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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

The world needs more elephant mothers


MELBOURNE — Many years ago, my wife and I were driving somewhere with our three young daughters in the back, when one of them suddenly asked: "Would you rather that we were clever or that we were happy?"

I was reminded of that moment last month when I read Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," which sparked more than 4,000 comments on wsj.com and over 100,000 comments on Facebook. The article was a promotional piece for Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which has become an instant best-seller.

Chua's thesis is that, when compared to Americans, Chinese children tend to be successful because they have "tiger mothers," whereas Western mothers are pussycats, or worse. Chua's daughters, Sophia and Louise, were never allowed to watch television, play computer games, sleep over at a friend's home, or be in a school play. They had to spend hours every day practicing the piano or violin. They were expected to be the top student in every subject except gym and drama.

Chinese mothers, according to Chua, believe that children, once they get past the toddler stage, need to be told, in no uncertain terms, when they have not met the high standards their parents expect of them. (Chua says that she knows Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish, and Ghanaian mothers who are "Chinese" in their approach, as well as some ethnic-Chinese mothers who are not.) Their egos should be strong enough to take it.

But Chua, a professor at Yale Law School (as is her husband), lives in a culture in which a child's self-esteem is considered so fragile that children's sports teams give "Most Valuable Player" awards to every member. So it is not surprising that many Americans react with horror to her style of parenting.

One problem in assessing the tiger- mothering approach is that we can't separate its impact from that of the genes that the parents pass on to their children. If you want your children to be at the top of their class, it helps if you and your partner have the brains to become professors at elite universities. No matter how hard a tiger mom pushes, not every student can finish first (unless, of course, we make everyone "top of the class").

Tiger parenting aims at getting children to make the most of their abilities, and so seems to lean toward the "clever" side of the "clever or happy" choice. That's also the view of Betty Ming Liu, who blogged in response to Chua's article: "Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian- Americans like me are in therapy."

Stanley Sue, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has studied suicide, which is particularly common among Asian-American women. He believes that family pressure is a significant factor. Chua would reply that reaching a high level of achievement brings great satisfaction, and that the only way to do it is through hard work.

Perhaps, but can't children be encouraged to do things because they are intrinsically worthwhile, rather than because of fear of parental disapproval?

I agree with Chua to this extent: a reluctance to tell a child what to do can go too far. One of my daughters, who now has children of her own, tells me amazing stories about her friends' parenting styles. One of them let her daughter drop out of three kindergartens, because she didn't want to go to them. Another couple believes in "self-directed learning" to such an extent that one evening they went to bed at 11 p.m., leaving their 5-year-old watching her ninth straight hour of Barbie videos.

Tiger mothering might seem to be a useful counterbalance to such permissiveness, but both extremes leave something out. Chua's focus is unrelentingly on solitary activities in the home, with no encouragement of group activities, or of concern for others, either in school or in the wider community. Thus, she appears to view school plays as a waste of time that could be better spent studying or practicing music.

But to take part in a school play is to contribute to a community good. If talented children stay away, the quality of the production will suffer, to the detriment of the others who take part (and of the audience that will watch it). And all children whose parents bar them from such activities miss the opportunity to develop social skills that are just as important and rewarding — and just as demanding to master — as those that monopolize Chua's attention.

We should aim for our children to be good people, and to live ethical lives that manifest concern for others as well as for themselves. This approach to child-rearing is not unrelated to happiness: there is abundant evidence that those who are generous and kind are more content with their lives than those who are not. But it is also an important goal in its own right.

Tigers lead solitary lives, except for mothers with their cubs. We, by contrast, are social animals. So are elephants, and elephant mothers do not focus only on the well-being of their own offspring. Together, they protect and take care of all the young in their herd, like a day care center.

If we all think only of our own interests, we are headed for collective disaster — just look at what we are doing to the planet's climate. When it comes to raising our children, we need fewer tigers and more elephants.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. © 2011 Project Syndicate


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