The best response thus far to Amy Chua’s screed against the soft, indulgent
style of American parents, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was by David
Brooks of The New York Times. Chua decries American parents as wimps who
capitulate to their kids. Not Amy. She has threatened to burn her children’s
stuffed toys if they don’t excel at piano, has withheld food, water and bathroom
breaks to teach piano to her seven-yearold, called them lazy, stupid and fat,
denied them play dates and sleepovers, TV and video games, and slowly molded
Carnegie Hall protégés with straight As.
which Brooks responded that the hardest cognitive skill that any child confronts
is learning how to get along with other people – interactions which Chua seemed
to dismiss as beneath her kids.
Touché. The man has a
Americans as a people would probably get an A in the success
department, but a D- in getting along with each other. With half the population
divorced, families disintegrating all around us, and some nutjob shooting up
innocent bystanders every other week, we have clearly demonstrated an inability
to master interpersonal relationships.
BUT I have a variation on Brooks’s
argument: The draconian parenting advocated by Chua breeds a real and
potentially toxic narcissism. In essence, her argument is that we must raise
children with an extreme focus on self. Our kids are brought into this world,
not to be a blessing to others through a life of service, but to become
immensely successful, with success defined almost exclusively in terms of
personal achievement. A success is a concert pianist, a Nobel Prize winner, an
Olympic Gold medalist, a billionaire businessman or a powerful
Great. Knock yourself out.
But I counsel some of these
“successful” people. Their lives are often ill-balanced and, given their egos’
stranglehold on their happiness, they often struggle to find meaning and purpose
beyond the dictates of their ambition.
Sure, we can all agree with Chua
that TV and video games are a waste of time, and I endorse her call for far
greater parental discipline. But where does selflessness figure in the values by
which she raises her children? Should every child really be raised to believe
that the greatest gift he or she can give the world is to inflict his or her
vast achievement on it? Indeed, her book has generated such a wide readership
precisely because American parents seem so much more interested in raising
successful rather than good children, kids who excel at making money rather than
making friends, at obtaining status rather than obtaining wisdom, at winning
championships rather than championing a cause.
I wonder what the Amy
Chuas of this world do when one of their kids expresses a desire to be a rabbi,
priest or teacher? Do you rend your garments and don sackcloth and ashes? Or do
you simply tell them, OK, but only if you rise to be chief rabbi, pope or
secretary of education?
I want my kids to be successful, sure. But more than
anything I want them to be soulful and moral. Yes, I would like to see them
prosper, afford nice things and earn the admiration of their peers. But if money
and status become more important to them than being ethical, altruistic and
giving, I have utterly failed as a parent.
My friend Dennis Prager, the
radio host and author, tells a story of a woman who bragged to him that her
children were top doctors and lawyers. He asked her, “Are they good people?”
“Why of course,” she responded.
And then his clincher. “Then why didn’t
you tell me that first?”
I am proud when my kids show me a good report card. But
I receive real joy when people who’ve met them tell me how respectful and warm
LET US reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into
Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but are selfish egotists, you
To the Amy Chuas of this world I ask: Is America really missing
success, or are we beginning to squander that success through an erosion of
values? Success without values always ends in misery and failure.
does not mean I dismiss many of Chua’s important points. I too have been mostly
opposed to sleepovers, because they involve no sleep. The kids come back dead
tired and blow the next day. And often there is no parental supervision to speak
Kids should not be veging out in front of TVs, and the last thing a
child needs for healthy development is to beat a hooker with a lead pipe in a
I do believe that American kids are spoiled and indulged, and
that far too many parents seem to be afraid of their kids – afraid of saying no,
afraid of setting simple, unalterable rules, afraid of giving them chores and
responsibilities around the house.
Why? First and foremost, because we
have such bad marriages these days that for many a parent the principal source
of affection comes not from a spouse but from the children. And the last
thing he or she is going to do is bite the hand that emotionally feeds
Second, we can’t say no to our kids because we feel guilty about
how we neglect them as we veg out in front of a TV. And finally, discipline
takes a lot of out of you, and we’re so tired and stressed from our jobs (where
we invest the major part of our creativity) that we arrive home a depleted
wreck, unable to muster the strength to stand up to our children.
there is also an overarching, pernicious American belief that the essence of
good parenting is to give your kids all the things you didn’t have as a child.
But by giving your kids all the material things you lacked, you are robbing them
of the one big thing you did have – pride in your own effort and
achievement. We’re not supposed to give our kids everything. They’re
supposed to earn it.
But what Chua doesn’t seem to recognize is the need,
as Maimonides expressed it, for moderation in all things. And this is especially
true of parenting. Effective child-rearing involves finding a balance between
how much we ought to chisel our children into what we believe is the perfect
image versus passively allowing their own personalities and gifts to
WHAT MOST rubbed me the wrong way is Chua’s seeming insistence
that having a kid who can play the piano or violin is the ultimate
success. I believe in developing a child’s potential, but our kids aren’t
circus monkeys that we train to impress teachers, ace exams and perform in front
of admiring audiences. They are people too, and we have to help them find a
personal truth that accords with their unique gifts and disposition. King
Solomon expressed it wisely: Educate a child according to his way.
final analysis, what Chua exhibits above all is considerable insecurity. She
tells her children that they risk becoming losers – which is what she terms
anyone who is second- best. Life for her is a winnertake- all competition, and
Chua’s ambition rules her like a demon. Yet she thinks nothing of coercing her
children into the same cult of demonic possession.
At Oxford I met many
people like Chua. They inevitably ended up, like her, as professors at elite
universities. Their rigidity and obsession with success ensured that they
never took real risks, preferring tenured positions for life to the
rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurship. For all their ambition, people like Chua
would never go into politics, for example, for fear of allowing a force outside
themselves to determine their fate, their fear of failure precluding the ability
to take real chances.
Are we really loving our children when we raise
them in a climate of overarching fear? The writer has just published
the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children. His
previous books include the critically acclaimed parenting manuals
Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children and
Parenting with Fire.
Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.