Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.



Tiger mothers and the case for fear-based parenting

David Burns said that, “Fear lurks behind perfectionism.”

Posted Jan 23, 2011

      It is said that every institution in a society is a crystallization of that culture's dominant values. One can look at sports, the military, media, entertainment, education, health care. Each one of these areas of our national life tells us a great deal what is important to us. This is no less true of our parenting styles. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor has published a book called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," (note the military phraseology) which promotes the idea that raising "successful" children requires that parents make all decisions about how their children spend their time: basically either studying or practicing music.
     Since the secret to academic or musical success is "tenacious practice, practice, practice," there are to be no sleepovers, playdates, school plays, TV, or computer games. Nor is the child allowed to get any grade below A. Chua's justification for this regime is that "children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." If the child resists this program of "rote repetition," it is OK to "excoriate, punish and shame the child." She tells one anecdote about the horrified reaction of "Western parents" at a dinner party when she apparently bragged about calling her daughter "garbage."
      Even allowing for some exaggeration on the part of an author selling a book, this is challenging material for parents wishing the best for their kids. A bracing discussion has ensued. This published conversation has focused both on what constitutes success in this society, and about what values we wish to transmit to our kids and how this process unfolds. The debate takes place against a background of concern about narcissism and a sense of entitlement that, fairly or unfairly, are seen as implicit cultural values in 21st century America. Chua's book defines success solely in terms of individual achievement with little attempt to conceal her contempt for the poorly-parented "losers" with whom her children are competing.
      A further example of her own self-centeredness is her insistence that children "owe [their parents] everything." For "putting in long grueling hours personally tutoring, training, interrogating and spying on their kids." This idea was, briefly at least, questioned by her husband but she dismissed it as showing a lack of confidence in what their daughter could do. (Men everywhere are left to imagine what it would be like to be married to this woman.)
      David Burns said that, "Fear lurks behind perfectionism." One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than the parenting style advocated by someone who argues that insults and intimidation are the essence of successful parenting. Such an approach manifests a deeply pessimistic view of human nature that supposes that our children, and by extension, the rest of us are fundamentally lazy and driven by our uncontrolled desires for pleasure and must be forced by some external source - parents, religion, government - to conform to a rigid set of rules that will make us better, or at least more tractable, people. Such an assumption requires a lot of constraints and a lot of prohibitions ("Thou shalt not..."). And the basic enforcement mechanism is fear. One need only observe life in a theocratic society to get a taste of how that idea works.
      In order to construct a fear-based system, choice must be limited. In a family, of course, this is rather easily accomplished because of the difference in physical and psychological size between parents and children. The latter, in fact, become like victims of Stockholm syndrome in which they come to cooperate in their oppression. We know that children in abusive homes love their parents no less, and perhaps even more, because of the terror they are subjected to. Unfortunately they frequently go on to abuse their own children, a testimony to the values they have internalized.
      Fear is in some ways the defining issue of our time. We have been taught to fear those who are different from us, those who choose a different way of governing themselves, those who worship a different God. Fear has made us the most militarized, warlike nation on the planet, perpetually in one armed conflict or another. So when someone writes a provocative book about instilling fear in our children as a way of showing love, she may be more in tune with our societal values than we would like to admit.