Much slinging about of parental nicknames lately. You’ve heard them: Tiger Mother, Helicopter Parent, Absent Dad, Permissive Mom, Checked-Out Parents, Home-School Geeks, Ivy League Pushers and so on. This label fest comes courtesy of the pithy and profound mother of all Tiger Mothers, Amy Chua, and her ubiquitous book detailing her controversial perspective on parenting. It’s a big topic, Miz Chua’s book, and everyone and their mother (pun intended) has weighed in on it.
Amy Chua is a child abuser. I don’t care if her girls are now the ace students of her dreams, first chair in every orchestra in town, well-adjusted, widely admired and deliriously happy, Amy Chua is a child abuser.
Whether or not we get good intel from a guy we’ve waterboarded, waterboarding is still torture. And Amy Chua’s method of parenting, regardless of her browbeaten children’s supposedly sunny survival, is still child abuse. That her girls now claim to not only agree with their mother’s methods but intend to implement them with their own future children (God forbid!) sounds suspiciously like Stockholm Syndrome, “a phenomenon in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to their captor, essentially mistaking a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness.” That Passive Dad stood around and allowed all this Mommy Dearest activity to go on for as long as it did sounds like…well, Passive Dad. Was that nickname on the list?
As for the parents, critics, bloggers, pundits and columnists who find themselves equivocating here and there about Miz Chua, I must question their own philosophy of parenting. To use one of Miz Chua’s words, don’t be lazy, people. It’s one thing to view something retrospectively and make judgments about the ultimate outcome in hindsight but go a little deeper. Forget for a moment the pictures of those smiling older girls standing with their smiling mother, all love and no regrets and she made me who I am today. Go back in time and put yourself in that room with Miz Chua and her sweet-faced seven year old daughter sitting at the piano, repeatedly pounding out “The Little White Donkey” and picture this scene: “I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts. Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it.”
Hooray, hooray…success for Miz Amy! Her sweet little girl was finally broken down, browbeaten, tortured, insulted, abused and “motivated” enough to get with the program, even “beam” at her own accomplishment. I bet she hugged her mommy after that horrible night of no food, water, rest, or bathroom breaks and felt a rush of both relief and love…so happy and proud to have finally pleased her snarling, gnashing Tiger Mother. Stockholm Syndrome, I tell ya.
Now, as you were imagining yourself in that room witnessing this harangue-fest in real time, how did you feel? Did it seem like good parenting? Was the outcome worth the abuse? Could you look at that beleaguered child and feel she was being properly mentored, loved and cared for? Or as you listened to Chua screaming so loud, hour after hour, that she lost her voice did you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and a desire to grab her by the throat and give her a taste of her own medicine? Call Children’s Services and demand that they intervene on behalf of these two little girls? Maybe it’s just me.
Abuse as motivation never worked for me. It made me hate the person abusing me and did not make me want to please them. I had my own sense of accomplishment, and a drive for my personal best in most things, and the kind of hysterical, rageful, depriving, psychotic methods Miz Amy attributes to herself is the exact behavior that would shut me down and send me out the door. I’ve worked with directors and choreographers who tried it on me, teachers who seemed to think it was useful; dealt with a mother who, though without so defined a philosophy as Chua’s, was often abusive in her own ways, and I ultimately came away with the crystal-clear understanding that abuse will always be abuse and it’s a chicken-shit way to achieve your goals. It may elicit the desired result and there may later be smiling all around, but not too far below the surface, conscious or sub, will lie anger, resentment, rage, and a profound sense of negation. A disassociative response is not uncommon and I question the smiles and nods of Chua’s two girls, wondering if therapy will be in their future once the Tiger has finally unhooked her claws and they experience enough of life without her to take stock of the damage. God, I hope so…it would be better than continuing to believe they deserved that kind of heinous parenting.
Personally, I excelled in my life despite bouts of abusive parenting, not because of it. Some of the most brilliant successes we know of would say the same: Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Tyler Perry, to name just a few. Additionally, some of our most world-changing, innovative thinkers didn’t graduate college, much less with straight As or at the top of their class: famously, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, Steven Spielberg, even Mark Zuckerberg. Clearly the formula for success is not carved in stone whether you’re Western or Chinese. Nor will the desire for a child’s success ever be reason or justification for child abuse. It remains child abuse, test scores notwithstanding.
Chua relies on ethnic generalities to excuse her behavior as well as to demean that of Western parents, but frankly, I think that’s a smoke screen. She herself is a lazy parent. She accepted the tired and true methods that had been inflicted upon her without question; she didn’t demand of herself to get creative and innovative to come up with something different — maybe even better — to achieve her goals. Here in the West many of us learned from the bad parenting we received and worked hard and long to educate ourselves and find more evolved ways to motivate, discipline and mentor our children without abusing them. It can be done. I know many families, parents, and children who are proof of that. Children who actually had playdates, enjoyed slumber parties, chose their own extracurricular activities, watched TV, experienced a school play, lived life as an inquisitive, exploratory child and still excelled in school, have tremendous work ethic, deep morals, heartfelt empathy and compassion, and unquestionable integrity. Yes, some of them did get Bs now and again, maybe an occasional C (the horror!!) but they worked it out, are now in excellent schools, pursuing majors in science and math, have sharp ambition and will, no doubt, enter the world as adults that any parent, Western or otherwise, would be proud of.
I know. I have one of those kids. Could he compete with Amy’s? I don’t know. Probably not. I don’t care.
At the heart of this debate lies two questions: what do you think a child is and what is your role and goal as a parent? If you believe a child is a blank, malleable entity whose identity is at the mercy of your view of what they should be, and your paramount, non-negotiable goal as a parent is to crank out someone who has been molded and shaped to be THE BEST AT ALL COSTS, well, Amy Chua’s prescription of long-term, unremitting, soul-crushing abuse as motivation may be the way to go. It worked for her and apparently many other Chinese families and, come on, just look at those test scores!
But if you believe a parent is a sacred and in some ways temporary role, a precious conduit designed to facilitate the bringing into the world of a bright individual whose destiny — with your loving care and guidance – is to find their passion, their voice, their truest self and, most importantly, evolve with a wholeness of spirit, a desire to learn and accomplish, and the unequivocal urge to be the most honorable, compassionate, and meaningful version of themselves, put the book down. You won’t find the answers there.
There are all kinds of bad parents; Tiger Mother doesn’t have the monopoly. There are the Helicopter Parents who won’t let their child breathe or try on their independence, the Overachiever Parents who are convinced (too often wrongly) that their child is gifted and advanced beyond their years; the Delusional Parent who risks their child’s safety for fear of limiting them (think Abby Sunderland’s parents). There are the Scared Parents too afraid to discipline or communicate for fear of alienating or overwhelming their child. The Detached Parent who thinks daycare, the nanny, the school or…someone, anyone else will get their child into adulthood. The Uneducated Parent who relies on antiquated methods “because that’s what my Mom and Dad did and, look at me, I’m just fine!” I could go on…we’ve all seen versions of most.
When I look at my boy’s face – open, loving, vulnerable and so ready for me to be someone to look up to and depend on, whether at 8 or 18 – I know exactly what a good parent is. Love. Respect. Trust. With a deep understanding that the younger person standing before you is as much his or her own person as you are. That despite a child’s need for discipline, mentoring, guidance and the accrual of wisdom that comes only from living longer and learning more, even at the moment of their most innocent they are unique individuals who deserve a life bereft of abuse, disrespect and coercion. Good parenting is grounded in love. And when you truly love someone, you do so without rigid agenda, delusion, or the imposition of your preordained version of them. You can and should push, you must set necessary boundaries; encourage, demand, raise your voice, even make mistakes from time to time. But you also listen, bend when necessary, and know when to change course. And if they truly don’t think “The Little White Donkey” is the soundtrack of their life, the good parent knows to be gracious and loving enough to let them find their own music.
All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke