There’s More Than One Way to Raise a Child

Here’s my post from January’s At Issue, where we dicussed “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s take on parenting.


I didn’t have a passionate reaction to Amy Chua‘s piece, but I did have an initial reaction: a mild and pleasant kind of affinity.

Let me place myself.  I’m Chinese – half – and half Indian.  I was born in Malaysia but grew up in Canada.  I am a lawyer and a mother of two children.  I married a white Canadian.  I don’t often see myself in mainstream media, so it was kind of nice to read the parenting take of a Chinese woman lawyer raised in the “West”.  We even speak the same dialect of Chinese (Hokkien).

At least in part because of these similarities, I instinctively understand the utter importance of education, the expectation of excellent academic (and other) performance, the centrality of family, and respect for one’s elders.  I heartily espouse Chua’s assumption of strength in our children rather than frailty.  I liked that she had a backbone when it came to her kids.  All of these things are pretty Chinese-y.

I wasn’t particularly disturbed by the practices Chua describes with relish.  I can’t help but think she’s being provocative on purpose; I kind of took the most extreme manifestations of Chinese parenting with a grain of salt.  Plus I think many, many parents have low points which could give Chua’s episodes a run for their money if ever the courage was found to disclose them.  I suspect Chua is a dedicated, loving parent who has made some serious mistakes, which pretty much makes her indistinguishable from most parents I know.

I hardly agree with everything she says, though.  Firstly, and Chua never even acknowledges this possibility, there are real dangers in moulding our children to be single-minded workhorses who can endure hardship in order to excel no matter the cost.  I was never put through Chua-like rigours at home, nor was I a methodical or even especially diligent student, but I was expected to do well academically and I mostly met that expectation when it mattered, including at law school.  There glitch was this:  I came to despise law school and could relate to almost no one there.  I’ve found my way in the legal world now, but choosing law school was a mistake.  I desperately wanted to quit law school but I didn’t; more accurately, I couldn’t.  While the expectations at home and my abilities allowed me to survive and even excel in the wrong field, they didn’t endow me with what I needed most, which was the ability to quit.  Identifying a wrong turn and knowing when to cut one’s losses is a critical life skill.  Chua’s definition of Chinese parenting won’t help you with that.

Secondly, Chua operates from a common but silent assumption, and it’s that there are a number of desirable paths in life, and the chief goal of parenting ought to be ensuring our children to become the leaders of one of those paths.  If you look beyond your doorstep and see a world that makes you feel contented and secure, then it absolutely makes sense to try to raise children who will soldier forth at the forefront of that structure.  If, however, when looking over your picket fence, you perceive disharmony, fear, and exploitation, then training your child to be obedient and ultimately subservient to that world is a great disservice to both the world and your child.  Critical and independent thinking top my list for any form of education.

Finally, I percive a certain lack of authenticity in Chua’s promotion of so-called Chinese parenting.  The most powerful feature of Chinese (or traditional immigrant) parenting is the very assumption that it will be so.  Its strength lies in a shared, communal, largely unspoken understanding of what parenting should entail.  In other words, there is a high degree of conformity in parenting style within the community.  In this way, Chinese parenting strikes a stark contrast against current Western parenting practices, which encompass so wide a range of possibilities that the Western parent necessarily has to choose what parenting style to adopt.  And this includes Chua.  In “deciding” that Chinese parenting is superior to Western parenting, she has outed herself as a Western-thinking parent who has had to “choose” a parenting style.  No true Chinese-parenting parent would need to do this; it would be implicit and understood.  Nor would a traditional Chinese mother make a public spectacle of herself on parenting issues to publicize a confessional memoir that is itself a distinctly Western phenomenon.

But if I find Chua somewhat disingenuous in her claims of being a traditional Chinese mother, I don’t find her particularly offensive.  I think she’s a woman who, growing up in the West but being of Chinese descent, probably had direct exposure to some parenting options that were less available to some of her neighbours.  And then she made her choices, just like the rest of us do.  I don’t feel threatened when I read her.  I don’t resent her memoir although I won’t be reading it.  I do feel sorry that her advocacy of a certain parenting style inevitably will (and is probably designed to) contribute to the mass confusion and insecurity that plagues Western parents who are desperately trying to find the “right” way to raise their children.

The truth is so much simpler, it really is, but it won’t sell many books:  there are many, many ways to raise a wonderful child.