Amy Chua, who wrote that controversial book about Tiger Mothers came to speak at work. It was extremely thought-provoking.

Based on excerpts she read from the book and what she said during the talk, I think she’s been misrepresented in the media. The book wasn’t meant to be a defense of extreme Chinese-style parenting. In her mind, she imagined it as a David Sedaris-type memoir, intended to be humorous more than anything else. In fact, the book describes how (and why) she ultimately abandons the Chinese parenting style. What she realizes is that every child is different, and the same style doesn’t work on everyone. Her Tiger Mom style worked on her older daughter, but not on her younger. And interestingly, one person who helps her realize that is her own mother. Despite being a Tiger Mother herself, she warned Chua against using that style on her younger daughter, pointing to Chua’s father as a warning of what can happen when that style is applied to the wrong person. Chua’s father completely despised the Chinese parenting style that was used on him, and it caused so much conflict that he was basically estranged from his family. What Chua realizes in the end is that the Tiger Mom style doesn’t even work on all Chinese, so it can’t be the only way. And no matter what, the most important thing is to maintain love in the family.

Which gets to an interesting point about why she chose to initially adopt the Tiger Mom style: she was raised on that style and she felt like it “worked”. And by worked, she means it caused her to love her parents; she’s extremely close to them, and her family travels together regularly. Her ultimate motivation in being a Tiger Mom wasn’t “success,” but familial love. That same motivation is what caused her to abandon it.

And she really did abandon it. Both her daughters were at the talk with her, and the older daughter (a high school senior) noted that her mom is now so hands-off that she didn’t know what classes she was currently taking, and didn’t even know which colleges she was applying to. I thought that was very interesting. She also voiced the opinion that the extreme achievement culture in American education today that leaves kids exhausted and overwhelmed (cf. Race to Nowhere) is insane. I don’t think she’s nearly the Chinese mom that she’s been made out to be. Additionally, she seemed to be close to both of her daughters.

I bought what she was saying. Every child is different, and you can’t use the same style on everyone. And her main motivation, wanting to further closeness – I find it hard to quibble with that.

But the most interesting part of the talk to me was a question someone in the audience asked. She wondered if some of the techniques that worked on Chua but failed on her daughters did so simply because times are different.

That really sparked my thinking. First an aside. For me, the most interesting observation Dave made the first year he was in Korea was that the Korean culture us 2nd generation Korean-Americans were raised in wasn’t Korean culture at all, but 70s Korean culture. That’s when our parents immigrated, and they kept living that lifestyle in America, like a frozen time capsule. Things we 2nd gens we experienced in our families and assumed to be Korean culture didn’t exist in actual Korean culture anymore. A lot of it’s superficial, like the blankets we used or certain words we said. But regardless, it was a little different.

I think that frozen in time aspect happens in general with parents. The one thing parents depend on more than anything else is their own experience. They try to avoid mistakes they perceive their parents as making, and try to reproduce things that worked on them.

The thing is, just like our parents’ sense of Korean culture was frozen in time, parents’ experiences are also frozen in time, the time in which they were raised. And in the same way, they may not reflect how life is anymore.

For example, I can see how a lot of what my parents pushed for me was based on their own experience. Like with academic performance. I’m pretty sure that in 60s Korea, the single greatest determinant of life success was academic achievement. And that’s why our parents pushed it so much for us. The thing is, we all realize now (well most of us) that in America today, while education still matters a lot, its relationship to “success” is not nearly as direct as it was in Korea. It’s not the be-all-end-all in life that our parents thought it was. And I think many of realize that the relationship between going to a “top” school and being happy is even more tenuous. So we recognize that what they knew from their experience to be true, the overwhelming importance of education, isn’t so true today.

But here’s the epiphany I had: the same is true for me. Although I knew that some of the things my parents thought to be “right,” especially in terms of education, weren’t anymore, I just assumed that my understanding was better. And maybe it was, for my time. But what I realized is that what was true for me might not apply anymore in my children’s time. Like, I’ve come to believe that thinking creatively is a hugely important skill in education, much more so than the rote memorization style our parents tended to reinforce in us. But times keep changing, and maybe nowadays that creativity isn’t as important anymore. Maybe it is. The point is, I can’t just assume it; to do so would follow the same fallacy that our parents held in pushing their ways.

That applies to everything, the role of music, sports, free time, peer relationships, whatever. Maybe it’s just a 2nd generation immigrant thing, or maybe it’s just me, but I thought I knew better than my parents what the right role of all of these things were. I now realize that I don’t necessarily, and for the same reason when I thought my parents were off. Times change.

In a way, that’s kind of terrifying, realizing that nothing I think I know is right about parenting based on my own experience is, necessarily. But I think that’s true. I came away from Chua’s talk with 2 big parenting reminders. One, every child is different, and you can’t force a single parenting style on every child. Two, we have to realize that times change, so we can’t assume that was true in our day will be true and work for our own kids. Kind of humbling. I like that.

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