Chinese mother, Amy Chua has created fervor in the past week with articles and appearances (Today Show) that preview her book, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, on “the superiority of Chinese parenting” to be released this week. While she claims that her tough approach to parenting is grounded in love, she has received more than a little flack for some of her essential rules: kids don’t get to choose their extracurricular activities, all kids play violin and piano – and nothing else, no TV or computer and no playdates or slumber parties. Chua blames “the Western model” of parenting for creating kids who are coddled and tweens and teens who take their opportunities for granted.
But while Chua’s cringe-worthy claims about the superiority of one ethnicity’s parent-rearing approach might sound shockingly new, her critique of self-esteem obsessed moms and dads is not. Chua resurrects the debate on how to praise your kids and instill your tweens and teens with confidence without spoiling them. Almost once a year, it seems that parenting experts and media pundits question whether all kids should get trophies, whether you can have a birthday party without inviting everyone in your class (friends and foes alike) and whether you should tell your child they can do it all (or let them know what their limits are at an early age).
We admit that we think Chua has missed the mark on many fronts. In our opinion (and in the opinion of most developmental psychologists and parenting experts that we know), a parent’s “job” is not to simply impose appropriate passions on their children, but to scaffold them. Raising successful children can hardly be reduced to a simple formula, in large part because one of the most important things a parent can do for their child is help them figure out what they love, and what they excel at. Parents can promote a work ethic, a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, and even a moral code for their kids to follow. But Chua self-reports that her parenting style borders on bullying – including name-calling and doling out threats – over a subpar piano performance.
Perhaps what Chua doesn’t know is that excessive praising and verbally abusing one’s children aren’t the only paths to child achievement. Self-esteem might, in fact, instill children with a false sense of their abilities. Telling kids, tweens or teens that they are “the best,” that they’re great and that they have won, even when they haven’t, sets up youth for a false sense of entitlement and for a rude awakening that will surely come when they’re least equipped to handle it. But most psychologists believe that it’s critical for parents to promote self-efficacy – that is, a belief in one’s self-worth, a true and authentic sense of what they’re really good at and where their limits lie, and the confidence and resilience that will allow them to push themselves to be their best.
Chua’s simple rules for parenting have made headlines, but it shouldn’t be news that raising children requires more than a few simple rules. It’s easier to impose than to support, to insist than to allow for exploration, and to yell than to listen. And it’s much easier to see parents as either overtly strict or overly lenient. But we suggest that seeing parents as having the possibility to teach kids, tweens and teens to love themselves and importantly, to really know themselves – the great, the average and even the not so good – will give us a clearer view of today’s moms and dads and maybe make us feel more like partners to them than critics of them.