Saturday, January 15, 2011

Panda Mom

Late last week, two different friends sent me the same article. It is titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," and I believe it is creating quite a lot of buzz. Plantboy had heard it talked about on NPR and the author, Amy Chua (a professor at Yale Law School) has been dubbed "Tiger Mom." The first friend who sent me the article, has five sons and is preparing to adopt a daughter. From China. This former roommate is one of the dearest friends I've ever had. She is a woman of faith and determination who somehow manages to balance her toughness with complete tenderness. Any child would be blessed to come to her family. She had little to say about the article--it left both of us equally speechless--but she did mention feeling "bad" about it, at least when she had heard the article reported on.

The second friend, a father, had an entirely different take. He suggested I write a piece talking about the expectations that Latter-day Saints parents have for their children, and ran his own bullet list of things that we do in Mormon culture that would be seen as almost bizarre, not to mention incredibly strict, to some of our friends of other faiths. His list could certainly rival Tiger Mom's expectations. Then he said something that disturbed me almost as much as my other friend's near-guilt. He indicated that part of the reason LDS parent acts this way is that in our own culture we pay great attention to what other parents do and see acts by children as a reflection on the type of parents we are. He obliquely suggested that LDS mothers, a larger stay-at-home group than the population at large, feel enormous pressure from one another to churn out perfect children, more for the sake of themselves than the children themselves.

As interesting as both of my friends comments are, and worthy of discussion, I would like instead here to address an entirely different approach to parenting than Tiger Mom's. Clearly my speechlessness didn't last. I am not talking about Eastern v. Western parenting. Even Tiger Mom points out that many moms of Chinese descent, particularly those living in the West, aren't what she terms "Chinese Mothers" because they don't follow the set mold that is the basis of her discussion. In addition, she uses the term "Western parenting" extremely loosely, so that at times I found myself in agreement with her and other times nearly offended at her implications.

Before I get going, it is important to point out that I don't begrudge Tiger Mom's right to parent how she wishes. I remember some years ago there was a young Cuban boy whose mother and father were divorced. The mother, who had family in the US, absconded with the boy in violation of a joint-custody agreement and attempted to make the crossing to the US. On their journey, the mother died and the boy was united with his Florida relatives who then tried to petition the US government to get custody of the child so he wouldn't have to be returned to his Communist father. No US politician would weigh in seriously in favor of the relatives, recognizing the slippery slope that we embarked upon when we began judging parents as unfit simply because we disagreed with their political beliefs. With that rather lengthy aside, I am only emphasizing that just because I reject emphatically Tiger Mom's tactics, I don't reject her right, or any parent's right, to create a home that reflects their values (within the law, of course).

My fundamental problem with Tiger Mom is not that she is strict, or that she has nearly impossible expectations, it is that her parenting approach is rule-based instead of value-based. I should clarify: parents who make rules the priority probably do have values, but they don't find it necessary to explain these to their children, only to enforce the rules. Similarly, value-based parenting also has rules, but both parents AND the children understand the purpose of the rules. In the first method, the family unit ends up serving the rules which are rigid and sometimes arbitrary or based on tradition. In the second method, the rules serve the family and there is inherent flexibility when things aren't working.

I'll provide an example.

Tiger Mom says that her children, two daughters, are not allowed to play an instrument other than piano or violin, nor are they allowed NOT to play either the piano or the violin. It is a family rule. So is practicing said instrument up to three hours daily.

Okay. Music is certainly a worthy pursuit.

But here is what a values-based parent says. "I want my children to learn self-discipline, diligent hard work, responsibility and be free of anxiety when performing in front of other people." To that end, the child in this scenario would be encouraged and allowed to do a team or individual sport, martial arts, dance, art, drama (Tiger Mom's greatest fear), or any musical instrument of their choosing. Or, heaven forbid, some combination of these.

The first child is valued for strict compliance, excelling and adherence to tradition in their perfect reflection of mother's wishes. The second child is valued for their choice and individuality and unique expression of talent.

Here is a second example of the contrast, again based on Tiger Mom's own words. "My daughters were never allowed NOT to be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama." She then spends hours each day drilling her kids in their subjects, stressing that the Chinese-school model of rote memorization is superior to Western ideals of creative thinking. Other than music practice, Tiger Mom's children are allowed no recreation. If her daughters don't come in first, or especially if anything other than an A is received, coercive techniques that include withholding food, name calling and taking away other "privileges" are invoked.

Okay. Academics are very important.

The values-based parent might say, "I want my child to value education, learn all that they can and become an engaged an interested student." The child is then encouraged, supported and loved. The child's areas of excellence are stressed and encouraged in the hope that a love of learning will spread to other areas of the curriculum also. School activities are supplemented when necessary and a child doing their best is the most important thing.

The problem of parenting with rules at the center is that there is no allowance for unusual circumstances or kids. There is no leeway for mistakes or repentance or reconciliation. There is no buffer system against the inevitable trials that will come into life. A friend once told me that she believed if you went into parenting with two many preconceived ideas (rules) then you were bound to be disappointed. I can't help but wonder what Tiger Mom would have done if she had given birth to a little girl with Down's syndrome, or a boy with Asberger's. Tourettes might have sent her into spasms of horror.

I'd like to share here a few of the values my own parenting is based upon. For some of these I will draw a contrast to Tiger Mom, others not so much. It is hard to tell entirely WHAT Tiger Mom values, other than her kids being "successful." In creating my list, I fully acknowledge that my own parenting values stem in large part from my own cultural biases, which are primarily LDS and secondly American. My ideas have also largely been formed from my training and experience as a teacher.

1. My children are lovely, special and unique. To me. It isn't fair for me to expect other people to treat them the same way. (Saying that all children are unique is really just another way of saying that NONE of them are.) If my children need extra time and attention, then it is primarily my responsibility to give it to them.

2. I must love my children enough to put limits on their behavior.

3. Self-esteem is built when a child makes good choices and enjoys the positive consequences of their behavior. Their sense of self and worth is based on their ability to become independent and strong. (Tiger Mom says that self-esteem is based on being praised for performing certain tasks with perfection. The problem with this approach is that perfection, at least across a broad spectrum of skills, is impossible. And even if you are first, it is only temporary. Somebody smarter, faster, more skilled and better always comes along eventually.) The most important thing I can give my child is independence.

4. I should set high expectations for my children and then do everything in my power to help them become successful.

5. My home needs to be a place of love and understanding and peace so that my kids have a soft place to land.

6. Children, particularly young children, develop their imagination and problem solving skills when they have plenty of unstructured play time. When this time is outdoors, it is even more productive. Dirt doesn't hurt and soap washes almost everything.

7. Children should learn to work, and that work should generally come before play; but they should also learn that work and fun are not dichotomies. Working at something you love brings total joy. And fun might involve all kinds of thinking and sweating.

8. My children might be handsome, charming, intelligent, excel in school, and have loads of friends (etc. etc.) but if they have no compassion, kindness and generosity then they will never build a life of true joy or richness. It is these unmeasurable attributes that make a truly great man or woman.

9. My children are not the center of any universe. Even mine. The most important single entity in my house is our family. The things we do must center on what is best for the family--which may certainly include an individual being spotlighted.

10. Eventually my children will have to determine their own religious values and practices, but in the meantime I will train them up in mine, while teaching them the tools that will help them to choose for themselves one day.

I guess I have a lot of values; I'm sure I could even come up with more. My point is that motivation for parenting has to be based on something more substantial than guilt (particularly that false-guilt that is actually based on comparison and not any inner working), tradition, a slanted idea of success, or on how well a child's behavior reflects on ourselves.

In the end of her essay, Tiger Mom, in my eyes redeems herself with the following two paragraphs,

". . . . For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it's a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.

"Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

In the end, it seems that most parents want the same things.

What do you value as a parent or grandparent or favorite aunt or teacher? Everyone, regardless of the age or number or even existence of your own children has something to contribute here.


Jenny said...

Your list is good.
Your post was thought-provoking.
My favorite on your list is:
I should set high expectations for my children and then do everything in my power to help them become successful.
I believe strongly in side-by-side relationships with my children. If I ask them to shovel the snow, I won't sit inside the window pointing at the spot they missed.

I won't expect my childrens' living spaces to be clean and dust-free if mine isn't. (And in case you were wondering, it ISN'T).

I WILL make sure EVERY.DAY. that my kids know that I love them. If telling them becomes rote, I will figure out how else to express it so the message gets through (ie physical affection and random acts of kindness go a long way, and not surprisingly, kids tend to model most parental behavior, positive or negative, so I keep that in mind a LOT)

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I like your post title. :)

In Tiger Mom's defense, in an interview about her recent book yesterday she explained that she started out parenting strictly until her teenager utterly rebelled, then she realized that the super-strict approach was not necessarily the best for her kids. She says her children have humbled her a lot.

As for my own thoughts on parenting, I'll have to ponder and get back to you.

Good post. I like the emphasis on values-based parenting.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Follow-up: The "article" on Chinese parenting was actually an excerpt from the beginning of her book, and was a tongue-in-cheek look at how she parented early on. When her teenager seriously rebelled Chua realized she really needed to change her parenting style or risk losing her daughter.

She wrote the Battle Hymn memoir in the following months mainly for her own catharsis. They recently hosted a sleepover for her daughter's fifteenth birthday.

You can read her own account of all this and her regrets that her "article" has been widely misinterpreted here:

Science Teacher Mommy said...

KimBlue: Thanks so much for all of the clarification. I did read that it was the beginning of a book, but I believed it was a parenting memoir based on her own style.

Now I want to read it!

Janssen said...

I'm interested in reading it after that last comment too!

I've been thinking a lot lately about competition (my sister and I have, sadly, had a lot of competition in our relationship (likely much of it is my own fault) and I really want to avoid that in my children if possible). This seems like it really goes along the same lines and it's been a lot of food for thought.