29 October 2013

Balanced Parenting: Lessons from The Tiger Mother

After reading Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I reacted the way many other American parents did. I became defensive and paranoid of my own parenting style, as if she were suggesting that my own personal parenting choices were inferior to that of eastern parenting styles and thus my children were in danger of not achieving great success. I felt like some kind of lackadaisical pushover who wasn't doing nearly enough for my two very capable girls. I even contemplated sending them to piano lessons, but I knew they would just laugh at me and that made me feel even worse.

That was my first reaction. Upon further reflection of the book, I have come to believe that both sides of the debate have benefits and downfalls. This is why the lesson of the Tiger Mother is that of balance. If we are to read this text and gain any wisdom from it, it should be that everything is about balance, and if we lean too heavily in any direction, as I would humbly suggest Chua did with the raising of her two girls, the end result could be less than desirable.

Chua begins her book with a list of her strict parenting rules. While her rhetoric was good at stimulating my curiosity, I question the benefits to such a rigid and unbalanced regimen for young children. Research in the field of education has determined that kids benefit greatly from playtime, and being allowed to socialize as play freely reduces anxiety and stress. A study done by Krystyan Kryko suggests three areas of development that benefit most from play:

Social Development
In the social domain free play allows for the development of cooperation, sharing, and language acquisition. When children create and participate in games of their own choosing they learn how to resolve conflicts and develop respect for rules and the opinions of others. It is through play that children begin to gain a sense of self and an appreciation for their abilities.

Emotional Development
Unstructured play provides children with an outlet for reducing anxiety. Children learn to manage stress and gain self control. They also have an opportunity to express themselves to others by rehearsing behaviors and practicing skills that assist in monitoring their own emotions.
Cognitive Development
Unstructured play allows for the development of cognitive understandings through hands on experiences, exploration, and the use of manipulative materials. The context of play provides the most appropriate scaffolding for children as they develop their skills. After children practice their skills in play situations they use their newly aquires skills in different contexts.

My concern here is that Chua does not allow for the necessary stress-reducers that a child (or adult, for that matter) needs. It should be of no surprise then, that eastern cultures have some of the highest female suicide rates in the world, with China leading the way.

This graph shows the alarming rates of suicide among males and females across the globe. It is interesting to note that the highest rates of suicide occur within the cultures that practice the Tiger Mother methods of parenting.

This is not to say that Chua's daughters would fall into such a category, but a look at their social media pages could suggests that there may be some causes for concern. A quote from Sophie's Twitter account suggests her anxiety:
"To an outsider, I just seem like a list of accomplishments. To me, all there is how often I fail."
and in a similar post from her sister Lulu, she states that:
"My spirit animal is anxiety."
One should wonder if the high levels of depression and anxiety in eastern children are linked to the strong demands placed on them as young children. Would such a child be just as successful if not pushed beyond a reasonable limit? If a child's life was balanced with a healthy amount of work and play, would she/he success regardless? Studies have found that genetics play an increasingly important role in determining who a child will grow up to be. Bryan Caplan discusses the effects of genes in child development in an article in Psychology Today:
Adoption and twin researchers in medicine, psychology, economics, and sociology have spent the last four decades studying almost every trait that parents seek to foster. By comparing adoptees to their adopted families, and identical to fraternal twins, these scientists have finally managed to separately measure the effects of nature and nurture. The effect of genes on health, intelligence, happinesss, success, character, and values is glaringly obvious. The effect of parenting on these traits, in contrast, ranges from small to zero. Amy Chua's daughters didn't need a Tiger Mother to succeed; being the children of two best-selling Yale professors was enough.
I am not suggesting that the western style of parenting is superior in any way to that of others. I believe we could learn a lot from each other, and that parenting should not be a competition among nations. Success is measured in different terms by each individual, and the journey to success should be pleasant, not painful. Balance.


Ellen Scherer said...

Although I agree with Caplan, in that genetics play a role in the success of children, actual parenting styles are very important as well. To clarify, a father and son could have the same disposition; therefore, the two people deal make similar behavioral choices. However, without an authoritative (not authoritarian) parenting aspect, the balance between father and son could suffer. Consider Lulu and Amy's relationship. They are similar people; both very stubborn. However, Amy is Lulu's mother and should have some authority over her. What I think she realized through writing this book is that her own parenting style was unbalanced and that it really is okay to give up some power for the sake of a healthy relationship between mother and daughter.

Abigail Griffin said...

It certainly is not, at least in my case, an uncommon first reaction to take a defensive stance on Chua’s divisions between eastern and western parenting. For a book that drew upon the theme of balance like you mentioned, I found it a bit ironic that in regards to parenting (and by extension informing the reader on how to be like a Chinese parent) that her voice seemed to take on a confrontational, and downright aggressive tone that did not seem to mellow until the end chapters. While I understand that it’s as simple as a stylistic choice, I often wonder if Chua’s book might have had a more effective, positive reaction had she not started off with that sort of tone (but I digress . . .)

Your research shows that children subjugated to the rigid familial and educational structures presented in the book are at risk for developing stress and anxieties. In addition, their cognitive abilities also suffer. I agree with you that it is no coincidence that suicide is one of the outcomes of a stressed and anxious people. I think you’re also right to assume that perhaps these kinds of issues are not isolated to just the eastern Asian nations. Despite different models of parenting, some western nations are also suffering from higher suicide rates among younger generations. For the sake of balance, I wonder if you might expand your research to include figures of suicides among younger generations in western nations. Are these western generations encountering the same types of pressures as their eastern counterparts? If their situations are incomparable then what other social, academic, or familial circumstances might account for their behavior? What factors of a child’s development might vary between nations that a genetic theory such as Caplan’s cannot account for? It’s a very interesting topic indeed.

Naomi Coufal said...

I definitely agree that the answer is a balance between strictness and allowing children to have time to play.

Yet, I also question the rates of suicide as indicators of the results of parenting. In many cultures, school systems are much more rigid than American systems. My friends for Japan, for example, tell me that everything about their future rides on their performance in high school. If they do not do well in high school, they end up on a "track" that will force them to work jobs that they do not want. I think that pressure from school systems may influence these children more than the parenting they receive at home. However, more research is needed to prove it, of course.

The rates of suicide certainly need consideration, but there are many other factors to consider as well.

With that said, however, the quote from Lulu's blog still stands. I know many teen-agers who post moody statuses on Facebook (I don't use Twitter much), so I'm not sure if I think this is an indication of a deeper issue. However, since we have the information about Chua's parenting, it does seem logical to conclude that Lulu's distress might arise from the strict parenting she experienced.

I think it will be interesting to see the kinds of decisions the two girls make as they grow older. Aside from the Twitter post you quote, they both seem like very socialized, accomplished girls.

Melissa said...

I guess I would say that how a child does in high school depends a lot on how much effort the children put in at home. I'm sure the amount of homework, studying, practicing, etc. is tremendous. So it may have a lot to do with the education system, which is part of the society as a whole. I know nothing of their school system, and how standards are set. I'd be curious to see if parents are in support of the curriculum/structure of their schools