"Mom, you have got to write a response!" my youngest daughter, a high school junior, urges me. It's been several weeks since Amy Chua published her article on wsj.com. While I did not initially react favorably to the article, time has tamed me. The parenting practices that Amy Chua brashly describes are not unfamiliar to many Asians. As one Asian student commented, "I am not sure what the furor is about. That is just the way we were all raised." More rhetorical than literal. Our kids were not raised that way. Quite the contrary. I am among the "roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers (who felt that "stressing academic success is not good for children')" that Chua alluded to.
In the internet debate over whether the parenting practices espoused in Chua's book have any benefits, what has been little discussed is the fact that many factors determine how children turn out - a mother's interaction with her children, while very important, is not the only determinant. There are genes and a child's unique make-up that influences how he/she responds to the environment. There are Dads and grandparents. There are schools and teachers. There are social networks, relationships, and resources, usually determined by social class, which may ameliorate any undesirable effects of parenting. Then there is communication between mother and child.
Communication, I think, is key to building positive parent-child relationships. In immigrant families especially, where children inevitably experience cultural conflicts, communication between parent and child can go a long way to raising mentally and emotionally healthy adults confident of their place in society. Chua's parenting practices, as many child development specialists and psychologists have commented on (see articles by Christine Carter and Lac Su), may have high costs for mental health and well-being, but from what I gathered from her book, her children had a voice, even if it took a long time for her to listen. They certainly talked back, at least, Lulu did for sure. And while it took years for Mommy Chua to get the message that Lulu had a free spirit, was not to be controlled, she finally did. In the process, through screaming and yelling battles, Mommy Chua may even have received life lessons from her daughter.
The point I am trying to make is that maybe, the reason Amy Chua's children seem to 'excel' has little to do with the specific controlling parenting practices that has got everyone talking. Giving worksheets to help a child learn math can be extremely helpful, but unreasonably demanding nothing less than an A from a child can be detrimental to the child's mental health. Implementing a routine of practicing music, doing homework or helping with household chores provides structure for learning and acquiring life skills, but forcing a child to practice for hours so that he/she can make it to Carnegie Hall at an early age has higher stakes. We want our children to be tough as Amy Chua professes. But does making our children practice math and music to perfection toughen them or break them? "Good timber does not grow with ease; the stronger the wind, the stronger the trees," (J. Willard Marriott). But trees need water, sunlight, and fertilizer, and they come in different forms and sizes.
It's time for not only Asian parents but parents in general to bring some common sense to the parenting game. It's not just about parents exerting authority and controlling the children. It's not just about giving the children autonomy. I think it's about listening to your child - 'listen' as in knowing your child - knowing his/her temperament, innate abilities and talents, and personality characteristics, then applying tried-and-true common sense parenting practices to develop character, a sense of self, socialization skills, empathy and compassion, with an understanding of the external environment that your child lives in.
As a Chinese American mother, I have no doubts that it is possible to raise respectful, hard-working, academically successful kids without resorting to extreme dehumanizing practices, kids who are also physically, mentally, socially and emotionally healthy. In fact, I would argue that we have a responsibility to help our children discover themselves - their talents, their interests, their weaknesses. This means acceptance - our acceptance of them, and their discovery and acceptance of their own uniqueness.
Let us hope that Chua's provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal will not result in further stereotyping of Asian parenting practices, which like those of other racial/ethnic groups, vary considerably, but that it will bring together child development experts and parents from all cultures to address critical parenting issues that influence child health and well-being in a rapidly changing world.