BEWARE THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER
The hot-housing of children’s education is a long way from the invitation to love and curiosity God would have us make to them.
At first I assumed it must be a joke. Amy Chua’s book, ‘World on Fire’ had opened my eyes to see how many of the ethnic conflicts around the world are rooted in economic inequality, where a minority ethnic group is often in possession of resources that the majority ethnic group is deprived of and how pogroms are shaped by this imperative. So when I heard about the Yale professor’s text on raising children (‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’) I was sure it would contain the same measured and sensitive approach to the domestic realm that she had shown in handling global affairs.
Then I heard about the hot-housing of her children, how they were deprived of any sleep-overs and play dates, any days off or slack time in the pursuit of unstinting academic and musical excellence. Of how every medal must be gold and where any second place brings stigma on the family. Of how she once screamed at her young child at the piano: ‘if the next time it’s not PERFECT, I’m going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM’.
Welcome to parenting Chinese-style, allegedly.
The western media has gorged itself on the iniquities of Chua’s idiosyncratic approach to parenting because it presents such an easy target. Amid the hostility generated, some have lauded the results it achieves – her children have turned out brilliant, although given she is a professor of law there was a more than fighting chance they would have anyway – and painted this tale onto the mistrustful canvass of how China is going to take over the world. Meanwhile others have used her story to ask some pertinent questions about the indulging of western children.
Anyone treading on the territory of child-rearing should do so carefully. Having children of your own merely reminds you of your own inherent lack of parenting skills and so what I offer here is with a wary sense of inadequacy. The golden rule that we should love God and love our neighbours as ourselves is the one that best informs our parenting. Knowing the love of God is the greatest state to which one could aspire and children are best made aware of this in the modelling of their parents. We would rather this were not true because it sets the kind of high standard to which we are usually averse in life – a fact which fed the hysterical yet tellingly insecure reaction to Chua’s approach. Thankfully every parent can call upon the redeeming grace of God in their inadequacy.
A child who is inducted into the love of God is freed to love themselves for whom they are, finding a true self-esteem in being a child of God for whom Christ died. From this sense of worth comes the integrity and security from which the needs of others may be addressed. Love generates empathy in large doses, enabling a child to connect emotionally with the concerns of others without having to refer back habitually to the introspective impulse of a fragile ego.
If all this is achieved, the rest, including a child’s education, is detail.
Well, that’s the theology anyway.
In reality we raise our children in specific cultures which are as powerful in shaping their lives as the duties we owe them. Those who sneer at Amy Chua’s crazed instincts would do well to remember the social environment children are raised in today, one which privileges appearance over character; possessions over relationships and rights over responsibilities. If children grow up with a warped sense of what matters in life it is because the generation above them has bequeathed it them. We mostly prefer not to think of it like that because it is so much easier to blame young people for the way they turn out, as if they were responsible for their own parenting and the surrounding culture in which it happens.
Those who aspire to offer children an education worthy of the God who creates and redeems them should hope to inculcate a life-long desire to learn more about the world, to foster a lively curiosity which endlessly enquires. We have carefully crafted an education system which is designed to get children through examinations in the hope that they will get jobs which pay lots of money. In this context we parents collude by stressing endlessly over grades. It is almost impossible not to breathe this fervid atmosphere yet it tends to produce anxious and competitive children. A rounded and imaginative generation of children deserves so much better, if only we had the courage of the quiet convictions that lie disturbed but unspoken in the hearts of love we have for those we brought into the world.
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