Battle of the Tiger Mother

If you want to make people mad, criticize their parenting.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book by Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of the parenting book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The excerpt was decidedly slanted towards sensationalism, apparently by the WSJ, not Dr. Chua, as noted in this semi-supportive piece, here, in the SF Chronicle.  I’m glad I found that article, because otherwise what I wrote here would have been less kind!  Just shows what a little information – not enough – can do.  The phrase “lying by omission” comes to mind.  But on to parenting…

Amy Chua is an advocate of strict parenting: VERY strict parenting.  On the extreme side.  “Strict parenting,” properly understood, is good, because it cultivates children towards being good people.  It keeps them from straying into bad things.  Humans need goals and a way to get there (and the way to get there is called “ethics”).  Parents need to guide their children towards the good.  Simple.

As a species we are adept at wandering off-course because we are dramatically reliant on our social and cultural environment to supply us with direction.  We just do not have adequate biological instincts, as I’ve noted in a previous post, feral children are enough to show that.  Our parents are our first environment.

I’m a philosopher of human nature, and I have kids.  So, I think a lot about this stuff, both personally and philosophically.  As depicted by the WSJ, though admittedly in her own words, Amy Chua is way over the top.  For example, she brags about calling her children garbage.

Here is what I think about calling your child “garbage.”

Do you actually think your child is garbage?  Then you are a bad parent for not being able to see the intrinsic value in every human life, even worse because it is your own child.  Therefore you are a bad moral example to your child.

Do you not actually think that your child is garbage, but you say it anyway?  Then you are lying to your child for the sake of behavioral manipulation.  Or you lack self control.  Or you are experimenting to see what if feels like to imitate what your father said to you when you were a child (Chua mentions this in the article).  In all cases you are a bad moral example to your child.

Some commenters on the article noted that this style of parenting must work, otherwise the traditions of behaving this way would have gone extinct.  This is a rational position to take, it makes sense in terms of cultural evolution.  It might have been highly adaptive under certain conditions, for example where existence is precarious, where life and death are at stake.  But we are no longer under such conditions, and even if we were, there are higher goals to aim for than mere survival.  Perhaps that is why this style disappears quickly after immigrating to the US (as many commenters note, this is not a Chinese story, it is an immigrant story).  Maybe the US makes people “soft.”  But just surviving is not good enough for human beings.  Aristotle says humans might have first banded together for the sake of survival, but the point now is to become good.

Based on the comments on the story, and other narratives I have heard, the above parenting style will make some children hate their parents.  It will turn some children into psychological wrecks.  It will cause innate talent to be stunted or crushed in favor of talents of the parent’s choosing.

Which bring up a point: should one become a parent for the sake of oneself or for the sake of one’s children?  Chua mentions that some cultures assume that children exist for the sake of their parents.  This is understandable, again, from a cultural evolutionary perspective: traditionally, parents need kids as laborers and “social security.”  Other cultures believe children exist for their own sake.  Human life is not merely a means for others to make use of; it is an end in itself.  The truth is that both positions are correct, and need each other.  Relationships do not have to be zero-sum, they can be mutually helpful.  Children are not servants, and neither are parents.  Families help each other.  It is supposed to be good for everyone involved.

The proper form of strict parenting – and this is my opinion, experience, philosophy, and theology talking here – is one rooted deeply in love which respects the child and is suited to the child.  What does it mean to deeply love and respect your child?  You show them.  You hug them, you protect them, you are a safe person.  When they do wrong you correct them immediately, to prevent the formation of bad habits.  You help them – force them (using moral means) if necessary – to learn certain important skills like hygiene, hard work, reading, and math, whether they want to or not.  Not to control them, but because they need these skills to function in society and achieve a good, happy life.

You make learning fun, not to pander to your child, as Chua critiques Westerners for, but because learning is fun.  Humans were made to learn!  Children love to learn!  We are natural truth-seekers.  In our house we have placemats with maps and the periodic table.  Whenever we talk about geography or chemistry, which is quite often, we can immediately point to the placemats.  We don’t need to do drills, it is just part of our lives.  This is catered to our family; these are subjects of interest to us, so they are what we teach.  Not every family will be the same.

Our daughter, 4, likes to learn about butterflies.  We feed that, not because we are pandering to her, but because at age 4 learning anything is valuable.  The point of learning at this age is to learn how to learn, to become self-teaching, the content is nearly irrelevant.  Children are cultivated, not constructed, they have their own motive force, they are not stacks of bricks.  This is a philosophical distinction going back to Aristotle, again.

Shoving your child into a preconceived structure regardless of his or her interests and talents is wrong.  You may get a functioning result, even a very high performing one, but the lost talent may be immeasurable, not to mention the risks of psychological and relational damage.

The choice is no longer one between death and mere survival.  Under those conditions this parenting style might be rational: survival before affection (though I do not think there need be a choice as though they were mutually exclusive).  In any case, we are no longer under those conditions.  The choice now is between types of survival: a bad one or a good.  We can choose the better one, rooted in love, and directed towards cultivating good people.

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