Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tiger Mothers and Other Approaches to Parenting

This past month, the Wall Street Journal has managed to run an article each week presenting very different and even extreme approaches to parenting. While perhaps not intentionally envisioned as a "series," this series nonetheless, was kicked off with Amy Chua's article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" on January 8. Chua proudly states that her two daughters were not allowed to do what we in the Western world consider "normal activities," such as attend a sleepover, have a playdate, or be in a school play. In addition, complaining about not being in a school play, choosing their own extracurricular activities, getting any grade less than an A, or not being the number one student in any subject other than gym or drama is more severely disallowed.

Chua assumes that American parent are wimps, psychological and emotional factors don't exist, and if you don't get what you want from your child, you humiliate them, berate them and shame them into submission. Chua suggests that this is for the child's own good, since children would not be motivated to be successful without such a heavy hand and rude mouth coming from their mothers.

She details vignettes of parenting her own daughters, speaking to them in ways those of us who are psychologically inclined would consider verbally abusive, such as "hey fatty--lose some weight, " or calling a child "garbage, stupid, worthless or a disgrace," and psychologically abusive, such as forcing her 7 year old daughter to practice a piano piece she was struggling with for hours and hours, including working through dinner and not being able to get up for water or to go to the bathroom for days, weeks and months.

While books may portray these "Tiger Mothers" as "scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests," Chua posits that maybe Chinese parents believe they are more committed and caring than Western parents are in regard to their children.

The second article in the "series," appeared on January 16, a sort of rebuttal to the "Tiger Mother" article, entitled, "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom" by Ayelet Waldman. Waldman identifies herself as a modern day Jewish mother of four, who allowed her children to quit the piano and violin, sleep over at friends' houses and participate in any extracurricular activity they wayted to, with a few narcissistic caveats thrown in.

Waldman was delighted if the child quite their instrument near a recital, so she wouldn't have to be "tortured" listening to other children play, or if the sleepover was on a holiday or night she wanted to go out with her husband to save her the cost of a babysitter. More narcissistic was her insistence that she not have to drive more than 10 minutes to get her kids to any activity or "sit on a field in a folding chair in anything but the balmiest weather for any longer than 60 minutes."

All practicality aside, the thread of narcissism strikes me as just as troubling as the streak of domination expressed by Chua. For the most extreme article on parenting, the January 22 Wall Street Journal presented the case of a Russian-born Christian couple living in Oregon, who were arrested on criminal child abuse charges. When their 14-year-old son escaped to a pay phone to report his beatings (and that of his 6 siblings), to the police, all 7 children, aged newborn to 15, were taken away from the parents, as the parents were sent to jail.

Within their isolated and non-assimilated Slavic Christian community, the brutal beatings of children for wanting to wear Western clothes, trim their hair without permission or wear eye make up were considered "disciplining their children according to Biblical Law." Being whipped, struck and beaten with wires, branches and belts was considered to be an expression of their faith. In the Western world, it is considered child abuse.

All 6 of the older childre, aged 5 - 15, were sick of their parents' abuse and told police they wished to be removed from their home. At times, their beatings were so severe, they could not go to school because of their wounds. Eventually, the infant was removed from the parents' home as well.

While cultural difference do account for differences in parenting styles, too few take into account the actual nature and developmental needs of human children. Religion, narcissism and historical norms do not allow for or even recognize psychological needs. As I studed the reality of family life in early Colonial families in the US, I discovered just how rampant domestic violence was.

Sadly, while those who practice Tiger Mothering or Slavic Christian parenting can rationalize and justify their behavior saying they must shape the child to be "successful" or even "good," their children often have serious mental health issues as teens and adults. The suicide rate for Chinese teenage girls is much higher than for their Western counterparts.

Perhaps the cultural model I find most appealing is that of my Siamese chocolate point kitty, Prayer. When Prayer had her kittens in April 2008, she was a present, attentive, nurturing, loving mother. She knew to stay close to her kittens and keep them warm, fed and safe when they were tiny. She knew to give them more space to stretch their paws and explore as they grew ready to do so. She nursed them gladly until they were ready to start eating solid food. And she carried them in her mouth by the scruff of their necks when she perceived they were in danger. Prayer occasionally "disciplined" her kittens with a growl or a gentle tap of her paw. But she never beat them, humiliated them, rejected them or hurt them. All of her kittens grew up to be well-adjusted, loving cats. Might there be something to learn here for human parents?

Copyright 2011 Linda Marks

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