The best response thus far to Amy Chua’s screed against the indulgent style of American parents, “‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” was by David Brooks of The New York Times. Chua decries American parents as wimps who capitulate to their kids. Not Amy. She has threatened to burn her children’s stuffed toys if they don’t excel at piano, withheld food, water, and bathroom break to teach piano to her 7-year-old, called them lazy, stupid, and fat, denied them play dates and sleepovers, TV and video games, and has slowly molded Carnegie-hall protÃ©gÃ©s with straight As. Thunderous applause. To which Brooks responded that the hardest cognitive skills that any child needs to learn are group dynamics and how to get along with other people, interactions that Chua seemed to dismiss as beneath her kids.
The man has a point. America as a nation would probably get an overall A in the success department but a D minus in getting along with each other. With half the population divorced, families disintegrating all around us, and some nutjob shooting up innocent bystanders about every other week, we clearly have demonstrated an inability to master interpersonal relationships, both with those we love most as well as strangers.
Truth regardless of consequences But I have a variation on Brooks’ argument. The draconian parenting advocated by Chua in her book breeds a real and potentially toxic narcissism. In essence, her argument is that we must raise children with an extreme focus on self. Our kids are brought into this world not to be a blessing to others through a life of service but to become immensely successful, with success defined narrowly and almost exclusively in terms of personal achievement. A success is a concert pianist and a Nobel Prize-winner, an Olympic gold medalist, a billionaire businessman, or a powerful politician. Great. Knock yourself out. But I counsel some of these “successful” people. Their lives are often ill-balanced and, given their egos’ stranglehold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond the dictates of their ambitions.
Sure, we can all agree with Chua that TV and video games are a waste of time, and I endorse her call for far greater discipline in parenting. But where does selflessness figure in the values by which she raises her children? Should every child really be raised believing that the greatest gift he or she can give the world is to inflict vast achievement on it?
Indeed, her book has generated such a wide readership precisely because American parents seem so much more interested these days in raising successful rather than good children, kids who excel at making money rather than making friends, at obtaining status rather than obtaining wisdom, at winning championships rather than championing a cause larger than themselves.
I wonder what the Amy Chuas of this world do when one of their kids expresses a desire to be, say, a rabbi, priest, or teacher! Do you rent your garments and don sackcloth and ashes? Or do you simply tell them, OK, but only if you rise to be chief rabbi, the pope, or the secretary of education?
I want my kids to be successful, sure. But more than anything I want them to be soulful and moral. Yes, I would like to see them prosper, afford nice things, and earn the admiration of their peers. But if money and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic, and giving, then I have failed as a parent.
I am proud when my kids show me a good report card. But I receive real joy when people who have met them tell me how respectful and warm they are.
To the Amy Chuas of this world I ask: Is America really missing success, or are we beginning to squander that success through an erosion of values? Success without values always ends in misery and failure.
That does not mean I dismiss many of Chuas important points. I too have been mostly opposed to sleepovers because they involve no sleep before they are over. The kids come back dead tired and blow the next day. And often there is no parental supervision to speak of.
Kids should not be vegging in front of TVs and the last thing children need for their healthy development is to beat up a hooker on a video game.
American kids are spoiled and indulged, and far too many parents seem to be afraid of their kids – afraid of saying no, afraid of giving simple, unalterable rules, afraid of giving them chores and responsibilities around the house. Why? First and foremost, because we have such bad marriages these days that for many a parent their principal form of affection comes not from a spouse but from their children. And the last thing they’re going to do is bite the hand that feeds them. Second, we can’t say no to our kids because we feel guilty about how we neglect them as we ourselves veg in front of a TV. And finally, discipline takes a lot of out of you, and we’re so tired and stressed from our jobs, where we invest the major part of our creativity, that we arrive home a depleted wreck, scarcely able to muster the strength to stand up to our children.
There is also a pernicious American belief that the essence of good parenting is giving your kids all the things you yourself didn’t have as a child. But by giving your kids all the material things you lacked, you are robbing them of the one big thing you did have, namely, pride in your own effort and achievement. We’re not supposed to give our kids everything. They’re supposed to earn it.
But what Chua doesn’t seem to recognize is the need, as Maimonides expressed it, for moderation in all things. And this is especially true of parenting. Effective child-rearing involves finding the balance between how much we ought to actively chisel our children into what we believe is the perfect image versus passively allowing their own personalities and gifts to unfold.
What most rubbed me the wrong way is Chua’s seeming insistence that having a kid who can play the piano or the violin is the ultimate in success. I believe in developing a child’s potential. But our kids aren’t a bunch of circus monkeys that we’re just supposed to train to impress teachers, ace exams, and perform in front of admiring audiences. They are people too, and we have to help then find a personal truth that accords with their unique gifts and disposition. King Solomon expressed it wisely: Educate a child according to his way.
What Chua exhibits above all else is considerable insecurity. She tells her children that they risk becoming losers, which is what she terms anyone who is “second-best.” Life is a winner-takes-all competition and Chua’s ambition rules her like a demon. Yet she thinks nothing of coercing her children into the same cult of demonic possession.
Are we really being loving to our children when we raise them in a climate of overarching fear?