Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior -
They Are Not!
By Gary M. Unruh MSW LCSW
No cultural parenting approach is superior to another; one shoe simply does not fit all children. That's my conclusion after forty years as a child psychotherapist and many humbling years as a father of four and grandfather of nine.
Yale professor Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has stirred up a nationwide debate with her premise of "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". While she makes many good parenting points, her approach can damage many children who are not so highly resilient.
Professor Chua believes Western parents are too anxious about their children's self-esteem. Thank goodness we are. All too often a child's individuality is not adequately developed. Dr. Benjamin Spock made that point in his 1946 groundbreaking book Baby and Child Care. He shook American parents out of their punishment-only approach and put the spotlight on the rest of the childrearing story: a child's individuality or self-esteem is really important.
In America the parenting pendulum has clearly swung too far away from the necessity for firm limit setting in our attempt to make sure self-esteem is adequately established. Anybody raising a toddler with their do-it-my-way behavior knows children are not born with good behavior and need discipline to learn appropriate behavior. Balancing discipline with establishing individuality -- that's the parenting sweet spot. Even though it's hard to pull off, with practice, the rewards are gratifying.
Currently our society is trying to kick the parenting pendulum out of the over-permissiveness position and move it toward the hard-knocks, tough-love position. Chua's hardnosed performance-only approach brings an "about time" chorus from many Americans. But parents, beware of going too far toward the tough-love approach. Make sure to read the fine print: Don't exclude developing your child's individuality. If you do, all too often poor mental health will result, as evidenced in the alarming increase in bullying and the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds.
Focusing only on performance means the parenting pendulum has swung dangerously too far in the wrong direction; think of the sad Tiger Woods' story. Professor Chua's performance parenting goes in the danger zone when she advocates the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child.
Every mental health worker in America has witnessed firsthand the possible high-risk consequences of this shaming approach, often resulting in depression, anxiety, and drug addiction. Being firm with children is a must, but using a board with the sharp nails of stupid and worthless is overkill. There are a lot more effective ways for parents to show children they mean business.
Superior parenting is balanced parenting: It means training a child to behave and perform well, and at the same time supporting the child's developing individuality.
After many humbling parenting experiences and forty years of clinical experience, I've arrived at this conclusion:
It all boils down to addressing a child's two basic needs-
1. to feel understood, especially during conflict, and
2. to learn good behavior.
I've seen it over and over again in my practice. When parents attain this difficult but achievable balanced approach, behavior improves and a child's individuality flourishes. That's success. And maximum performance has the best chance of happening -- just in case you're raising the next Michael Jordan.
So what's the take-home conclusion we can make after reading Professor Chua's essay? Performance-only living does not translate into guaranteed successful living. Successful adults are children who have grown up to be comfortable in their own skin and have learned from their parents the benefits of sticking with a task through thick and thin.
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