Reading the cover story in Time last week on Amy’s Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” I couldn’t help but feel enormous empathy for Chua’s two daughters. In her book, Chua recounts the repressive parenting methods she employed in rearing her children. Truth be told, I have not read Chua’s book, but my argument goes beyond it. I am interested in the philosophy of education and style of parenting that the debate about her book has engendered.
It is easy to condemn Chua, a Yale Law School professor, as a “monster,” as Meredith Vieira did on the “Today” show. Chua hurls epithets at her daughters, forces them to practice their musical instruments incessantly, and demands straight As, while denying them social interaction with their peers. Chua argues that her own strict upbringing provided her with a wider variety of choices in her adult life and that her application of these disciplinary methods would do the same for her children.
For many of us, this is a sad story bordering on child abuse. Yet, at the heart of this story is the more global issue of parents’ single-minded focus on their children’s perfection—a parenting style that parallels the intensely competitive nature of education today. To me, there is nothing wrong with wanting one’s children to achieve—not only intellectually, but also socially and emotionally. The problem is not in parents’ encouraging excellence, but in insisting that children emerge on top. This is a recipe that will not foster the cooperative and creative environments in which a forward-looking society can expect to flourish.
Many strict parents, even those whose tactics fall short of Chua’s, contend that their child-rearing behavior is necessary because other parents in this dog-eat-dog world are doing the same. The competition for admission to elite colleges and universities, they argue, creates the need to push their children to prevail in every endeavor.
The inanity, or should I say insanity, of this argument was highlighted during winter break, when I saw high school friends who I had not seen since graduation or the summer. I was struck by how many of the self-identified children of “pushy” parents were taking the easy road and sowing their oats—in a sense, rebelling against the expectations and restrictions that had been placed on them as the college rat race loomed. Some had spent their first college semester enrolled in courses that were essentially re-dos of their high school Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Many had devoted their first few months of “the college experience” to exploring the bacchanalian arts, and others to rechanneling their competitive energies into admittance to the most prestigious sororities.
The pushy parent phenomenon is particularly prevalent among the privileged. After all, they are the ones who can afford the private schools, the music lessons, the tutors, the trips abroad to “broaden the horizons” of their offspring—all to make their children more competitive candidates for the nation’s most elite colleges and universities. Yet, the pattern of parents attempting to force their children to be not only at the top of their own games, but at the top of everyone else’s, is also present in other socioeconomic strata.
Furthermore, the pattern is not limited to academics. The same pushiness can be seen on the athletic playing field, where one would hope children learn about fairness, good sportsmanship, and teamwork; instead, they face overbearing involvement of some players’ parents. Just as parents believe they must push their children to be the best in school and on the field, most private secondary schools and many (mostly suburban) public schools feel pressure to push their students to be more competitive in the college process. This promotes the vicious cycle: the more AP courses offered, the more parents insist their kids take them, the stronger the push to excel in them.
Inculcating children with the need to be the best in order to succeed clearly has its flaws. It breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement that should be anathema in a diverse and democratic society. It creates a society in which the collective good and ethical behavior takes a back seat to the interest of individuals. It stifles the creativity that requires free time for independent exploration and the risk-taking from which discovery can emerge. And it discourages the collaboration required for economic development, scientific and medical advancement, and progress of virtually any sort in our global world.
Do our institutions of higher learning have a role in stemming the tide of overly competitive secondary schools and in blunting parents’ perceived need not merely to encourage their children to do their best, but to force their children to be the best? I think they do, because parents and secondary schools—rightly or wrongly—blame universities for their own misguided behaviors.
It seems to me this requires some cooperation. Admissions committees of many of the nation’s most elite colleges and universities often make real efforts to understand their applicants. But to truly thwart this trend among parents and schools to turn out perfect applicants, they need to take a stronger lead.
A vanguard of these colleges and universities has to act with one voice, as they have in the past to promote affirmative action and need-blind admissions.
Perhaps they need to discourage schools from weighting grade point averages in favor of those who take more AP courses, or encourage schools to assess their students’ ethical behavior and intellectual integrity with as much zeal as they grade their coursework. Perhaps they need to give preference to applicants who fully participate in collaborative activities without competing for leadership roles, or respect risk-takers who don’t excel at their risk-taking enterprises, or devise better means of distinguishing true intellectual curiosity from mere mastery of prescribed coursework.
I don’t claim to know the answer, but I think it has to come from the top-down. Someone, or some group of institutions, needs to convince parents and secondary schools that the expectation of broader choices down the line is a sorry excuse for unhealthy child-rearing.
Ozols is a member of the class of 2014.