The ‘Right Way’ to Parent in the 21st Century

This parenting business really isn’t easy and we should really be very doubting of anyone who seeks to suggest it is. So much so, as this article highlighted, vast numbers of parents feel the need to ‘fake it’ and pretend things which aren’t actually true to appear to be succeeding at a mythical ‘right way’ to be a parent.

Parenting Lies Article – BBC

This is the context and backdrop against which I believe we must view the latest furious debate that has erupted over the Chinese ‘Tiger Mother’ following the publishing of a new book by Yale Law School Professor, Amy Chua:

The background to the Chinese education scenario and the attitudes to parents is summed up well in this BBC article:

‘Tiger Mothers’ Article – BBC

Professor Chua’s argument is a simple one – no nonsense, no compromise, parent knows best parenting as practiced by many Chinese parents breeds winners more frequently than more laissez faire, tolerant ‘Western’ parenting ways. Her viewpoints are expressed in some detail in the following essay ahead of the book’s publication in the Wall Street Journal:

Amy Chua Essay – Wall Street Journal

I’m sure that reading that will leave readers with many different emotions. I’m not sure how many of us could be 100% comfortable with all that she says. However, there were a couple of aspects of her perspective that I really liked;

  1. A starting assumption on the part of a parent that their child has it within them to be a winner – a ‘can do’ mentality rooted in a belief that they have a right to succeed, perhaps even a duty to fulfil their true potential. When I define ‘success’ I mean it in more than just the conventional sense. One can be a successful spouse, parent, sibling, friend, citizen as well as employee or employer, artist, musician, sportsperson etc.
  2. A recognition that if you’re ever to be truly great at something (anything) it’s effort that will get you there and that it’s going to require practice and an acceptance of delayed gratification. It’s not as though this is a new idea, even in the West. For example, in recent years, Malcolm Gladwell has been writing extensively on his belief that 10,000 hours of practice is the requirement to be truly good at anything. Where the difference comes is in Amy Chau’s plain openness about the belief that children are not the best judges about whether or not to put effort in to something, when to put that effort in or how much is enough. I believe as time goes on and so-called ‘Western parenting’ evolves I sense a diminishing ability for children to delay gratification (to accept that sometimes what they want will come later as a result of their doing what they need to in the short term). I also sense a greater discomfort with ‘No’ and a struggle to cope when things are not the way they want them to be.

That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with all of Amy Chau’s methods. That said, when I look around and see so many parents confused and muddling along in their practice as parents I can at least admire that Chau has figured out what is her strategy and is consistent. Her children will not be left in doubt about where their mother stands – they have the clarity that children often crave. Children of uncertain, waivering parents are too often left floundering to figure out right and wrong and the boundaries for their lives. I am greatly troubled in public places when I see children ‘running wild’, behaving badly where the parent’s approach is to ignore it repeatedly until they reach a point where they have had enough, at which point the same act or one no more serious than those previously suddenly earns them a physical or verbal sharp reprimand. The hurt on such a child’s face says more to me of confusion over the inconsistency and a sense that the parent had cheated them in to believing the behavior was OK, until they hit out.

To look at some varying views on the views Chua has expressed, the New York Times put together 8 people from different fields and perspective to share different perspectives on the debate. Their views are really well worth reading.

New York Times – Debate

I would love to hear a cross section of views from parents and teachers in this fascinating debate.

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10 Responses

  1. I am currently reading Amy Chua’s book and feel that a lot of the quotes and anecdotes are taken out of context to be the basis for a blanket judgement on the parenting style she is “recommending”. Chua’s book is, I think, no more than a memoir. It has certainly brought her into the limelight, which she may crave. It is light reading, fairly amusing, with no deep insights into parenting. But I think it is important because, like the Race to Nowhere, which was far from a technically refined production, it has touched on a burning issue, and triggered a long-overdue debate. So I for my part am glad Chua wrote her book, I am reviewing my own extremely democratic parenting style, and I am delighted that my 17 year old twins are engaging in the conversation and reflecting on whether and how much their upbringing fell short of adequate preparation for “the world”.

  2. Interesting but extreme. I agree to the point that children at some point want the lines drawn for them, it makes it easier for them to make decisions.
    Discipline has for some reason taken a negative connotation in our generation of parents. Which in earlier generations was one of the most important aspect of parenting.
    There is a certain sense of pride amongst parents to say that our children have a “mind of their own”.
    And sometimes its more to do with parents avoiding the tough act of saying no under the garb of “I am my child’s best friend”.

  3. It is very easy to advocate a particular style of parenting but in reality environments and situations differ. Culture, country, parents education, social strata, economic strata, everything is a variable . There can be no single style of parenting that is applicable to all.

    Also, it is naive to assume that children will accept a dictatorial style of parenting especially when they are exposed to so much of media and see what their peers are experiencing. They are bound to rebel. In what form and when that rebellion will take place is uncertain but I strongly believe it will happen.

    The one take away for me and the one that is a common thread in the NYT debates is “balance” – balance between a strict and democratic/laissez faire style. What the correct balance is, we will never know. To each one his own.

    Each one of us will continue to muddle through parenthood and each one of us will believe that we have done the right thing.

  4. Having run through the various articles linked above, I gather that while “extreme” parenting style does produce successful children curriculum-wise, it falls short on social interaction and community skills. Aren’t the same Chinese, Indians etc universally seen as lacking in social graces, public manners and civic sense?

    Every parent believes in her/his child’s ability and intelligence. Also judgment as to what is good for the child is best left in the parent’s hands. Confusion comes when parents go on a self-fulfilling trip, forcing the child to achieve something that they themselves could not do, as children. Personally, I think that is where a parent goes wrong. Practice, revise, train….at what the child is good at not what you wish you were good at as a child.

  5. Very fascinating debate, Mark.

    I personally do not agree with the ‘extreme’ method of parenting, but I liked your point to be very clear with children.

    As parents of 3 year old twins, we look forward to your richer perspective on parenting challenges in the current world.

  6. If Amy Chau’s method of parenting is being successfully followed by most Chinese mothers, every child in China would be coming first in class, and excel at playing either the Violin or the Piano. I am quite sure this is not the case.
    No two children are born into the same family and community environment. I would infact go to the extent of saying even siblings are not born into the same family environment, as, being the eldest child, or being the youngest child would change the family environment a child is born in to. So, obviously no general method of brining up a child can be followed blindly, and be expected to work.
    Having said that, In my humble opinion as a parent, I believe that there may be a few parenting tips that could be generally followed by all parents..
    In my experience as a parent, I feel the first mistake parents make is to ignore incorrect behaviour of their children for the first few years of their lives, feeling either that the child is still too young to understand, or parents are focused more on just enjoying the joy of having a child.. When the child is around 3-4 years old, parents feel that the child is now old enough to be disciplined. In my opinion, it is now too late, and a child’s basic incorrect idea of what is right or wrong behaviour has already set in. We would now begin to confuse the child, as, what was acceptable behaviour until recently, is now suddenly considered to be inappropriate behaviour. So, although it may sound a little harsh, discipline should start at an age when a child is aware of his / her surroundings, which in small measure could also mean when the child is 8-10 months old. By discipline I mean that from a very young age we need to point out what is right or wrong behaviour.
    Consistency in what is good or bad behaviour is also extremely important. Just because a parent has been on a business trip, and is seeing the child after 2 weeks, does not mean that bad behaviour should be allowed to pass just this one time..
    Another aspect of parenting that I feel is very important is fun time with your children. I have a great time with my kids, and we do a lot of silly stuff together. I hear of how parents punish their children by not allowing them to go out to play for a few days, or not watch their favourite programme on T.V. If I need to punish my kids, I just stop doing the fun stuff with them, and I get instant results.
    I would like to end by saying, the most important parenting tip would be for parents to lead by example. I am of the belief that children are generally a mirror of their parents personality, with their own individual qualities. If I myself do not treat people with respect, It would be impossible for me to teach my child to do so. If you are a good human being, I have no doubt in my mind that your child would turn out be a good human being too.

  7. The other day my son was regaling me with his classroom antics. He is not the type to talk about his day at school, good or bad, being too busy enjoying what is ahead to dwell on what is behind. What emerged out of the exchange was how much he is at home while at school and possibly a teaching tool.

    For eg., he told me about how while his English teacher was reading out a story, he would act it out to his classmates’ entertainment. To my concern that did the teacher not find it disruptive or irritating, his reply was that she allows him to do it.

    I was baffled. This made me reminisce about my school days. I studied in a catholic convent school, where neither the teachers nor the nuns brooked any standard deviation from the children. Exchange of words between the students entailed a verbal reprimand or being asked to leave the classroom. We were so in awe of them. I cleared my school education with scant knowledge of trigonometry and organic chemistry only because I was too meek and afraid to tell the teachers that I was absent from class when the basics were taught and seek extra help from them. Camaraderie, familiarity was a strict no-no.

    Here is my child, one who is uniformly found by all his teachers to be both distracting and distractive if not disruptive in class actually being made to pay attention to what is being read in class, by allowing him to indulge in his favourite entertainer act. Because, for him to act out he needs to pay attention to what is being read. I find that a fantastic way to grab the scant attention of a child like mine. And a clever conversion/sublimation of disruptive behaviour into a constructive one.

    Could this role-playing be used as a teaching technique/tool to make children pay better attention in class? Of course, such a method may not work for subjects like the sciences.

    Despite my being a strict and authoritarian helicopter parent (to my debit am sorry to say), if my child still has been able to retain his sunny disposition, friendliness, bright outlook, self-confidence and joie-de-vivre, it must be the school’s doing! Let the Chinese make better students. TSRS shall make better human beings.

    • Thank you so much for that feedback and particularly your last line.

      One of the most important focus areas for our teachers is becoming ‘differentiation’ – how does this child within this class need to learn, and what does he/ she require from me, the teacher?

      This kind of thinking process can be incredibly empowering and open up all sorts of fascinating avenues to explore. It does involve the teacher having the confidence to give up some degree of control or ‘know-it-all-ness’ to create a more open and flaxible learning environment.

  8. The Tiger Mother debate has been raging between my friends and family for a long time now…I am suffering from PDF (parenting discussion fatigue)…there is so much to say and ponder over.
    In a nutshell:
    Amy Chua touched a nerve with me – I am half a “western” parent and half “Asian” in my parenting style (for lack of better words).

    There is no denying that relentless hard work and sacrifice of ‘lesser pleasures’ WILL beget success – but I do not prescribe to the said definition of success. In my experience, the class-toppers I knew are not more successful or happier than others.

    I would like my children to have the will to succeed and excel at something – but that is an ATTITUDE – the by-product of which should be a willingness to work hard and persevere. Then the parent just prods them along and encourages them when they slacken or feel defeated.

    I am also a great believer that compassion, a sense of justice and communication skills hold young minds in good stead in their pursuit of excellence – something that Chua’s dictatorial style does not take in to account at all. She has no clue how much of a learning excercise a sleep-over can be and what lessons about contributing to building something larger than yourself one can get by being a ‘nobody’ in the background in the school play (activities that she says she never allowed her children to participate in).

    Another point that came up, with this discussion with friends, is how much ‘parenting’ is really needed – in terms of physical, emotional and academic involvement – is there such a thing as ‘over-parenting’?
    Do children need to see parents as individuals too?
    But that is another debate…:-)

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