Amy Chua’s recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” has ignited controversy and drawn both applause and criticism.
The essay is about her new book Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom, a memoir of her journey as a parent. Her parenting style employs extreme discipline that’s intended to produce academic and musical excellence—an approach she suggests is stereotypical of many Asian Immigrant parents.
In an effort to bring a conscious parent’s perspective to the debate, Namaste Publishing asked Dr Shefali Tsabary, author of the book The Conscious Parent, several pointed questions about the Tiger Mom’s approach to parenting.
What are your initial thoughts on the Tiger Mom controversy?
Amy’s book offers a viewpoint that at first glance seems radical. On further investigation, it becomes clear that it’s not that different from what many parents in fact do. It’s just that she’s blunt about her convictions, which she is unafraid to project onto her children through severe and punitive means. So I don’t see her approach as that different after all.
Far from being new and radical, Amy’s method actually follows one of the most archaic approaches to parenting, which espouses dominance and majors in control because it regards our children as our possessions. Nothing new here. She is advocating a primitive notion of what children require in order to thrive, a parenting style that emanates from and bolsters the parent’s ego.
More importantly, this approach overlooks the potential of the parent-child relationship to initiate a journey of personal growth for not only the child but also the parent, which is what my book The Conscious Parent brings into focus.
Having said this, it seems to me that some who are attacking Amy’s approach are themselves stuck in a binary mode of thinking: she’s wrong, we are right. We don’t want to get into a knee-jerk reaction, but to enter into a thorough investigation of what the parent-child relationship can and should be.
What does the Tiger Mom say that resonates?
She talks about believing in our children's innate potential, as well as the need to focus on their strengths rather than their fragility. This is aligned with the conscious parenting paradigm. However, we can’t isolate focusing on strengths from the method used to bring out our children’s abilities. In fact, the how is key to just how successful we will be in this venture.
To see the difference between saying we are focusing on our children’s strengths, and what this actually looks like in terms of implementation, we need to ask what Amy means when she says she believes in a child’s potential. Do children only have the potential to accomplish great things, but not the potential to discover on their own what their natural bent is?
In other words, on the one hand Amy states that children are fully capable, while on the other hand she controls them to such an extent that one might question whether she truly believes in them. How can we believe a child is “great” on one level, then treat them as if they are incapable of wisdom in practice? The approach screams of parental insecurity, not security.
A parent who is secure in themselves has no fear of their child’s imperfections and mistakes, but trusts that children are innately capable of finding themselves. Indeed, the struggle to identify their authentic voice is far more important than the perfect regurgitation of someone else's dream of who they are.
Is this really an East versus West debate? Can you comment from the perspective of an Indian mom?
It is pitched as an East versus West debate because we instinctively gravitate toward polarized positions. After all, it’s polarized debate that sells.
In reality Amy’s approach touches on the parental shadow that’s involved in universally in parenting, affecting parents in both the East and the West. By “shadow,” I’m referring to the parent’s unresolved emotional issues, which is a part of ourselves we generally don’t recognize is invariably active whenever we are in the parenting role.
Amy seems quite unapologetic about her shadow, instead of exercising caution concerning how she may be projecting it onto her children. In contrast, The Conscious Parent cautions parents to constantly check on their own motivation, because what’s really driving the way we parent in any given incident is so often hidden.
Amy’s approach involves the ancient belief that parents should exercise tyranny over a child's will, which from time immemorial has dominated in both the East and the West, though it’s now breaking down in both, the West a little ahead of most of the East.
Amy just expresses this archaic approach in a more blatant, unapologetic manner, but it’s really no different from the philosophy of the Indian father in rural or not-so-rural India who marries off his nine or twelve- year-old daughter to a man three times her age simply because he believes this is “for her own good.” No doubt he feels great love for his daughter, so that he’s well-intentioned in what he’s doing. But the fact is that his philosophy assumes total control over his daughter's destiny.
It’s this hierarchical, dogmatic, and often abusive system of parenting that we all need to stay away from, both in the East and the West. Such an approach is born of and feeds the parent’s ego, which in its full-blown version amounts to nothing less than a dictatorship.
Is the goal of parenting to produce math whizzes and musical prodigies, or do we need to prepare our children for life in other ways?
External success in academics or the arts isn’t necessarily a measure of self-esteem. Some of the most successful people have terribly low self-esteem, which is why they have a need to compensate by making a lot of money or becoming famous. Also, research has shown that extrinsic motivation rarely lasts long. The person eventully crashes and burns out.
On a deeper level, what we foster in our children when we push them to achieve is a dependence on external success for their sense of wellbeing. Instead of being seen as entirely wonderful just by the fact of their conception, they gain our regard only if they achieve certain an external goals. This is a highly conditional form of love, and in terms of fostering creativity unimaginative to boot.
If you don’t use the Tiger Mom’s approach of instilling self-esteem through external achievement and the validation that accompanies it, how do you instill self-esteem?
I believe self-esteem results from a stream of factors, the most important of which is a sturdy connection to one's inner self and thence to others.
How does the tiger mom's book reflect the need for Parents to be more conscious, that it is indeed a journey of the parent?
When we approach parenting from a highly egoic state, we project onto our children a destiny that isn’t organically theirs. While this approach may result in children who are outwardly successful, it robs both parent and child of the chance to engage in the process of self-discovery.
Such parenting perhaps creates highly achieving children, but they are often children who simply don’t know themselves at a deep level. As they often discover in mid-life crisis, they aren’t really engaged at a heart level with what they do.
Amy’s approach saves the parent from the onus of struggling with their own conditioning. From a spiritual point of view, this is a waste of an opportunity to grow. We may raise outwardly successful children, but at the expense of our own development.
Is there a balance between pushing our children to be the best they can be, which includes instilling principles such as hard work and sacrifice, and allowing them to navigate their own lives?
I suspect many parents are afraid that if they don't push their children to do things, their children will lie on the couch all day. If we come from a place of fear, naturally we will justify our tyrannical approach to parenting as a means of keeping our children from being “lazy,” “unmotivated,” and “unproductive.”
It’s all a question of the philosophy we hold about humanity and our place in the Universe. When all we have is a hammer in our toolkit, everything appears as a nail.
Whereas a fearful approach promotes competition over cooperation, outcome over process, a confident approach exhibits a deep trust in our children's ability to find their way and express themselves as they are meant to. Our job as parents is to provide the gentle guidance for this exploration.
When we come from a deep sense of our own security, we recognize that we need to create guidelines, while at the same time we are aware that pushing our children leads to inauthenticity—and we know that inauthenticity robs our children of the right to be who they instinctively are.
Hard work and sacrifice are inevitable fruits of nurturing an honest approach to life in the family. If we parents manifest authenticity in our interactions with our children, trusting them to perform as is developmentally appropriate, our children will work quite spontaneously within the confines of life's realities.
It’s a mistaken and dangerous assumption that our children will exhibit humanity's worst traits if we aren’t breathing down their necks, threatening them with punishment and inflicting on them what amounts to abuse.
To the Reader: What are your insights regarding these competing paradigms of parenting? Have you had experiences with a Tiger Mom? Please comment below.