The Virtues of Parenting

My husband I do not yet have children, so forgive me if I seem to be speaking beyond my area of expertise. Parenting has been on my mind a lot recently in light of certain articles of interest. First, David Brooks’ piece in this week’s New York Times is excellent, and responds critically to the author of the new controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Chua’s book is a reflection on her own experience as a “typical Asian mother”: strict and uncompromising in discipline, rigorous in achievement, and unapologetic about the incredible pressure she placed on her children. In “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes perspicaciously

Chua’s critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

While I wonder how Brooks knows the cognitive demands of a 14-year old sleepover, I do think he is onto something here. Personal achievement is more than the score one achieves on an exam or the chair one earns in the orchestra. It is about holistic functioning within complex group dynamics. He goes on

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

The implication is that parents do best by their children if they not only push them to excel academically and in extracurricular activities, but also if they encourage them to participate in complex social interactions where they can develop their more emotionally-based cognitive activity like “the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”

The problem is that, as an excellent blog post on dot Commonweal observes, kids these days are doing pretty atrocious things in their group interactions that can seriously thwart personal achievement and overall flourishing. In his discussion of the MTV show “Skins,” Eduardo Peñalver cites Matt Zoller Seitz:

Is “Skins” bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids – a big “if” — then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didn’t personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this program’s target demographic. When I was in eighth grade (prime “Skins” age, I’m guessing) I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents’ TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If I were that age again in 2011, I’d probably watch “Skins” religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it’s officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Peñalver responds as I would: “it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids’ behavior “a big ‘if’.”” If 14 year-olds are doing the sort of things portrayed on “Skins,” Brooks is right to call their sleepover parties “cognitively taxing.” More likely, such sleepovers are cognitively ruinous. It is no surprise that parents like Chua want to reign kids in with strict discipline and high expectations, even if it means social ruin, in order to save them from the sort of life ruin adolescent social interactions often lead to.

The challenge for parents is how to find a balance between pushing their kids to be the best they can be and letting their kids find their own way by watching their friends, experimenting, and making mistakes. The best solution I have seen recently was on my own new favorite television show “Modern Family.” In the most recent episode “Our Children Ourselves,” Phil and Claire Dunphy try and get their high-achieving daughter Alex to relax in fear that she is pushing herself too hard to be the top of the class (great scene with Phil and Claire staring on as Alex jumps on a trampoline, arms crossed, in the middle of the night). When Alex comes in second in the class, she tells her parents that she simply cannot compete with Sanjay, the first in the class who has a doctor and a professor for parents. “I’m doing the best with what I have.”

What ensues is a beautiful effort on behalf of Claire as she tries to prove herself to her daughter by going to a French film with Sanjay’s parents rather than attending the film of her choice–Croctopus. But her efforts fail, and Claire falls asleep during the film, bereft at the fact that she cannot live up to her daughter’s perceived needs. She leaves the theater not only confirming Brooks’ conclusion that social competence is sometimes more important than intellectual achievement (Sanjay’s father cannot work the parking validation machine), but also feeling more competent in her role as a parent, with the unique talents she brings to the table. Most importantly, she leaves the theater with renewed love for her husband and daughter and the family they try to make work.

Aquinas had firsthand experience with overbearing parents. His own father ordered the kidnapping of the adolescent Aquinas when he went off to join the new mendicant order of the Dominicans, the “Begging Friars.” As Chesterton writes,

[Thomas] said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads, half-rent his friar’s frock from his back and finally locked him up in a tower like a lunatic.

Chua should know that we have a tradition of “tiger parenting” in the west too. But the moral of the story is that Aquinas would become what he became, try as his parents might to stop him. He would be a beggar and a philosopher, not an abbot and a politician. Chua’s children too will become what they become, despite her effort to “keep them in check.” In the end, parents must realize that the little life in front of them is not their own, not a precious commodity to be fostered into perfection, but a gift and a loan from the Creator who calls us all to our own vocation.

In the end, prudence is one of the most important virtue for a parent. In perfecting parents morally and intellectually, prudence allows parents to deliberate, judge, and command well in their role as steward over a new life. But no less important is hope, by which a parent is able to endure the difficulties of not knowing where their child will end up, but still maintaining the confidence that he or she is in the hands of God.


7 comments so far

  1. Autumn Ridenour on

    I’m sympathetic to Brooks’ perspective and many of the NY Times critiques of Chua this week. However, you are right to highlight Chua’s strength in that her parenting entails strong “direction” as she forges so-called protection. Nonetheless, I agree that direction must be balanced with appropriate boundaries, empowerment, and freedom that hinges on trustworthiness as children develop in moral character and (hopefully) age appropriate behavior/s. Such balance is best forged in a strong relational community that capitalizes on prudence and hope (along with faith and love) as you describe. Social pressures will not dissipate. The question is how to empower children to be “leaders” (or individuals) rather than “followers” in their broader social context.

    • everydaythomist on

      Well-spoken Autumn. I think the church ought to provide such a community that you mention. Interestingly, in my experience I have found that many American tiger parents sacrifice church first as they try to push their kids to achieve their potential. Sundays become too packed with soccer games and tutoring and piano lessons for a family to take the time to attend church. Yet, it is the church community which also empowers kids to be “individuals” in the sense you mention, rather than followers in the context of MTV’s “Skins.”

  2. Erin W. on

    I listened to Amy Chua on NPR last week, and at the end of the day, I am sympathetic to her parenting style. My first reaction is defensive: Not all “western” parents are lax. My parents certainly made it clear to me that one goes to school to get A’s, nothing less. I must confess that when I think about parenting, I do fantasize about my pint size, seven year old “mini-me” conjugating Latin verbs and practicing piano two hours a day. We shall see what happens.

    I agree with your balanced response to Brooks and Chua. I absolutely agree that Amy Chua’s children will grow up and become their own people despite her efforts of keeping them on a particular track. Having tutored both Korean and American kids for four years, I have seen how different styles of parenting play out. For brilliant children, Chua’s driven and ambitious strategy will help them maximize their potential. I’ve also seen less talented children suffer beneath unrealistic goals.

    What I have found most frustrating as a teacher is the complacency of some “western” parents. By not setting the bar high enough, American kids all too often fall short of their potential. Many (not all) parents are too worried about their child’s “self esteem”to point out where improvement needs to be made , and American kids tend to underestimate what hard work really is. For all her “unrealistic” expectations, Amy Chua is quick to point out that love for her children motivates her. The difference is not in the children, but in the parents. Too many parents lack Chua’s foresight that hard work and practice at a young age will help children excel when they are older. Chua’s conclusion is that a mixture of “western” and “eastern” is ideal – I agree. A loving parent wants the best for their children, both in the present moment and in the future. Thank you Beth.

    • everydaythomist on

      I do thinks Brooks’ has a point regarding Chua’s NPR interview. She kept enthusiastically interrupting Michelle, which led me to suspect that her social skills haven’t been developed to their potential. Maybe with a few more sleepovers, she would have learned that conversations should be less one-sided.

      One thing not mentioned in this post or these comments is that Chua’s values are not only Chinese–they are also bourgeois. Many parents cannot afford piano and violin lessons (my parents certainly could not), and many more are working too many hours in too many jobs to spend the time helping their kids love math. The progressive school that Chua sent her daughters to where the teachers help the kids love learning by making the parents do the work actually works only for an elite few.

      But Erin, you are right that even within the range of possibilities, many American parents fall short of helping their child see what he or she is capable of. My mother used to do homeschooling books with me over the summers so I would be ahead of the game when the school year started (we did this through eighth grade). She required I read novels and discuss them with her rather than watch television. Athletic activities were non-negotiable and at most points, I was in two sports at a time. I can remember my mother reading papers I wrote for school, crumpling them up in one hand, and saying “This is crap. You can do better.” I resented her at times, but I do think in retrospect it is largely to my mother that I owe thanks for the values that lead me to graduate school, to my PhD, to my current job, and to my largely successful life.

      I like how Chua ends the interview: “We all want to do what is best for our kids but we won’t know if we succeed until the future.” I think Chua’s values can be more modestly applied in a Christian context, where there is an acknowledgment that your child is not your own, but a gift over which you must be a steward. As a steward, you want to foster that child’s flourishing, but the results are largely not in your own hands. This is why we have hope. A Christian context would also allow the ambitious tiger parent to realize that the final telos of the child is not success in this world, but rather the glory of God. Thus, for the Christian, it is not only love for the child that motivates the parent, but also love for God.

      Thanks for reading and commenting Erin. It is always wonderful to hear the wisdom that comes from your experience.

  3. Peter on

    Chua’s daughter has responded to the controversy in the New York Post:

    “Another criticism I keep hearing is that you’re somehow promoting tunnel vision, but you and Daddy taught me to pursue knowledge for its own sake. In junior year, I signed myself up for a military-history elective (yes, you let me take lots of classes besides math and physics). One of our assignments was to interview someone who had experienced war. I knew I could get a good grade interviewing my grandparents, whose childhood stories about World War II I’d heard a thousand times. I mentioned it to you, and you said, “Sophia, this is an opportunity to learn something new. You’re taking the easy way out.” You were right, Tiger Mom. In the end, I interviewed a terrifying Israeli paratrooper whose story changed my outlook on life. I owe that experience to you.

    There’s one more thing: I think the desire to live a meaningful life is universal. To some people, it’s working toward a goal. To others, it’s enjoying every minute of every day. So what does it really mean to live life to the fullest? Maybe striving to win a Nobel Prize and going skydiving are just two sides of the same coin. To me, it’s not about achievement or self-gratification. It’s about knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. You feel it when you’re sprinting, and when the piano piece you’ve practiced for hours finally comes to life beneath your fingertips. You feel it when you encounter a life-changing idea, and when you do something on your own that you never thought you could. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent. And for that, Tiger Mom, thank you.”

    I suspect she’ll turn out alright.

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for posting this. I have no doubt Lulu and Sophia have a great potential to turn out as excellent, high-achieving, well-adjusted human beings. And I am most definitely on board for trying to help your kids live their life at “110%” (although I do think our 110% effort should be for the greater glory of God and not our own achievement). I also think you could get the same outcome without a Tiger Mom. And I also think Chua could have also used the same techniques and raised two very unhealthy, psychological maladjusted young women. Let’s face it–good parenting requires a lot of luck.

      I do, however, just LOVE the Times’ review of the book. The reviewer writes,

      In truth, Ms. Chua’s memoir is about one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness. And for all its quotable outbursts from Mama Grisly (the nickname was inevitable), it will gratify the same people who made a hit out of the granola-hearted “Eat, Pray, Love.” . . . Wherever she is in this slickly well-shaped story, Ms. Chua never fails to make herself its center of attention. When her older daughter, Sophia, was a baby, “she basically slept, ate and watched me have writer’s block until she was a year old.” (The italics here are mine.) “Sophia,” she later explains, “you’re just like I was in my family.” When she pitches what’s already become her most notorious fit over the girls’ amateurishly made birthday cards, Ms. Chua declares, “I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors” for their birthdays, adding “I deserve better than this.” And when Jed fails to honor Ms. Chua’s birthday with reservations at a good enough restaurant, and the family ends up at a so-so one, he too is in hot water.

      The reviewer also mentions that Chua fails to talk about her own rigorous schedule as a professor–which would require her to put in a 50 hour work day.

      I do have to admit, through all of this, I am not liking Chua very much, and not just because she is a Tiger Mom.

      • Peter on

        Oh man, if you want to utterly turn me against a book or author, all you have to do is compare it to “Eat, Pray, Love.”


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