Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Going for shock value

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where Chinese-American mother Amy Chua describes her no-holds-barred approach to raising her children: no sleepovers, no tolerance for less than A's and first place, and making one daughter practice a piano piece for hours with no water or bathroom breaks until she got it right. The media has now taken this book beyond one person's extreme approach to parenting, into a cultural commentary about how America is becoming a nation of coddled children who settle for being second best.

I am not going to join the chorus of people calling her a bad mother – that is between her and her daughters, at least one of whom publicly supports her. But what she describes goes against everything I have ever learned in family therapy, and for some of it (like the piano incident) some columnists are wondering what the social services folks think. And for whatever it is worth, my four siblings and I – all of whom became Ivy League graduates and successful adults – came from good parents who didn't scream at us when we got B's, block our social lives, or pressure us into activities we didn't want.

For that matter, my late father's parents were always trying to get him to loosen up and not be such a grind studying, and he ignored them and eventually became a university president – kind of like an early version of Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. If his parents had used Chua's approach and pushed him instead, what would he have done instead – lead two universities? Or perhaps lose his motivation entirely? I am not yet convinced that Chua's argument would hold water if you were to do a legitimate empirical study. Especially if you measured being happy and successful, versus just test scores and trophies.

But I have a deeper concern with books like this. Our society has become addicted to extreme solutions with no room for shades of grey. Whether Amy Chua intended it this way or not, she now joins the flamethrowers on cable news channels, the shock jocks on the radio, and the get-rich-quick hucksters on the business bookshelf. All of them make a great deal of money by putting out extreme views that people embrace as the next great hope.

Ultimately my concern isn't so much for Amy Chua's parenting skills. It is that her book is on the cover of Time magazine. Because it draws a lot more attention than things like supportive parenting, productive dialogue, political diversity, and moderation. In my opinion, the problem isn't with them, it is with us. When we put books like Chua's on the bestseller list (currently #4 on Amazon as I write this), we sacrifice more of our own humanity to the counsel of the loudest voices.

The road to civility doesn't make for good media buzz. This is why I rarely watch television unless there is an umpire on the screen somewhere, and do not purchase books like Amy Chua's. But if enough of us start changing the channel, we could honestly build a much more respectful world, where screaming parents and political extremists are off in the margins where they belong. Care to join me?

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