate failure and seemingly sacrifices a personal relationship with her child in order to obtain a child who succeeds but will presumably run for the hills when older and out of the household. Contrast this with the American approach in which parents want the kids to largely try different things and be happy, not to mention be the kids’ friends as well. Some Americans have taken this book as a bit of an affront and defended their parenting style and truth be told, there’s value to both sides.
But first consider the rationale behind the Chinese approach. Recognize that the Chinese mothers – like all mothers – want what’s best for their kids and want them to have a better life. So far, the two groups are matched. But then recognize the circumstances behind the approach. The Chinese society was family-centric and generations could live in the same area without moving a significant distance. And while America as a nation is only 235 years old, Chinese society for at least that long was fractured and trapped in decline after their historic eras, only resurgent in the past several decades. If Chinese parents – like their counterparts almost everywhere – wanted their children to have a better life than theirs and there were only so many opportunities available, then these children would have to truly excel in some manner to avail themselves of those opportunities. The kids would have to know how to apply themselves – and Chua’s absolutely correct when she states that it isn’t something that comes naturally for most children – and also be able to handle pressure. They would have to understand that the family was the core bedrock of their existence as so much of then-Chinese society wasn’t stable, either politically or economically, and it was the young adults who would be coping with the pressure of both raising children and helping care for elderly parents.
The opposing view is the Western/American mother. Given the freedoms that we’ve enjoyed, and the historic economic/social mobility that went with it, there’s a greater sense that the kids will have opportunities. The long-time generational view has been that the next rising generation would be better off than its predecessors. Indeed, this country is now at least three generations removed from the last great and serious trials of the Great Depression and Second World War and it’s only been in the last number of years that parents and adults have begun to honestly question whether that same promise exists. American adults have also enjoyed a greater mobility than their Chinese counterparts and it’s not at uncommon to have elderly parents in one region while the adult children are in an entirely different timezone. If the parents were no longer capable of caring for themselves, there were other options available apart from living with the children. We’ve simply enjoyed so much prosperity and relative ease compared with the remainder of the world that we’ve been able to spend greater time on leisure and introspection than our peers elsewhere on the planet and the presumption still exists that the paradigm will hold.
This PracticalDad has generally followed the western approach to parenting, albeit with stricter guidelines. I’ve been clear with them that they shouldn’t try to grow up too fast like their peers since they can only have one childhood. There are plenty of adults trying to recapture their youth and they frankly look like a bunch of damned fools doing so. But there’s a greater appreciation for the Chinese approach over the past several years as our economy has undergone significant and worrisome changes. The upshot is that the kids will have to be able to compete globally and if they don’t have an appreciation for hard work and discipline, then they’re going to have their lunch eaten for them. So there is greater expectation of academic performance than with other families, and a greater amount of time spent discussing the realities of our world with them. Neither my wife nor I are looking to raise self-actualized adults – whatever that means – but adults capable of surviving in a more unfriendly world and doing so in a moral, ethical manner.
Which might be the toughest hurdle of all.
So we’ll continue to try providing them with opportunities that are fun and help children grow, but maintain expectations that force them to reach beyond themselves. Because the world is going to require that they be able to reach beyond themselves far more than we’ve had to.