No Holds Barred: War cry of the values-based parent

Yale Professor Amy Chua’s latest book on Chinese-style parenting promotes type of child-rearing that breeds real narcissism.

china parenting 311 (photo credit: St. Paul Pioneer Press)
china parenting 311
(photo credit: St. Paul Pioneer Press)
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.
Thunderous applause.
To 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 point.
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 politician.
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 they are.
LET US reemphasize the point. If you raise kids who get into Julliard and Yale – Chua’s favorite playgrounds – but are selfish egotists, you blew it.
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.
That 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 of.
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 video game.
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 them.
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.
But 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 unfold.
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.

In the 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 Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children. His previous books include the critically acclaimed parenting manuals Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children and Parenting with Fire. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.