There is no one perfect way to raise model children
I must admit I am terribly scared of leaving my one-year-old daughter alone with my wife. And I blame Yale Law School professor Amy Chua for my paranoia.
My little one was born barely three months after Chua horrified the Western world with her parenting memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, which unapologetically presumed the superior efficacy of harsh, traditional Chinese parenting. In the bestselling book, Chua listed all the fun things she denied her daughters, which many in the West consider to be essential ingredients of childhood.
She also proudly mentioned subjecting her daughters to hours of academic and music drills with no water, dinner or bathroom breaks, and lashings of public shame — including calling her daughter “garbage” in front of many at a dinner party.
Harried mums around the Western world were soon threatening their children with making “Aunt Amy” adopt them if they did not listen to their mummies.
I neither share Chua’s Chinese parenting methods nor the Western world’s outraged reaction. I am an Indian. But what left me — a self-confessed cuddly, teddy-bear dad — worried about my daughter’s growing years was Chua’s recent remark that India’s tiger mums may outnumber China’s.
Hold on, I do not hear anything from the other room. Let me check what my wife and baby are doing.
All is fine; they are both sleeping. Phew!
Anyway, if Chua’s belief is accurate, it would mark a tectonic shift in the make-up of an Indian mother, eternally glorified by Bollywood films as a doting, protective and weepy mortal who makes a living out of begging her husband to forgive her child for all the mistakes that the little one may or may not have committed.
It has historically been the job of an Indian father to be the tough taskmaster, to instill discipline into children and make sure that they adhere to familial hierarchy and societal order.
The general belief in India is that ‘the arrangement’ has worked out just fine for Indian families.
But that does not stop most Indian mums from believing that every single Indian dad does cross the line of ‘healthy control’ at least once in his lifetime — especially when it comes to his daughter’s marriage or son’s career.
So this February, despite knowing me for about a decade, my wife started getting suspicious all over again about my parenting instincts when she saw a video of a Chinese businessman forcing his four-year-old to run nearly naked and do pushups in the New York snow. The boy’s crying pleas to stop did nothing to melt his dad’s heart.
“When the old eagle teaches its young, it takes the young eagles to the cliffside, beats them, and pushes them to teach them to use their wings,” the father told a Chinese newspaper.
As I said, I am not that kind of father. But whoever said escaping a stereotype is easy, especially if it gets reinforced by a global sensation — which, these days, seems to mean everything Chinese.
So there we are — an Indian household where both partners suspect the other one of being a tough Chinese parent beneath the brown skin. At times it gets to a point where our baby almost begins to get confused about her roots.
Putting my strange little world aside however, normally it is the confusion in parents’ minds that gives birth to most parenting-related debates — confusion about the best method to enable children to evolve into culturally well-groomed, financially self-reliant and socially well-respected adults.
In her book, Chua tries to distinguish Asian parenting from that in the West by highlighting the difference between the ‘degree of strictness’ that the two sets of parents make use of. She says that her Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day, or an hour at most. “For a Chinese mother,” she writes, “the first hour is the easy part. It’s the second and the third hours that get tough.”
Alan Paul, author of “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing”, believes the approach stems from the historical structure of the Chinese society.
“It’s easy to understand a traditional Chinese drive for perfection in children: it is a huge nation with a long history of people thriving at the top and scraping by at the bottom without much in between.”
In India, it is science textbooks instead of instruments. Parents often ask their children to immerse themselves in equations and theories, especially around the times of numerous weekly and monthly tests. The pitch gets raised just prior to the big annual examination, leading to an embargo on sports and television.
But while Indian parents (generally) indeed go harder at their children than their Western counterparts, they do not tend to match up to the Tiger Mum or Eagle Dad stereotypes of Chinese parents.
Part of the reason behind the approach can be explained again in the historical context. India has a well-entrenched caste system, which for many centuries decided the future of every child born. So worrying too much about the child’s predetermined place in society as an adult did not make much sense.
“Let her (or him) be; it’s the age to enjoy” is one of the most common responses across India whenever questions are raised about less-than-perfect conduct of a young adult.
That particular aspect, interestingly, brings Indian parenting slightly closer to Western parenting attitudes than the Chinese model. Myth of a common Asian parenting style, anyone?
Clearly, most parenting styles, if not all, draw heavily from socio-historical context. The outward manifestations may not necessarily reflect the latent intent of the method.
In her book, Chua writes, “Many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”
And therein lay the crux of parenting for me: Good advice can be found in various styles of parenting. No parenting style — neither Western nor Asian, if there is any such monolith after all — is perfect. And there is therefore no such thing as the perfect parent.
For now, my wife and I have made a pact. To begin with, we will trust each other with the baby. And then work towards coming up with our own style of parenting for the best of our child.
Would that be an Asian style of parenting? Who cares! AR