Thursday, February 10, 2011


To say that parents cause trouble is akin to commenting on the religion of the Pope. The suggestion that parents are not always adequate has been around for centuries, though no-one has made this statement of the blindingly obvious more eloquently than Phillip Larkin . I’m struck though that Amy Chua’s recent book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” manages to open up a whole new perspective on this (by now rather jaded) subject. In particular, for those of us who have disregarded Larkin’s advice not to have the knee-biters ourselves, Chua’s book helpfully signals open season on people who don’t share our own parenting style. The troubles with parents are clearly legion but Chua gets us to focus on the trouble with other parents.

In case you’ve been on holiday on Jupiter and missed the global phenomenon that is Amy Chua (and if you can’t be bothered reading her book) she helpfully summarises her arguments in a Wall Street Journal article. It’s a memoir of aspirational parenting taken to... well some would say extremes but I’m not here to judge (at least not for another few lines). The details are already becoming legendary: children compelled to practice piano and violin for hours on end, forbidden to come second in any subject, not allowed play-dates and even called “garbage” when disrespectful. All of this is justified within a framework of allegedly “Chinese” parenting (Chua is Chinese-American) set up as superior to the wussy western version. A sharp intake of breath has been heard all over Europe and North-America accompanied by speculation as to why book has attracted so much attention. (My favourite is the New Yorker take-down suggesting that the book’s success reflects American fear of China’s economic rise). In a town like Lewes, where you do occasionally wonder if it’s acceptable to stop breastfeeding before your child starts university, the shock is amplified through the megaphone of middle-class, right-on guilt.

The reasons for the enormous attention seem more mundane than geo-political considerations though. I’d suggest it’s because the trouble with parents is that, when they’re not worrying that they’re wrong, they are thinking that other parents are. Are there any parents who haven’t had at least a twinge of superiority? The person down the road has kids that are too wild or too quiet. Those parents push too hard or indulge the little brats. My kids go to bed at the right time but look at their lot: black rings under their eyes! For those of us who have raised our kids during the Gina Ford wars Amy Chua is late to the party. We’ve been slugging it out over routines versus demand led parenting for years. In some ways though the battle seems more important than the path you choose. After all having children is an awesome responsibility and, sometimes overwhelmingly demanding. Most of us struggle with parenting and there is nothing that boosts confidence more than a good snipe at others. Maybe a bit of moral superiority gets us through. We all need a crutch sometimes. Even tiger mothers.

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