What does Tiger Mother Amy Chua have to say to Bryan Caplan, father of “serenity parenting”?
Plenty, it turns out. The two face off in the pages of the Guardian, arguing the fine points of their very different parenting styles. Chua defends her book by saying it’s just a memoir, and a bit of a spoof at that. Caplan isn’t having any of it: he says it’s a shame she was so strict with her kids, and reinforces his point that parents can’t really influence kids that much, so they may as well relax.
Neither is really willing to give much ground. They probably went home believing just as firmly in their polar opposite parenting approaches as they did when they sat down. But at least they had the conversation. And we all get to listen in.
I personally think Caplan wins the debate with this:
Once my kids were born, I realised that all these things that people say about parenting are wrong according to the best science. Parents seem to think their kids are like clay, that you mould them into the right shape when they’re wet. A better metaphor is that kids are like flexible plastic – they respond to pressure, but when you release the pressure they tend to pop back to their original shape.
He’s got a lot of science on his side, helping make the case that “hothousing” our kids doesn’t help. On her side, Chua has her own firm beliefs and some decidedly mixed experiences. Yes, her kids excel at school and in music. But as Caplan points out, many people – including Chua’s husband – achieve that kind of excellence with the hyper-strict parenting Chua subjected her kids to. Did all her years of fighting with her girls really make a difference? Or did it just make them all unhappy?
Here’s what she says:
Some people are just self-motivated – my husband was. I also believe there are many children for whom parental involvement is key. I had academic parents and I was a good student, but when I was 14, I got into a bad crowd, my grades starting falling. My father used some tough language on me, and now, as an adult, I am so grateful. Some people don’t need parental commitment, they will still come out great, but for others, parents can be critical in providing moral and academic guidance.
Ultimately, I think both their positions are too extreme.
My own parenting style is much closer to Caplan’s than Chua’s. I tend to let my kids go a little feral, and believe that modeling a good life for them will have more impact than enforcing a lot of rules and making sure they do everything right as kids. If I want them to clean their rooms, I should keep mine clean, for example.
As a recent New York Times article pointed out, parenting style matters less to the privileged children of middle-class college graduates. There’s some baseline of parenting skill most people in my social cohort have that leads our kids to turn out pretty much OK. Parenting style matters a lot more to children in marginalized social groups.
But I do think my parenting affects my kids. I have to believe that my efforts are worth something if I’m going to keep showing up every do doing the incredibly hard work of being a mother. I don’t think I can make my kids love the violin or force into them the kind of academic discipline that gets you into Harvard. But I do think I can teach them to respect themselves and others, to be responsible for their actions and to do what they love.
As Chua says, some kids don’t need a lot of parental guidance and some really do. I want to be there as a guide for my kids in case they’re in the latter camp. I’m just not inclined to “guide” them by yelling, nor am I concerned about getting hours a day of piano practice into them. I think I can follow Caplan’s “serenity parenting” approach and still be an involved parent who’s there for my kids when they need me.
What do you think? Which of these gurus speaks more to you? Does their face-off change your impression of either of them?