Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sorting out the Mommy wars

It’s good to know that, when we’re tired of the political vitriol and the rantings of Sarah Palin as she insists she is being “blood libeled,” we can turn for sport to the most recent iteration of the mommy wars. For decades, this has referred to the debate between the virtues/shortcomings of working moms versus stay-at-home moms. But a new book by Yale law professor Amy Chua has unleashed the furies in a whole new way. Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” was selectively excerpted a week ago in the Wall St. Journal.

Her basic thesis, the foundation on which she has raised her children, is that American parents are too permissive, too concerned about children’s self esteem, too accepting of anything less than excellence. Her “tiger mother” approach is authoritarian and unyielding: no after-school sports, no sleepovers at friends’ houses, drill and retest and drill again if a grade slips, threaten to destroy a beloved stuffed animal if the child’s musical practicing doesn’t yield perfection; scream; harass into compliance. You get the idea.

The excerpt produced the most prolific reader reaction ever experienced on the Journal online, more than 5700 reader responses. The Journal then published an opposing view in “defense of the guilty, ambivalent, preoccupied Western mom,” a sampling of tons of letters on both sides of the debate about what constitutes good parenting, and a defense and qualification by Chua herself.  There have been more than 100,000 comments on Facebook, articles in local papers, and a column this morning by no less than David Brooks entitled, “Amy Chua Is A Wimp.”
Clearly the discussion tapped more than unease about whether we’re raising our children the right way. Let’s face it, the wisdom of the maturation process lets us know that, wherever we are on the authoritarian/permissive spectrum, we – and certainly our kids – will determine that we’ve done something wrong. But the intensity of this debate suggests it may be a proxy for our concerns about 21st century economic competition with China.

Some critics suggest that the harsh discipline of the Chinese emphasis on rote learning creates high achievers who perform well on tests but dampens the capacity for creativity. Brooks goes further and asserts that the skills a child achieves in sleepovers and other social interactions prepares children in “managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinctions between self and group.” All these are important, he points out, because most people do work in groups.

And, while Brooks may well be writing tongue-in-cheek that “the school cafeteria is more demanding than the library,” he still raises a valid point that, while learning “things” and getting good grades is very important, there are other ways by which to measure learning and fulfillment. Fostering innovation and creativity is a very American phenomenon, and it may not be a reach to look at how we’re raising our kids to understand one reason why R & D happens in the United States, and manufacturing (the rote assembly-line jobs) have moved to China.

Most of us, concerned that our children’s generation may be the first not to improve on the standard of living that we enjoy, would like to have it both ways: R&D and keep manufacturing at home, just as we want disciplined academic performers with well-rounded personalities, able to interact easily with others and at home as well in the worlds of sports and music. How to achieve that is a major challenge facing us as parents and as policy-makers. No doubt our uncertainty that we are doing the right thing just expresses in microcosm what our nation is grappling with as it interacts with China going forward. (Note the significance of  Hu Jintao's visit to the White House this week.)

“Tiger Mother” is about much more than parenting. It should be seen as a logical successor to Chua’s earlier provocative books, “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance--and Why They Fall”

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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