Smarter Than the Average Bear?

Apparently I’m not alone in not liking Amy Chua, the self-described “Tiger Mom”. If I were a superpowered person from the comic books, she would pretty much be my opposite number. I’m the “Bear Dad”: I hibernate a lot, amble along eating berries and grabbing salmon, doing the omnivorous whatever-it’s-cool thing and encouraging my cubs to do the same, or not, as it strikes them. Maybe every once in a while I have one of those awesome standing on my hind legs and confronting a cougar moment like in an old Disney nature film, but then it’s back to eating some berries and putting on fat for the winter. I’m personally inclined to be like “free-range” parents such as Lenore Skenazy.

I don’t have much to add to some of the common criticisms of Chua’s arguments about parenting, like her vaguely creepy racial mapping of parenting as cultural destiny.

Still, let me see if I can add one distinctive note to the public debate of the last week. If I have any professional weight to throw around here, it’s as someone who teaches in a highly selective institution of higher education that might be one of the destinations that “tiger moms” would aim their children towards.

I’d say yes, I do see some tiger children from time to time here, particularly among science majors. Some of Chua’s critics claim that children subjected to her kind of parenting habitually self-destruct the moment they’re out of reach of their controller. Anecdotally, I don’t really see that pattern. Sure, I can think of cases that seem to fit, but I can equally think of cases of young adults who were driven very hard by uncompromising parents who pretty much accept and embrace that vision when it comes time for them to fly out of the nest, and who pass it on to their children in turn. I’ve also seen more than a few “bear children” go from being gentle, omnivorous wanderers to being totally lost souls whose downward mobility is as precipitous as a waterfall.

Where Chua is just frankly wrong is the proposition that bear children don’t “win prizes”, that tiger children are set for life, that they win and dominate. She’s wrong empirically: I frequently meet people who are at the top of their respective professions or situations who were raised in every way the opposite of Chua’s children. And she’s wrong morally: life is not an instrumental prize that you secure permanently and unambiguously at some magical point in your adulthood, nor should it be. Look what happened to some people who were by the consensus of their peers “winners” as they headed into their 20s. Look at how some of Wall Street’s winners shat the collective bed recently.

If I have seen a pattern, among my students and my parental peers alike, it’s that parents who try to be someone that they’re not, pursuing a parenting style that doesn’t come from their own life experience, are the ones who will create the most psychic havoc for their children and for themselves. That’s the really pernicious thing about figures like Chua, or indeed most folks who try to sell a complete parenting philosophy to an anxious middle-class public, whatever the recipe they’re peddling. Parents who are trying too hard to do what bourgeois consensus views as the right thing, who are too sensitive to the glances and petty remarks around the edges of a PTO meeting, who peer surreptitiously around the living room of neighbors to spy out their domestic rituals (half to ensure the conformity of the neighbors, half to assure the spy of his or her own conformity): those are the people whose kids are much more likely to massively disavow what they’ve been pushed or required to do, or to angrily lament the lack of earlier pushing or prodding by their permissive parents. More to the point, those are the kind of parents who inhabit the work of novelists writing about the domestic discontents of bourgeois families, who try too hard to perform an inauthentic self for too long and then one day skate out onto thin ice and fall right through.

I would never tell a tiger mom to be a bear. Of course, that’s a very bear dad thing to say, the essence of the whole-of-the-parenting-law-is-do-as-thou-wilt. I’m not saying that I don’t have opinions and advice about the parenting (and children) of others, but for me that’s a very intimate, complicated feeling. I wouldn’t presume to tell a stranger how to do it right, other than to say that it’s a mistake to do something because other people say to do it.

Unfortunately, middle-class life is perhaps of necessity a nervous condition built on a desperate quest for social distinction: always aspiring, never achieved. Inasmuch as Americans continue to maintain their collective belief that everyone in the United States is middle-class, that American identity is always aspiration, maybe they can never get to a point of accepting that an individual philosophy of parenting should grow naturally from the cultural soil of every individual life and come to rest at that point.

Chua and anyone else trying to sell parenting to anxiety-ridden people might learn a lesson from Ann Hulbert’s intellectual and social history of parenting advice. The main lesson would be humility: this has happened before and it (unfortunately) is likely to happen again. When Chua says that “permissive parenting” is a new thing, she’s just flat out wrong. But then every advicemonger says the same thing each time: they have come to restore some past wisdom from some present trend towards degeneration.

I suppose that’s why I don’t just tend to my own flock and let things happen as they ought to: the history of advice to parents is a long series of families knocked out of joint, separated from their common sense and practical wisdom, and worse yet, sometimes pulling the culture as a whole along for the ride.

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3 Responses to Smarter Than the Average Bear?

  1. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ve seen this and several similar comments and I don’t entirely buy it. It is not just the WSJ that represented Chua’s book in these terms as part of an advance publicity push–the NPR story to which I linked here highlights some of the same excerpts. The book’s title underscores that self-presentation: it’s not “Ambivalent lessons about parenting in relationship to my cultural background”, after all. Was Chua’s book titled, marketed and projected into the public sphere completely against her will, completely without her agency, completely without her knowledge, in active, aggressive contradiction to its intentions and contents? It’s easy when the pushback is this explosive to say, “You’re just misunderstanding me”, but that’s a well-worn retreat that both saints and scoundrels alike have marched upon. Whatever else the book may contain, it does contain advice (however “hard-won” and self-reflective it might be) and even as she climbs down in her public remarks, Chua is very evidently searching for a way to retain some of cultural capital of her supposedly exaggerated position, e.g. : “ok, so Western kids are permissive wastrels, but if you left them alone, they’d play video games all day, and that’s bad”.

    I also find the “false voice” vs. “real voice” dichotomy in that blog entry frustrating: in some measure, even our self-representations are “false” if you’re going to claim there’s that kind of clarity. Hating on Chua as a single individual is a mistake, but all of the criticism and anger at the argument her book is being used to construct is perfectly appropriate, and indeed necessary.

  2. joe o says:

    I tend to have a laid back view of parenting too. Part of what is going on with Amy Chua is an attack of the dad through the kids. If you loved the kids, you would be more strict about violin lessons. The rule “no school plays” makes more sense when you learn that the dad was a Juliard trained actor.

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