Reflections of a Failed Tiger Mother: What is a Good Parent?

A year and a half ago, I sat in a room with the deputy head of my child’s school.  We discussed my child’s academic difficulties, and my frustrations.  ‘Whatever I do, I can’t get my child motivated to work hard in school,’  I said. ‘If I insist that she do her homework – and do it to a high standard – she ignores me until I annoy her so much with my nagging that she throws a huge tantrum.  Then she spends the rest of the evening recovering from the tantrum, instead of doing her homework.   I want her to do well in school and reach her potential, but she thinks I’m pushy and not allowing her space to “be herself”.  But I don’t know how to encourage her without coming across as domineering and bossy.’

Finally I said, ‘I just feel like I have to change my whole personality in order to be a good parent.’

Have you ever felt that there was something about you that simply wasn’t up to the challenges of parenting?  Just what kind of a person do you have to be if you are to be a good parent?

I could give here a whole list of qualities which I think define a good parent.  However, a more philosophical approach to this question is to look at what we think the purpose of parenting might be.  Taking inspiration from Aristotle, we can argue that what we are trying to achieve with our parenting is what dictates the kind of person we need to be in our parenting.

Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mother

In January 2011, Amy Chua published her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which soon became a bestseller (and she and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, have just published another book, The Triple Package, which looks at why certain groups in society excel more than others).  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother details her struggles to raise her two girls in a way similar to the way she was raised by her Chinese immigrant parents.  Chua’s parents were very strict – they allowed no A minuses, demanded music and math drills every day, forbade their girls to have sleepovers or boyfriends, and so forth.  When Chua tried to follow something like this same pattern with her own children, fierce rebellion ensued, forcing Chua to resort at times to rather extreme methods to get her children to obey.

Chua was roundly criticized for being too harsh and demanding as a mother.  Yet, her methods paid off:  one of her girls now attends Harvard, and the other attends Yale.

If Amy Chua is a tiger mother, then I’m a failed tiger mother.   This means that I set the strict rules, communicated the high expectations, insisted on the good work ethic, and endured the screaming matches, but didn’t achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead of resulting in a stellar candidate for an elite college, these methods seemed to create only anger and defiance in my oldest child.

I’m not saying that these methods are bad; indeed, in general I still try to parent this way (except for the screaming matches).  But I’ve had to change my perspective concerning the outcome I am trying to achieve with these methods.  And because I now see myself trying to achieve a different outcome, I have also come to change my perspective on of the kind of person I need to be to as a parent.

The Drill Sergeant = Good Parent?

When my oldest child was small, she impressed people with her charm, insight, boundless energy, and prodigious conversation skills.  Everyone who knew her was sure she had great academic potential.  Yet, when she started school, she somehow failed kindergarten (?!!).  My husband and I thought this was surely a mistake.  But in the next year, she had difficulties, and then the year after that.  She started to hate going to school, complaining every day that she felt sick so that she wouldn’t have to go.

By this time I was tearing my hair out, looking for anything I could find to help her in school.  She was diagnosed with ADHD, but I was sure she still had great potential.  I just had to unlock it.  I decided the best way to do this was through math and reading drills, and lots of them.  Thus began a ten year journey in which I insisted she do extra work every day so that she could keep up in school.   Music practice was also an important way to develop the brain, so daily practice was required as well.   The problem, of course, was that she didn’t want to do this extra work.  So, the conflict started.

The thing about conflict is that it tends to escalate.   I found myself turning into some kind of hard-nosed drill sergeant in order to get her to do her school work and practicing.  I was intolerant of laziness and unsympathetic to any complaints about how much she hated her work.  I was there to help her achieve.  But the more I stood my ground, the more she pushed back, and eventually our relationship started to suffer.

Now here I was, a miserable drill sergeant with a miserable subordinate, and I started to wonder:  what was the end goal here?  Was it to do well in school?  To what end?  So that she could get into a good college?  Was that the whole of my purpose as a parent?  Of course, I knew that it wasn’t, and yet, I was acting like it was.  As a result, those parts of my personality that I needed to achieve that purpose – things like focus, determination, inflexibility, industriousness, etc – were becoming the dominant ones.  And important as these qualities are, you need more than these to build a family.  I decided I needed to change.

What is the Purpose of a Parent?

As I reflected on the kind of person I wanted to be as parent, I was reminded of a question that Aristotle posed in his book, The Politics.  He asks whether the ‘goodness’ of a good citizen and the ‘goodness’ of a good man are the same thing.  In order to answer this question, he says we first have to define what it means to be a good citizen.  A good citizen, he argues, is one who fulfills his ‘task’, or purpose, which is to preserve the regime in which he lives, by doing his job well within the regime, obeying the laws and etc.  Now, there are different kinds of regimes with different kinds of laws, and some regimes have laws that do not encourage virtuous behavior.  Since a good man is defined as the virtuous man – that is, as the man who understands the moral concept of what is ‘good’ and lives according to it – it is therefore not the case that the good citizen will always be the same as a good man.   The ‘goodness’ of the citizen is defined by his purpose, which may or may not require him to also be a good person.

In the same way, we can ask if the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person.  And I think Aristotle’s insight is useful here:  a ‘good’ parent is defined by his purpose.  The problem is that different people have different views on the purpose of a parent.  And some of those purposes might not, in and of themselves, be moral or virtuous ones.  For instance, if the purpose of a parent is to, say, ensure the child becomes a professional tennis player, then the parent doesn’t necessarily have to be a virtuous person in order to fulfill this purpose.  They do have to be focused, determined, hardworking (to pay for all those tennis lessons!), and so forth, but these qualities by themselves do not make a person bad or good, since they can be used to accomplish bad or good ends.

By Aristotle’s reasoning, then, the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person when the parent sees herself as having a moral purpose.  For me, the point is not just to raise a child to be a concert pianist, or an Olympic diver, or a Harvard graduate.  It is to raise children who want to be good.  It is to raise children who love God, and who understand the difference between right and wrong.  It is to raise children who want to reach out and help others, who have the self-confidence and moral vision to form meaningful relationships, cope with difficulties, and live purposeful lives.  It is to raise children who have the capacity to love.

So, if this is my purpose as a parent, I have to try – sometimes really hard – to be a good person.  I can’t lead my children toward these ends if I’m not trying to reach them myself.  The ‘drill sergeant’ qualities can be useful, but they aren’t sufficient.   And the quality I need most to be a good person, and to help my kids be good, is total, unconditional love.

The Mom versus the Drill Sergeant   

At 6:00am this morning, our house was permeated with a strong smell.  It took me a while to figure it out, and then I realized that it was the smell of some essential oils that are supposed to facilitate mental focus and concentration.  Then I remembered that my oldest child had some very important tests she had to take today.  These are tests which everyone in the state of California has to take in order to graduate from high school.  ‘Everyone says they’re really easy, mom,’ she told me.  ‘But watch me be the first person to fail them.’

My heart went out to her this morning as I realized how worried she must have been to put on all those oils.  And that’s when I realized how far I’ve come as a parent.  A few years ago, I probably would have worried a lot about her test scores.  But today, all I worried about was her.

She’ll come home tonight, and I’ll ask her how her tests went.  If she tells me they went badly, I can say with confidence that I won’t freak out.  I’ll give her a hug, and I’ll tell her how proud I am of her for trying her best.  We’ll sit on her bed and talk about how she can always take it again next year.   I’ll tell her that everything will work out.

My purpose as a parent is much broader and deeper than to ensure my child’s academic success.  It is to raise a good human being.  I can feel myself becoming a better human being as I try to do that.  Really, that’s what being a good parent is all about.

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Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

Since my blog started  two months ago, I have had two commentators cite the following quote by C. S. Lewis:

‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman).  But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.  What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?  As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it.  So your job is the one for which all others exist.’

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Was C. S. Lewis Right?

I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, which is a highly competitive all-women’s school.  For some reason, when I reflect on Lewis’s quote, I often think of Wellesley.

Wellesley was full of very ambitious women – who were, I hasten to add, also very lovely (the following is not meant as a criticism of any of them, just an observation).  Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc.  Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.  Were they undertaking all that education just to be part of a support network that ultimately focused on enabling families to function well and be happy?

That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either.    Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they?  And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes?  It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were grueling and would require everything we had to succeed.  Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home.  And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.  (I say it was an open secret, because this conflict always seemed to me to be swept under the carpet).

When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home.  Bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists were all invited to speak.  I never heard them speak of their home lives.

So, my point is that if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was?  If the job we have in our homes, with our families, is the job for which all other jobs exist, then why do we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?

I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight.  Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Is it Politics?

Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’.   He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’.  The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed.  Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.

Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view.  Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.

Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science.  In an earlier entry, I explained that Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness.  Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object.  Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art. ’

Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as it’s object.  Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve.  It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like.  Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness.   Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent.  So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.

Now, there is a problem here.  To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous.  Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’.  We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.

This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism.  As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built.  Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.

One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that the freedoms, or rights, that we have in our society should not be based upon any particular conception of the ‘good life’ for human beings.  In other words, governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life.  After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness (remember that for Aristotle these are the same thing – a good life is a happy life).  If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions.  The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.

Parenting as the Master Art

Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t.  Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies.  And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria.  Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.

It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent.  It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be.  It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life.  And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings.   That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them.  Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.

I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.

Impeding the Development of Our Children’s Moral Reasoning: The Case of Porn

In philosophy, moral reasoning is the reasoning process by which we identify what is good and what is bad.  I think that as parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to develop this moral reasoning in our children.

Just how we as parents are supposed to do this is a rather big question, but here’s a way in:  Aristotle points out that when we reason about what is ‘good’, this process involves not only the mind, but also the passions.  Our passions affect our moral reasoning, no matter who we are.  If we have learned to control our passions, then we reason well about what is good and what is bad.  If we have not learned to control our passions, then we do not reason well about these things.

Unhealthy, Uncontrolled Passion

Now, if Aristotle’s idea that our passions affect our moral reasoning is at all true, then we as parents have a mighty challenge on our hands.  This is because, more and more, we live in a world that does not encourage people to control their passions.

There are lots of examples of this, but perhaps the most obvious one is the explosion of the porn industry.

Please allow me a ‘mother bear’ moment.  Do you know how many porn sites there are on the internet?  A recent GQ article by Scott Christian (http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-feed/2013/11/10-reasons-why-you-should-quit-watching-porn.html) estimated it at 420 million.  Porn is everywhere, and more children and teens are watching porn regularly than ever before.  According to Christian, in a survey of porn users, 53% said they developed a porn habit between the ages of 12-14, and 16% started watching before they were 12.  That means that almost 70% of porn users started viewing porn by age 14.  Porn is, if anything, a parenting issue.

The problem is that porn is not some harmless pastime.  Scientific studies have shown that a porn addict’s brain looks exactly like a drug addict’s brain.  As the website Fight the New Drug (http://www.fightthenewdrug.org/get-the-facts) explains, this is because, like drugs, exposure to porn releases unnaturally high levels of the chemical dopamine, which goes straight to the reward center of the brain and causes a ‘high’.  As a porn user gets addicted to that high, physical changes happen in his brain such that he needs more and more exposure to porn to get the same kind of high as before, just like a drug addict needs more and more drugs to get high.

But that need for ‘more exposure’ to porn is devastating. What it means is that the porn user needs ‘constant newness’ in order to get sexually aroused.  According to Christian, those porn addicts who were surveyed experienced a decline in arousal with the same mate, while those who ‘regularly found different mates were able to continue their arousal’.  No surprise, then, that regular porn users report an increasing disinterest in sex with their partner.

The need for ‘constant newness’, however, goes further – so often regular porn users are driven to seek more deviant forms of porn in order to get aroused.  These more deviant forms portray violence and humiliating, abusive behavior as sexually exciting.

However, a warning:  before we start feeling relieved that our kids have never seen the more extreme kind of porn,   Fight the New Drug argues that violence in porn is not just relegated to the more deviant kind.  A few years ago a study was done of the 50 most popular porn films, and it was found that of the 304 scenes the movies contained, 88% of them contained physical violence.  To make matters worse, in 95% of these violent scenes, the target of this violence – which in the vast majority of scenes was a woman – had either a neutral response to the violence, or responded with pleasure!

In effect, porn is training the appetites of a whole generation of people to be oriented toward violent sex.

Not only does porn give the user an appetite for unhealthy sex, it also distorts the user’s view of relationships.  Porn portrays an unrealistic world in which digitally doctored images of people ‘enjoy’ dangerous sex acts.  Fight the New Drug reports that studies show that porn users are more critical of and dissatisfied with their partner’s appearance, sexual curiosity and sexual performance.  They also report being less in love with their partner, and are cynical about romantic love and marriage.  Porn trains the user to see sex as a performance with objects, instead of understanding it as something that happens with a real person, who has thoughts and feelings and an imperfect body.  Frankly, as Fight the New Drug so aptly puts it, porn kills love.

Passion and Moral Reasoning  

Fortunately, there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence informing us of these harmful effects of porn, particularly that porn leads a person to have a warped perspective on what is ‘good’ in key life issues like committed relationships.  Yet, philosophy, too, can play a role in illuminating why porn might be damaging to a person in this way.  Of course, there are some philosophical theories which support porn.  But I’m going to discuss here Aristotle’s theory of moral reasoning, which holds that any passion, if it has not been trained to be expressed in the right way, can seriously alter a person’s perspective on what the ‘good life’ is for humans.

I’ve been writing lately about Aristotle’s concept of the virtuous person, and about how he suggests we teach human beings to be virtuous.  Those ideas are all relevant here, because for Aristotle, the defining characteristic of the virtuous person is that he excels at moral reasoning.

So, if we know how to teach virtue, then we know how to teach moral reasoning.  I mentioned in a previous entry that for Aristotle, we learn to be virtuous in a two-part process.   The first part of the process is where we learn to love the good, by repeating good actions over and over again, which trains our passions to love acting in the right way.  The second part of the process comes later, where we learn, through rational explanation, to understand the good.

Let’s look more closely at what Aristotle thinks happens in each part of the process.

The first part is a process of what we can call ‘pre-rational habituation’.  This is where a person is taught to develop habits before they are sufficiently rational to understand why those habits are good.  So, for instance, from the time your child is very young, you develop in him the habit of helping other people.  You take him to visit old people who are housebound.  You ensure that he helps you make a meal for a sick neighbor, or look after your friend’s children, and so forth.  You might talk to your child while you do these things about how it is good to think about other people; you might even explain that your family is part of a community and has a responsibility to help those who are having a hard time.  Yet, the child doesn’t really understand the concepts of unselfishness or community; but his passions are becoming trained to identify helping others as ‘good’.

The second phase of becoming virtuous happens when the child is older, when he is ready to understand rational arguments about what is good.  One characteristic of the virtuous person is that she understands not only ‘that’ something is good, but also what Aristotle calls the ‘why’: she has a mature understanding of why something is good.

So, this second phase is about focusing more specifically on the young person’s ability to reason about what is good.  It is done by getting him to think upon what is good for human beings, so that he develops a reflective understanding of that good. And yet, even though this phase focuses on engaging the reason, Aristotle thinks this rational reflection upon the good involves both the mind and the passions.  That is, if our passions have been trained to love what is good, then – and only then – are we in a state of mind where we are able to identify and understand what is good.

For instance, continuing the example above, during this phase you can have mature, meaningful discussions with your child about the concepts of compassion, unselfishness, and the importance of community.  Because he has had positive experiences with these values, he will be able to reflect on, and understand, why these things are good.

I can’t stress enough Aristotle’s point of how our passions have a profound effect upon our understanding of what is good.  For him it is so important that he thinks that someone whose passions have been trained to love what is not good will be unable to take on a true conception what is good when someone tries to explain it to him.  In other words, moral teaching cannot be done with someone who has not been taught to love the good.  They love the wrong things, and are therefore ‘blinded’ by their passions, such that their concept of the ‘good life’ for humans is far removed from what is really good for humans.

The Effect of Porn Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning 

Of course Aristotle could be wrong about how our passions influence our reasoning about what is right and good.  But I think he has made some rather astute observations of human nature here.  And those observations are helpful in showing why we need to fight with everything we have to protect our kids from porn.

Exposure to porn trains a person’s passions to love unhealthy things.  And this would be especially true of children, since childhood is the time where our passions are first trained.  Childhood is so important that, although in later life we may be able to ‘retrain’ our passions, what we learn during that time stays with us forever.

So, make no mistake, if our children view porn, that will be not only their sex education, but also a large part of their relationship education.  And when we come to discuss with them what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about sex and relationships, their passions – trained by porn – will affect their ability to rationally reflect about what a good, loving relationship might be.

Consider these points:  If porn trains them to love ‘constant newness’ in sexual experiences, then it will affect their understanding of the idea that it is ‘good’ to be faithful to one’s partner.

If it trains them to love digitally doctored images, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of the whole person – warts and all – in a sexual relationship (especially when childbirth, breastfeeding, and the aging process will make that digitally perfect body yet even more elusive for us mere mortals).

If it trains them to love sexual violence, then it will affect their understanding that rape is ‘bad’, that verbal and physical abuse is ‘bad’, and that a relationship where people gently kiss, cuddle and speak respectfully and lovingly to each other is ‘good’.

If it trains them to perceive and ‘love’ sex as a one-way digital experience, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of building a life partnership with a real person, where that person is not a mere object, but someone who has opinions and feelings that matter.

The Effect of Us Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning

However, I see a silver lining here.

If there is some truth to the idea that what we love has an impact on our moral reasoning, then we as parents have a challenge, but we also have an opportunity.

Instead of waiting for what seems to be the inevitable seduction of our children by the porn industry, we can use Aristotle’s insight to empower our children against it.  We can train their passions to love the antidotes to porn:  faithfulness, openness, honesty, kindness, compassion, respect, equality, gentleness, unselfishness, and love.  When they are young, they may not understand why these values are good, but they will feel that they are good.  When they are older, we can employ the love they have for these values to help them rationally reflect on the ‘why’ – on why they are a constituent part of the good life, and on why porn is antithetical to them.

That way, when the time comes that they are exposed to porn, they have a fighting chance to use their well-grounded moral reasoning to see it for what it is:  bad for human beings.

Addendum:

How do you think we can train children to love the ‘antidotes’ to porn?  Over to you …