Letting Children Be Children

All the brouhaha about the “Tiger Mom” has resulted in one thing; it has made her a rich woman indeed. In case you have been in a coma for the last few weeks, Tiger Mom is Amy Chua, the author of a memoir that gloats over her Chinese-style parenting, which involves calling her children’s work garbage and punishing them by withholding food, water, and even bathroom visits. The memoir has made many white Americans feel guilty about producing underachieving kids. It has also made many immigrant parents rate themselves against her. An Indian mom recently told me, “I believe in the Tiger Mom. My children thank me now for being such a disciplinarian, for not letting them date until they were in college, for imbibing in them the value of education.”

Perhaps strict discipline does work for a majority of children. But some children never forget being disciplined, particularly if the discipline was executed through cruelty, verbal abuse, and deprivation, as seems to be the case with the Tiger Mom.

My boss’s adult stepdaughter refuses to talk to her Chinese mother. Another Chinese mom moved her son to Davis for a good school and put so much pressure on him that he fell into a depression, playing video games all day long. My brother has still not forgiven my father for his harsh treatment. A friend of mine reports that her daughters do not talk to their father because he was mean to them when they were little.

I have not read her book, but in the excerpt published in the Wall Street Journal, Ms Chua turns psychology on its head. Shaming and insulting them is a better way to get children to perform than praising them and offering them positive reinforcement, she says.

I think that is nonsense. Her daughters may well turn out all right, not because she is a good mom but because they have the natural resilience to survive abuse and deprivation. Perhaps Ms Chua is lucky not to have a child who is so sensitive that she will crack under pressure, become depressed, turn to masochism, even suicide. An Asian American girl in my sons’ school did just that a few years ago.

I don’t knowt if Ms Chua’s daughters have turned out all right or whether they resent her for depriving them of friendships, of sleepovers and play dates, of joyful, unstructured times. If they do not hate her for her discipline, perhaps they will resent her for washing the family’s dirty laundry in public and making profit from the spectacle. (By the way, doesn’t that go against the basic Chinese cultural trait of never revealing your personal life to others?)Her theory is that anyone can achieve top grades and become a musical virtuoso simply by working for hours and hours. It doesn’t take a scientific genius to realize that her premise is false. There are inherent differences in people’s abilities, with the result that pressure can drive some people crazy.

I come from a community that is almost as much, if not more, obsessed with success as the Chinese. The trouble is, we are so preoccupied with putting the spotlight on achievers that we have forgotten the ones who have not quite made it. There are children in the Indian community who have Asperger’s syndrome, who are learning disabled, who have psychological or emotional problems. There are others who are simply not competitive, who are laid back, who do not have the killer instinct. They and their parents feel like pariahs. A mother told me that she wished she did not live in Silicon Valley, surrounded by Indian children who pursue at least two musical activities, who excel in community work and sports and science projects and spelling bees, all with the goal of securing a place in an Ivy League college. The parents and children who have fallen out of the rat race live in dread of going to Indian gatherings and being compared with the Joneses or, rather, the Sinhas.

I have even more profound problems with the Tiger Mom theory of parenting.

The object of getting good grades, of excelling in extracurricular activities, of achieving success, is ultimately to be happy. So is success justified if it involves so much torture and misery? Why not short circuit the whole thing and be happy to begin with?

The happiest times I remember of my childhood were when I was roaming the fields outside of our house on the edge of the city, picking palm berries and eating tamarinds. I could not have thrived without intimate relationships with my friends. Ms Chua would no doubt be appalled at such an utter waste of time; what good could possibly come of wandering aimlessly in a field?

Research has shown that it is this very sort of unplanned, unstructured time that makes children creative, spontaneous, and motivated. Perhaps this explains why, when it comes to creativity, be it in music, film, literature, art, politics, technology, or science, American society has always been a dominant force in the world. China, on the other hand, remains an autocratic society. Would it be too far-fetched to say that a society which believes that parents know what is best for a child is inherently susceptible to authoritarian control?

Moreover, a recent study has demonstrated that children learn more from their peer groups than they do from adults. Chinese children might get good grades, but do they know how to work in teams, how to be social successes? Do they possess emotional intelligence?

I remember the summer we moved to our house in Albany. My twelve-year-old pointed to an upstairs window one late night and said, “Look mom, he is studying.” Indeed, the Chinese boy next door was burning the midnight oil in the middle of summer! I felt a profound sadness for that child. I still grieve for his lost childhood. If this is what Chinese success looks like, I wonder what failure resembles. A concentration camp?

Childhood is such a fleeting time of freedom, of playfulness and joy and absence of responsibility, that it is a shame Tiger Mom has made it into a purgatory. Perhaps the woman has never known true joy or happiness herself, perhaps she is simply an achievement machine that churns out work and work and more work. Or perhaps the book is simply a ploy to rake in the millions.

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