The parenting world was in shock last week, as Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” appeared in the Wall Street Journal and immediately went viral. The backlash has been constant and steady since. It’s not difficult to see why many would be upset reading the essay, an excerpt from her latest book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
In it, she wrote that her children were never allowed playdates, sleepovers, TV or computer games. They were not permitted less than a B in school (and that with much scolding) or to do any activities other than play piano or violin. She talked of hours spent on homework and the insults she would fling at her children if they didn’t conform to her expectations. Most shocking was her tale of spending 5 hours forcing her seven-year-old daughter to practice a piano piece she couldn’t get right. The young girl was denied food or bathroom breaks, was yelled at, scolded, and threatened until finally she got it right.
Chua related the entire story with smug self-pride showing it as proof of how she is a better mother than most Western mothers. She cares about her daughter’s success and will not allow her to fail. After the torturous piano practice, her daughter cuddled with her and told jokes. Therefore it was obvious that her daughter thrived under this guidance.
My immediate gut reaction was “well, yes, but even the child victim of a pedophile will look for approval from their tormentor.” Really, she did a poor job proving to most readers how it was that her method of parenting was superior. Defenders pulled out the statistics on Chinese education and high scores in International tests, but I’ve discussed the culture that leads to those scores before. It goes beyond parenting choice and is part of a national system.
Most people, however, were not defending her. Most were astounded and shocked by her claims. At first, I too, was among them. But as I read the rebuttals I began to feel the same unease I felt reading her own column.
Parents argued that “as long as my child is happy, I’m doing a good job.” Others claimed that spending five hours a night on homework and piano practice would mean more self-sacrifice than they were willing to give. Yet others brought out the old “good enough” argument.
The polar opposite of Chua’s method of parenting, “good enough” parenting basically states that if a child is fed, clothed, housed and given some opportunity for play and some nagging to do homework, they will raise themselves up while the parents tend to household chores, work, and their facebook accounts and TV schedule. (Please note, I am not talking about Good Enough Parenting - as coined by David Winnicott - but the self-indulgent kind of parenting that says "I don't have time to do this; I don't think pushing her will help; etc. etc)
There are a lot of parents who swear by this method. It is a backlash against all the natural parenting and perfect parenting gurus who urge us to monitor every moment of our child’s life to insure they become successful, happy adults. And, of course, to theories like Chua’s - that you can beat and insult your child into submitting to your desires.
But, let’s face it, “good enough” parenting isn’t really good enough. What it is, is an excuse to ignore the tough parts of parenting. Yes, keeping your children alive is good. But a zookeeper could do that.
As parents it is our duty to motivate our children and to draw out their talents. Not that I’d advocate Chua’s response, but letting our children skate by or do whatever they want – which would obviously be the thing requiring least effort – serves no one well.
Tonight I erased all of my son’s homework once he had completed it. Yes it was done right, for the most part, but it was not done “good enough.” I could see that he had raced through it in an attempt to get back to the computer and when I corrected him he didn’t listen and made the same mistakes again. So I made him start all over.
“Don’t be a tiger mother,” my husband whispered as I raised my voice and informed my son that I wouldn’t allow him to get away with mediocre effort.
That is the fear, of course: that we’ll become harridans that our children hate or that our frustration will lead us to say or do things that are abusive and unsupportive.
In the grand scheme of things, one night’s homework is pretty meaningless. It’s easy to just let it go and let everyone stay happy. But having a child who is happy doesn’t mean having a child who is self-satisfied or will grow into an adult confident of his place in the world. The “good enough” theory somehow believes that children will gain self-esteem, confidence and ability intrinsically.
Loathe as I am to admit it, I have to agree with Chua when she states: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
There is a balance in there somewhere. Between “good enough” and Chua’s way there’s just the good mother: the one who allows her child to play and have fun yet willingly sacrifices her free time to drill him in spelling words; the one who provides challenges and activities but helps her child through them rather than badgers him into achievement. These are the mothers who will raise happy, confident, successful children; the one who understands that each child is different and there is no one parenting “method” that will raise them all perfectly. Every child deserves a good mother – not a superior or “good enough” mother.