Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Tiger Cub Goes to College

You may recall—how could you not?—the cries of anguish that sprung from American parents when they first heard about the Tiger Mom. You may also recall—one tries not to—the many American parents who were quick to condemn the Tiger Mom.

How dare she? … they cried out. How dare she disregard the opinion of the best experts, men and women of science, and bring up her children according to traditional Confucian precepts?

Why were these American parents so totally convinced that they were right and that the Tiger Mom was wrong?

They believed that they had science on their side, and everyone knows that science is infallible.

At the time of the brouhaha I suspected that American parents were horrified at themselves for having accepted unthinkingly what child development experts had told them.

Until Prof. Amy Chua roused them from their stupor they had not noticed that all of the best scientific advice was producing self-absorbed children who had high self-esteem and few achievements. 

It’s a strange kind of science that does not allow itself to be judged by the results it produces.

The Tiger Mom did not trust the settled science. She placed her trust and her children’s well-being in the hands of traditional Chinese parenting techniques.

In so doing she had to defy contemporary American culture. In turn, American parents gave her a piece of their collective mind. They called her abusive, told her that her children were going to become robots, and expressed their deepest scientific conviction that her daughters would end up mentally ill.

The truth looks somewhat different. Parents who sacrifice their own judgment and their own traditions to the supposedly-scientific opinions of experts bring up children who lack initiative, confidence and independence.

I hope you’re not surprised. Parents who bow down to experts lack initiative, confidence and independence themselves. Why would they not communicate these same character traits to their children?

For those who missed the debate, the Tiger Mom is back … in the pages of today’s Wall Street Journal.

In her article she brings us up to date on how she is parenting her elder daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, aka the Tiger Cub, who is currently a freshman at Harvard.

Anyone who would like to form an independent judgment about the results of Tiger Mom’s parenting would do well to read the Tiger Cub’s charming and well-written posts on her blog: New Tiger in Town.

Now that the Tiger Cub is out on her own the Tiger Mom has chosen to let her be. Her policy is non-interference.

It should not be surprising. Last year, when the Tiger Cub was applying to colleges, her parents were barely involved in the process. They allowed the Tiger Cub full autonomy and independence.

Surely, it was a vote of confidence.

Prof. Chua is showing that as children grow into adulthood they require votes of confidence. How else can they develop any confidence in their own abilities? If you treating young adults like children they will act like children.

Admittedly, the more childlike they are the more they will depend on you. The more they depend on you the more you will feel needed.

In her article today the Tiger Mom is at pains to distinguish her approach from that of her American counterparts, helicopter Moms.

Helicopter parents hover over their children. They are overly protective. They see a world filled with dangers and act as though they do not believe that their children can make it on their own.

A Tiger Mom is a strict disciplinarian. She drills her children in homework exercises and piano practice. She is most rigid and demanding when her children are between 5 and 12.

Chua wanted her children to develop good habits when they were children. She wanted these good habits to become second nature. She was confident that once her daughters learned organization, discipline and focus they would be better able to navigate the difficulties of adolescence and adulthood.

Children of helicopter parents are not taught the virtues of discipline and focus. They are taught that they cannot succeed on their own. And they are never allowed to fail.As Chua points out, if you don’t know how to fail you don’t know how to succeed.

Helicopter parents produce young people who have no initiative or independence, who are either timid or impulsive, and who do not know how to fail.

Chua argues cogently that Tiger parenting is based on the assumption that children possess strengths that need to be developed. Helicopter parents sees children possessing vulnerabilities that need to be compensated.

But, aren’t Tiger Moms bringing up their children to be robots and automatons? Chua rejects this notion as nonsensical.

It is worth pointing out that this idea has been floating through the culture for decades now. During the 1950s serious intellectuals were decrying the lack of individualism in America. They believed that a culture of conformity and uniformity was producing an epidemic of mental illness.

It wasn’t true, but the debacle called the Vietnam War gave it credence. Thereafter American parents told themselves that children should be freed from discipline and organization, should never be judged in terms of success or failure, and should never hear anyone speak ill of them.

Experts in developmental psychology concurred. They produced study after study demonstrating that children needed to grow up creative. They explained that children should never suffer the indignity of hurt feelings and should always have their self-esteem boosted, regardless of whether it was merited.

The experts seemed to believe that children can survive on a diet of unconditional love.

Children who were happy and healthy, with high self-esteem, would have fun doing their schoolwork and would happily apply themselves to it.

American parents have been told that their children need to have high self-esteem because low self-esteem equals depression. Children who feel depressed work less effectively and are unable to focus and concentrate on a task at hand. American parenting assumes that a child will work harder if he feels that he cannot fail and if it thinks of schoolwork as creative fun.

For her part Chua obliged her children to work hard even when they thought that could not succeed. She made them do their drills over and over again until they got it right. She excoriated them for getting it wrong. She instilled the value of discipline and focus and perseverance… which meant that her children were taught to do what had to be done whether they felt like it or not.

Where American parents want to protect their children from bad feelings, Chua disagrees: “But, hey, if they've done something wrong, they should feel bad. Kids with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement, who know when to experience gratitude and humility, will be better at navigating the social shoals of college.”

In the end Chua was not following science; she was following ethical precepts.

She has tried to teach her daughters the virtues of responsibility, gratitude and humility.

Children who are brought up to feel entitled lack these virtues. They tend to be arrogant, irresponsible ingrates. They feel that they do not need to earn their way. The feel that it is all coming to them, because their parents and teachers praised them no matter what they did, good or bad.

When Amy Chua decided not to hover over her daughter’s college life, she was demonstrating pride and confidence in her child.

She was assuming that the Tiger Cub would be motivated because she did not want to betray her parents’ confidence in her.

American children are the most loved in the world. But how many of their parents feel pride in their real achievements?

Keep in mind, you cannot feel pride in someone’s accomplishment if you do not judge him ill when he fails.

The old saying has it that love is not enough. Children do not develop pride if their parents are not appropriately proud of them. And they do not develop confidence unless their parents express confidence in their judgment and decisions.

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