January 21, 2011
Why Amy Chua, the tiger mom, is wrong
The best response thus far to Amy Chua’s screed against the soft, indulged 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 seven-year-old, called them lazy, stupid, and fat, denied them play dates and sleep overs, TV and video games, and has slowly molded Carnegie-hall protégés with straight A’s. Thunderous applause. To which Brooks responded that the hardest cognitive skill that any child confronts is learning group dynamics and how to get along with other people, interactions which Chua seemed to dismiss as beneath her kids.
Touché. 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 something of an inability to master interpersonal relationships, both with those we love most as well as strangers.
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, and 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’ strangle-hold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose beyond the dictates of their ambition.
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 they can give the world is to inflict their 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 Chua’s 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 them, OK, but only if you rise to be Chief Rabbi, the Pope, or the secretary of education?
Here’s the thing. 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 damn it, if money and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic, and giving then I have utterly failed as a parent.
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio host and author, tells a story of a woman who bragged to him that her children were top doctors and lawyers. He asked her, “Are they good people?” “Why of course,” she responded. And then his clincher. “Then why didn’t you tell me that first?”
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.
Let us reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but they are selfish egotists, you blew it.
To the Amy Chua’s of this world I ask this question: 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 Chua’s 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 veging in front of TV’s and the last thing a child needs for their healthy development is to beat up a hooker with a lead pipe on a video game.
I do believe that American kids are spoiled and indulged and that 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 hands 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.
But there is also an overarching, 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.
But what most rubbed me the wrong way is Chou’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.
In the final analysis 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.
At Oxford I met many people like Chua. They inevitably ended up, like her, as professors at elite universities. Their rigidity and obsession with success ensured that they never took real risks, preferring tenured and comfortable positions for life to the rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurship. For all their ambition people like Chua would never go into politics, for example, for fear of allowing a force outside themselves to determine their fate, the fear of failure precluding the ability to take real chances.
And are we really be loving to our children when we raise them in a climate of overarching fear?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ He is previously published the critically-acclaimed parenting manuals ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children’ and ‘Parenting with Fire.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.