Why We Argue about Amy Chua

American parents are too anxious about parenting

Walking by the Harvard Book Store the other day, I noticed that the Tiger Mother from Yale—Amy Chua—was coming to town this week to promote her new book. In case you missed the outbreak of mommy hysteria surrounding her controversial Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua has been the target of sharp criticism for such unorthodox parenting behaviors such as banning playdates and forcing her daughter to learn a difficult piece on the piano.

I personally found the piece to be more humorous self-examination—as Chua herself said she intended it to be during her visit to the Harvard Bookstore on Tuesday—than declaration of war. Regardless, it clearly struck a nerve with the American public, especially among individuals who took Chua’s writing as a person affront to their parental dogmas. The blogosphere is littered with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals of Chua’s arguments, which have conveniently driven her book sales through the roof. Chua made a direct jab at the deep insecurities many people have about parenting, insecurities that are part and parcel of the cultural assumption that parents can be blamed for anything that goes wrong in the lives of their offspring. Parents’ mortal fear of being hated by their children is what really makes questions of “parenting” such a lighting rod issue.

Interestingly, my own mother—who is a Chinese mother only by ethnicity and found Chua’s article “amusing”—tells me that there is no Chinese equivalent word for our use of “parent” as a verb. She and her four siblings were raised in Hong Kong under an arguably harsh and perhaps neglectful parenting style, but they all emerged from the experience as reasonably self-possessed and successful adults. They take care of my grandfather, and if they bear him any ill feeling for the way he raised them, they do a very good job of hiding it.

By contrast, I can’t begin to recall the number of novels or American popular culture portrayals of difficult relationships between parents and children in which bitter battles rage on when the children are grown and the parents are entering their last years. Compared to this, my mother’s attitude seems like the healthier one indeed. My grandfather is old, and he is by all accounts a much better grandfather than he was a father. Why blame him for the mistakes of the past?

Granted, this cannot always be the case, and some of the deepest psychological wounds are inflicted by parents upon their children. I do not dismiss the idea that harsh parenting can create damaged individuals. However, I do think that most people reach a point where they just have to move on and take responsibility for their own successes and failures.

In a culture so profoundly anxious about raising kids the “right” way, it may be hard to accept the possibility that parenting technique may not, in fact, matter all that much. In a 2005 article in USA Today, “Freakonomics” authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt suggested that the factors that truly predict a child’s future success—socioeconomic status and education level of the parents—are decided long before those parents start making decisions about whether or not to allow TV or playdates.

“Good” parents are mothers and fathers who are doing the best they can. And really, that’s the most we as children can demand from them.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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