Mothering: East meets West


When The Wall Street Journal receives 5,700 comments on an article (the most ever received about any article in WSJ history), one takes note. Especially when one is a mother and the article is about mothering.

Amy Chua's Jan. 8 essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (the WSJ, not Ms. Chua, chose the smug title), says Eastern mothering methods are best. She was raised by a father who called her "garbage" when she acted up and is raising her own two daughters the same way, saying what didn't hurt her won't hurt her girls. Her daughters, one a violinist and the other a concert pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, bear witness that her way-shaming, hard driving, and strict, with no play dates, sleepovers, or extracurricular activities-is best.

As a follow-up, Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, represents the West in her WSJ essay "In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom." She says children need occasionally to quit activities in which they are not excelling, to have sleepovers, and to play on the computer. "Roaring like a tiger turns some children into pianists who debut at Carnegie Hall but only crushes others," Waldman writes.

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Two big essays and 5,700 comments later, the life-shattering consensus is: Different strokes for different folks.

The WSJ was kind enough to print a smattering of these comments, most of which gave Chua's parenting philosophy more credit than I anticipated, admitting that we Western parents are indeed too lackadaisical and uninvolved in the raising of our children and perhaps could learn something from our Eastern counterparts. Chua herself, in her rebuttal essay printed the same day as Waldman's piece, reminds her readers that her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is a memoir, not a parenting manual, one written with a good bit of wry humor: "[T]he person at the beginning of the book, whose voice is reflected in the Journal excerpt, is not exactly the same person at the end of book. In a nutshell, I get my comeuppance; much of the book is about my decision to retreat (but only partially) from the strict immigrant model."

If Chua represents one extreme (strictness) and Waldman represents the opposite (hands-off parenting), I would identify more with Chua in my basic parenting style. She's right; many of us Western parents are too soft on our children. We don't want them to suffer for one moment, so we shield them from every rejection, from every potential failure, telling ourselves we do it for the kids. I don't think so. I think we do it to protect our own egos. No one wants a kid who has tried piano, violin, flute, cello, baseball, wrestling, and karate to give up on all of them. If they fail at these, or give up entirely, what kind of parents have we been? But to push them to tears to overcome their weaknesses or their laziness or their ineptness feels abusive.

But Waldman has a point, too. Hovering parents, like Chua, may keep their children from the lessons learned from "failure" and embitter them with unbending rules.

So what's a parent to do? Each one of us carries baggage from how we were raised, and react or hyper-react to our parents' strictness or permissiveness. We can argue all day long over which mother, Chua or Waldman, is right, but the truth is, that isn't the point. They both have good ideas and they both go to extremes in some areas, and as wise parents, hopefully, we can sift out the good from the not so good.

The deeper issue for Christian parents who have been following this tit-for-tat argument is this: How do we define success for our kids? Is it just a matter of Carnegie Hall debuts, straight-A report cards, acing trigonometry exams, and scoring perfectly on the SAT? Is the caliber of college our children get into or the amount of money they earn or the initials after their name what we are shooting for? Let's take the argument even further: Is it even good behavior, nice manners, knowing Bible verses, daily quiet times, and reading all of the Harris brothers' books?

We can set all the high standards we want, but if we aren't careful and mistake accomplishment for "success," we run the risk of raising miniature, super-smart, highly talented, do-gooding, self-righteous Pharisees who are as unfamiliar with grace as they are a B in math.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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