Tiger mom’s extreme parenting

2011-02-14 00:00

ACCORDING to Amy Chua, I should be forcing Anna to practise the piano for three to four hours a day, and Jason shouldn’t be allowed to go on sleepovers or play dates. Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was released only a month ago in the United States, but it has already made it onto the cover of Time magazine and evoked an electronic storm of debate in theblogosphere. Chua has featured on television talk shows in Britain and the U.S.

She makes it clear that she has written a memoir, not a parenting handbook, brought on by a very dramatic, very public, screaming, glass-smashing confrontation with her youngest daughter, Louisa. Lulu had won: her consistent refusal to co-operate with her mother’s repressive music-practice regime had defeated the Tiger Mom.

“Lulu, you win. It’s over. We’re giving up the violin,” Time quotes Chua as saying.

Many column centimetres and hours of air time have been, and will continue to be, devoted to debating Chua’s extreme parenting style, for example, accepting nothing less than As, calling Sophia, her oldest daughter, “garbage” for behaving disrespectfully, and forcing both girls into hours of maths and spelling drills. Some of her methods seem to border on abuse, like dragging her three-year-old out into the freezing cold for not practising enough and threatening to burn all the child’s stuffed toys if she didn’t play the piano perfectly.

I don’t wish to get into that debate as I found the “we” in her statement of surrender significant, raising deeper questions about her motives. Chua claims she did what she did out of “love and compassion”, with her daughters’ best interests at heart. She raised them as she was raised, according to strict “Chinese parenting”, to be a winner. Her daughters reportedly intend to be strict parents too, but a little less repressive.

Why did Chua say: “We’re giving up violin,” and not “You may give up violin”? After all, it was the hapless Lulu who was doing all the hours of practising, not Chua herself, although she had to be there forcing her to do it. I wonder if Chua didn’t fall prey to “vicarious parenting” — the need to push her children into being high achievers for her own self-gratification. Sunday Times columnist Judith Ancer wrote: “The psychologist in me diagnosed her as a brittle narcissist with unresolved performance anxiety. She clearly has a high IQ, but scores really poorly on any measure of emotional intelligence.”

That comment rang true for me. Chua’s parenting regime sounds as arduous and time-consuming for her as it was emotionally bruising and exhausting for her daughters. She had to be getting something out of being a Tiger Mom to make the effort worthwhile. “Love and compassion” se voet, say I. Vicarious parents invest so much of their own — often deeply wounded —  egos in their children that they can’t avoid forcing them to perform. I see it all the time on the side of school sports fields, and in parents who over-invest in their children’s music and academic careers, if to a lesser degree than Chua.

Another question that hit me was: “Where was the girls’ father while this merciless taskmaster raged around his home?” A Yale law professor like Chua, I’d like to see Jed Rubenfeld appear on Oprah’s talk show to answer for his part in the repressive Tiger Mom regime. It could be the parenting equivalent of the International Court in the Hague where they try war criminals for crimes against humanity. Perhaps the answer lies in that seemingly age-old but uncomfortable truth about marriage and family life: parenting is optional for fathers but mandatory for mothers.

According to Rolf Jensen of the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, “We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence become the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion. Imagination, myth and ritual … will affect everything from our purchasing decisions to how we work with others.” In other words, one of the most important skills our children will need to negotiate the future is emotional intelligence or EQ. This is something apparently lacking from Chua’s parenting regime, and therefore from her children too perhaps, since their interactions with other children outside of school hours were almost non-existent: no sport, play dates, sleepovers or even school plays. If Jensen and others like him are right, and if Chua’s methods have deprived her daughters of the ability and opportunity to develop their EQ, she has done them a serious disservice.

Clearly, I am not about to institute any of the extreme practices of Tiger Mother parenting. However, there are valuable lessons that we “indulgent” Western-style parents can learn from Chua. She says that Chinese parents assume strength, not fragility in their children. That is why they do not insulate them from unpleasant experiences like many Westerners do, and believe it acceptable to push them to achieve. I stand guilty as charged. Although not quite a helicopter parent — one who hovers constantly near her offspring — I readily admit to being an anxious mother.

Chua also seems to have projected her own baggage onto her children. Again, guilty as charged. As I was an anxious and sensitive child, I find myself projecting my issues onto my children and in the way I parent them. The Tiger Mom debate has reminded me of my need to “back off”, allow my children to experience consequences more, and struggle a little more in order to find their own strength. Perhaps there is some truth in that old adage: “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger,” for my children and for me.

• Marigold Gilroy is a local writer.

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