By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON – I come from a family where the “joke,” if you came home with a 97 on a math test, was to ask what happened to the other three points. The punch line, if you scored 100, was to ask whether there was any extra credit.
So I know something about pushy parents. Indeed, I’m grateful for having had pushy parents, although I can’t say that was my overwhelming sentiment at the time.
But there are pushy parents – and there is Amy Chua, stuffed-animal arsonist. Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is the author of a new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” that recounts her method of extreme parenting, Chinese-style.
You may have heard the horror stories. Chua threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she failed to perform the piano piece perfectly. She rejected hand-made birthday cards from her then 4- and 7-year-olds because they were inadequately elaborate.
She banned sleepovers and playdates; mandated hours of daily violin and piano practice; insisted that her daughters be the top students in every class except gym and drama. When one daughter behaved disrespectfully, Chua called her “garbage” – and then bragged about it.
“Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them,” Chua writes. “If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”
In the furor that’s erupted since The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her book, Chua has been busy backpedaling: it’s not a parenting manual, she was being tongue-in-cheek, she’s softened her ways. Don’t believe it.
“I would do it all again with some adjustments,” Chua told Diane Rehm. She’s still proud of having rejected the birthday cards. She relates what I think is the saddest story in the book – about how her late mother-in-law begged in vain for a single day with each granddaughter – with no apparent regret: “I never had a full day for them to spare.”
Before we could not stop talking about Tiger Mothers, my friends and I could not stop talking about B-Minuses – another new book, by therapist Wendy Mogel, called “The Blessing of a B-Minus.” The very title is enough to make me break out in hives. What happened to the other 17 points?
Mogel is the anti-Chua: Her thesis is not that Western parents fail to push their children hard enough but that they push too hard. Mogel’s advice for parents is to calm down, back off and give their teenagers space to mess up.
“One of the ways teens learn about the importance of hard work is by suffering the consequences of their procrastination and laziness,” Mogel writes. “A wise parent will resist interfering with those natural consequences, even if it means allowing a child to take a lower-than-wished-for grade.”
Parental pushiness is a Mogel no-no. “Let affirmation – ëYes, a B-plus!’ – stand happily alone,” she advises. Mogel cautions against the “What about varsity?” school of parenting, constantly prodding children to achieve the next level.
I’d far rather err on Mogel’s side than Chua’s, but I think Mogel is wrong, too. First, the line between benign parental neglect and parental negligence is treacherously fuzzy. Intervening too much is a lot less risky than intervening too little.
Second, a little pushing is not a dangerous thing. For many people, if not most, ambition has to be instilled before it can be internalized. Children – even teenage children – crave parental approval. Withholding it absent exceptional performance, as Chua would have it, is wrong; so is bestowing it promiscuously. You are not going to find me getting giddy about a B-plus.
The key to good parenting lies somewhere between these two approaches, between demanding too much and accepting too little. The difficulty of good parenting lies in the fact that this sweet spot is elusive, individual and constantly changing. You may be the lucky parent who hits it, but you will not know for years.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.