Sigh. I wish Amy Chua was my mother. Now, keep in mind that I (a) can't draw to save my life (ask my basic tax students, who erupt into peals of laughter when I attempt to draw a tree) and (b) am the least musical person I know (ask anyone who has heard me sing along to the car radio). I'm sure my birthday cards would have been rejected by Chua, and that I'd never be able to master the Little White Donkey. So why do I feel compelled to defend Chua? As I read her memoir and the ensuing criticism, I kept getting the feeling that this debate is a luxury. Yes, I think being impossible to please is a poor parenting technique that likely produces anxiety-ridden children later on. And yes, I strongly believe that a child should feel loved for herself, and not just for her accomplishments. That said, I think kids are tougher than we often give them credit for, and that we should expect more from them. What we are all trying to do, therefore, is balance unconditional love with high expectations. The common reaction to Chua is that she gets this balance wrong by focusing too much on accomplishment and perfection. This reaction, however, assumes that the default is the stereotypical upper-middle class mother who shuttles her son to little league games where no score is kept, and raves about his performance as "Villager Number Six" in the school play. And if the choice were Chua or this stereotype, I'd probably choose the stereotype. But for me growing up, and for a large chunk of children not in the upper-middle class, that's not the choice (I wasn't poor, but I was the scholarship girl in second-hand clothes who lived on the wrong side of the tracks). All too often, the default is parents who are physically or emotionally absent, or parents that don't have the time and money to decide between Western and Tiger-style parenting. Think of all the "choices" upper-middle class professionals have: breast or bottle, nanny or day care, to work outside the home or not. For many, however, those decisions are made for them by their economic circumstances. In a sense, the debate over Chua reflects our luxurious environs: Whether one or three hours is the appropriate-length practice session is irrelevant when you can't afford a piano and have to work nights instead of supervising your child's practice sessions at all. I bet a ton of people would kill for the opportunities the Chua children have, however they are packaged. The bigger problem, however, isn't parents who want to do right by their kids but just can't afford the opportunities Chua provides. The bigger problem is parents who basically don't care about their kids, for whatever reason. When I was younger, I called my parents "libertarian" in their parenting approach; now I call it "negligent." The result was a mother who was never home, a father who was always asleep, and nobody who was interested in what I was doing or how well I was doing it, or in spending any time with me at all. I essentially raised myself. On a micro-level, I bet it's much harder on a child when they think nobody cares about them at all, rather than when they think their parents care too much or in the wrong way. And on a macro-level, I think negligence is worse than over-parenting. When negligence happens in an upper-middle class environment, it might not be such a big deal (but for the emotional toll on the child). The child likely goes to a school with caring teachers who can take her under their wing. Perhaps a neighbor or a friend's parent does so. To the extent her peer group is a bad influence, this probably means they skip school once in a while to get drunk, but do not drop out altogether. But they still get a decent education, go on to college, and then live a life of their choosing. I tend to think, like a recent WSJ article suggested, that once a family is economically secure, parenting decisions are not that influential. But when parental negligence is coupled with economic insecurity, the results can be devastating. The local schools are failing, and it's less likely the neglected child can get a teacher to take an interest in her. Due to the prevalance of single parents and adults scrambling to take whatever job they can get, there are probably fewer adults around after school to pay attention to her. And if the norm is to quit high school or not attend college, the effects of a bad peer group are much worse. Not only does the child herself have fewer options, but the net impact on our society's economy and well-being is magnified. So if the choice is no parent or a tiger parent, I'll take a tiger parent any day.
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