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Tiger Mom or Pushover Parent?

Air Date: 02/15/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at   I am grateful to Amy Chua. In case you've been living in a cave for the last month or so and the name doesn't ring a bell, Amy Chua is a Yale law professor and the author of "Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother", which was excerpted last month by the Wall Street Journal under the title, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." In her memoir of her own parenting experiences, Chua described how (and why) she forbade her daughters to attend sleepovers or participate in school plays, how they were not allowed to play any instrument other than piano or violin, how she called them "garbage" when they failed to live up to her expectations, and how she returned a homemade birthday card to her four-year-old for a do-over because it wasn't up to her standards. Not surprisingly, a media frenzy ensued and for a week or so, Amy Chua and her critics were everywhere in TV and print interviews. Let me say first of all that I haven't read Chua's book and I think her methods were extreme-but I also think the world was a bit harsh with her. She has been clear that she wasn't writing a "how-to" book on parenting, that the title of the Journal article wasn't her idea, and that her book was a memoir of her own experiences-and mistakes. Of course, all sorts of parenting experts and amateur commentators have had to chime in, most of them incensed that Chua would imply that American parents are somehow inferior, wimpy pushovers who don't expect enough from their children. Discussion has ensued about why there are, after all, so many Asian students at top universities. And that's why I'm grateful to Amy Chua: I absolutely love anyone who can get the entire nation talking about parenting. I spend a lot of time talking and writing about parenting. In the 20 years that I've been doing this sort of work, I have encountered few parents who don't love their children-even when those parents don't like the child's behavior. But parents make all sorts of mistakes in the name of love, and those mistakes run the gamut from strict, demanding parenting to generous, mushy parenting. Is it better to be a strict parent or a nice one? Well, it's actually a misguided debate on an issue that we have a great deal of clear research about. Authoritarian parents are tough on their kids, demanding obedience to rules, good grades, high achievement, and respect because they want their children to stay out of trouble and to be successful-in other words, because they love them. "Nice" parents give their children what they want, do everything for them, understand when kids would rather play than work, and worry about their children's self-esteem because they want them to be happy-in other words, because they love them.   Unfortunately, "extreme parenting"-either extremely strict or extremely kind-doesn't work in the long-term. In the short-term, of course, you may get something that looks or feels good, that seems to "work" for the moment. But we know from research that the long-term results often aren't what loving parents expect. Remember, a child's behavior is shaped by her perception and by the meaning she attaches to what happens to her-not by what you might intend. Children of harsh, demanding parents often become rebellious, defiant, or sneaky, or they simply give up and do what is demanded of them. Children of overly nice parents may decide they actually are the center of the whole universe, thank you very much, and expect to be pampered and catered to by everyone they encounter. Neither approach produces responsible, self-reliant, contented kids who are willing to work for what they want and who have genuine character. Yet that's what loving parents actually want for their children. If the extremes don't work, what does? The research is quite clear about this one. The parenting approach that appears to produce the best long-term results is one called "democratic" or "authoritative". In the Positive Discipline community, we call it being "kind and firm at the same time." In other words, you treat your children with respect and affection because you love them and they're human beings who are entitled to dignity and a sense of belonging-and (not but) you have firm, fair, reasonable expectations that you work out with your children. And perhaps most important, you follow through when necessary. And yes, in that regard, many American parents are wimpy: we don't like the follow-through part. Take some time to think about this; imagine what it might feel like in your own home, with your own personal children, to be kind and firm at the exact same time. It is possible-and it does work. No tigers or wimps required. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.