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Conscious Parenting

A Blog for Families by Shefali Tsabary, PhD

A Conscious Parent Tames the Tiger Mom: Dr. Shefali Tsabary Responds to Amy Chua’s Controversial Piece in the Wall Street Journal

Jan 18, 2011

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.

The conscious parent coverIn 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.

Dr. Shefali TsabaryAmy’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.



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marlenechip's picture

A conscious parent knows how to raise properly his child. He must see him as a true blessing from the God and to protect him all his life. There are families who really want a baby, but the woman can not conceive. Sometimes a quality medical treatment, like the one at can be the answer at this problem, but there are still women who struggle to remain pregnant.

healingourfamily's picture

I, too, used to be a Tiger Mom of sorts. I resorted to spanking, in anger, and out of a place of fear and pure exhaustion. My journey to healing started when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, treated well with both psychiatry and healing through therapy, and on my road to recovery from symptoms of irritability followed by range, switching to abnormally happy (and demanding that everyone else be just that), then crashing to a deep depression at which time family members were neglected.

The healing continued when given an opportunity to take a parenting class given by Heather Forbes, author of Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control. It made me see my parenting in a new light - a complete shift in paradigm. I worked heavily on my own healing and then on my children's. It is a work in progress, but even our children's Tiger Mom grandparents have commented on "how much better behaved and mature" our children have become. They have seen a drastic change in the level of "calm" in our household.

I have continued my connections with Heather Forbes and Bryan Post (the co-author of the book aforementioned). We are interested in Positive Parenting and Kirk Martin's "Celebrate Calm" as well.

I now am saddened by the article by the Tiger Mom article; that her convictions are so strong. I'm sure if I got to know one of her children, I could see the fear in her spirit, causing her to push herself, even as an adult, to greater wordly success.

Just the other day, my daughter confessed, completely unguided, to an ongoing lie. She told me she thought I would have been "really mad" that she had lied. Instead, I said, "telling me that you lied was like coming clean." (I had to explain to my 8yo what that meant). "Coming clean is the first step to change." Then, she went on to name her second and even third step. I would call this "thinking for herself." This is a picture of an amazing transformation in my daughter.

It has taken much time and much effort to change our way of thinking, acting, and reacting. I encourage other Tiger Moms to embrace this possibility of healing and transformation in their precious families.

Shefali Tsabary PhD's picture

It sounds like you have undergone a powerful transformation indeed! How inspiring that there are so many parents who have made the shift to a conscious state of awareness. I hope my book: The Conscious Parent brings you some inspiration as well. Would love to hear your thoughts if you read it! Join me on my facebook page as well! Namaste!

apriloleary's picture

Yes, sad to say, I was once a Tiger Mom. I still struggle with it, as probably many parents do, being raised in a traditional home where the father had the final say, the mother was secondary to the father, and us children...well you just did what you were told, basically. I thought that it was a great family life, and on the surface it seemed to be. But this black and white environment, no questions, follow the rules (you knew what they were), led to little discussion of meaning and did not promote honest questioning. I had my first daughter when I was barely 24, so I just defaulted to this type of did many of the 'mom' friends I had. Luckliy, my first daughter is compliant by nature, so it worked (on the surface level). But my husband came from a much different approach and wasn't in favor of the spanking and time outs that were tools of this type of parenting. Because he was raised with a single mother, who worked long nursing hours, he was not monitored with such intensity. I am not suggesting that this is ideal in any way, but out of this situation, he learned maturity and responsibility. He didn't have the 'do this' or you're punished mentality. He became very independent and quite accomplished (and still is today). So when daughter number 2 came, 17 months after number 1, the battle of the wills really started!!! She is very independent, not compliant by nature, will push buttons on purpose, and will resist every force pushed against her. For years, I fought her. The battles were intense. The thoughts of fear, "If she doesn't listen to me now, what about when she is 13?!" ran through my head. I was exhausted, like a soldier at the end of a battle, each day. And I hated parenting. I hated being a stay-at-home mom. I was angry and confused and wondered why this 'method' of parenting wasn't working. Maybe I just needed MORE force, some friends suggested. Up the ante. But my husband, always the calm in the storm, would come home and sit calmly with her on the couch, hug her, love her, listen to her, and magically (or not so magically) she would release the force and just be with him. Now I see how much the ego plays into parenting. At that point I would have never considered doing that! Giving in to the battle! Then they have won! No way! It's such a sneaky trap. When really it is the way out of all this distress. Don't resist the force, come at it with a more powerful way of, acceptance, nurturing. That is not weakness as a parent that is strength. So although I still struggle with the black and white parenting paradigm, it's becoming less appealing. I still struggle with the fear thoughts that say, "She has to listen to you now, or she will never listen to you!" at the simplest times (like last night at dinner when she refused to sit in her chair at the dinner table...the battle of the wills began again....). But as I grow in my own path, I can see her for the teacher she is to me. If it weren't for her, I may have never sought out a different way. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't have had to learn extreme patience. If it weren't for her, I may not have been challenged to love when I feel like screaming instead. So yes, I am that tiger mom, who has been tamed. :)

Shefali Tsabary PhD's picture

You are beacon of hope for all of us who struggle with an egoic conditioning that honors control and dominance, ie resistance versus entering the flow of life. Yes, your daughter came to you precisely to take you to this place of learning the art of least resistance. It is the only way to truly engage at the essence-level - the level where the Universe operates. Applause!

apriloleary's picture

Thank you so much for your comments. I thought you may laugh at this, but when she is being excessively independent, defiant, willful, stubborn or basically disagreeable, (which notoriously would send me into my own counter-force), or when I feel myself on the edge of the cliff, wanting to jump back into the tiger way of parenting, I stop myself. I laugh at the sight of the trap and say to her, "Thank you Master Molly." She has no idea what this means, but it's my little way of reminding myself that this is my moment for her to teach me something. :)

Shefali Tsabary PhD's picture

When we shift to humor and humility there is a relieving sense of detachment right? Suddenly all that seemed so vitally important just a second ago now dissolves - this is due to the dissolution of your need to be right and in control. Thanks for sharing this precious anecdote!