For The Someday Book

A Tale of Two Moms

Posted on: January 21, 2011

The two most discussed and posted parenting articles among my Facebook friends this week have been Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal,  and Mayim Bialik’s (aka “Blossom“) introduction to Attachment Parenting for the Today Show blog.

Amy Chua with her daughters. (Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien, Wall Street Journal)

Chua’s article has unleashed a firestorm of angry and wounded responses, calling her whole approach to parenting abusive and psychologically damaging. She basically argues that the role of a parent is to push their child toward perfection, even if it means hounding, fighting, resisting the child’s own desires, even to extremes. In her understanding, this enables the child to achieve greatness. Labeling herself a “tiger mom,” she believes that the child’s ego is resilient and strong, and that parental aggressiveness builds the child’s confidence that they can do the impossible. Her article analyzes the differences between what she labels as “Chinese” and “Western” parenting, and argues why her hard-nosed style is better. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder about the timing of this article, which coincides with the state visit by China’s President Hu and elaborate news coverage of economic ties and cultural dissonances between the U.S. and China.)

Mayim Bialik (Photo by Denise Herrick Borchert, The Today Show)

Mayim Bialik’s article talks more about the “what” than the “why,” but the case for attachment parenting is well known. Bialik and other attached parents argue the opposite of Chua: that the role of a parent is to be responsive to a child’s needs, to listen and nurture the whims and desires of the child, so that they might gain confidence in themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment. Bialik describes a constellation of parenting decisions usually labeled “attachment parenting,” such as extended nursing, co-sleeping, babywearing and gentle discipline. Following the lead of Dr. Sears, attachment parenting advocates believe that what children need most is unconditional love, emotional security and sensitive attention in order to develop confidence and security in their own identities.

Among my friends, Chua’s article has mostly received expressions of horror, outrage and scorn.  Bialik’s article has been lauded as a validation of “crunchy-granola” attachment parenting values from the mainstream media. (After all, it doesn’t get much more mainstream media than the Today Show.) In the interest of full disclosure, I also objected to many of the ideas in Chua’s article, and I support many of the ideas in Bialik’s article. Although we did not/do not follow all of the attachment parenting practices, I have a strong leaning in that direction.

What strikes me as far more interesting, however, are the striking similarities between the two articles. While the daily parenting styles seem completely opposed to one another, there are some fundamental identity issues and assumptions that they both share. First, both mothers are smart, well-educated and financially secure. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, and Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an ongoing acting career. Second, both mothers are passionately invested in the work of parenting. They are thoughtful and intentional about their relationships with their children. Third, they both clearly love their children and want what’s best for them, even if they have very different views of “what’s best.”

Most compelling, they share a fundamental assumption about raising children. Both approaches—the Tiger Mom and the Attached Parent—seem to believe that the child cannot thrive without constant parental attention.  Both perceive the child as a fragile creature, likely to collapse without constant intervention. The fears themselves are different: Tiger Moms fear laziness, disorganization, and lack of achievement; Attached Parents fear loss of self-esteem and a broken ego unable to form relationships. The remedies and interventions are also different: Tiger Moms believe in the power of constant nagging and force; Attached Parents believe in the power of constant reassurance and sensitivity. But, fundamentally, they both seem to work on the premise that children are fragile and incapable of growing into normal, healthy, successful adults (however you define that) without intense attention from their parents (whether direct focus or in the creation of a certain environment). I would also infer that they both share a huge weight of anxiety and responsibility over their children’s development, whether parent-led or child-led.

Observing the connection between the two articles made me realize something about my own style of parenting. Like both Chua and Bialik, I am smart, well-educated and financially secure (for the most part, although far below their income brackets). I am thoughtful and intentional in my parenting, even taking time to write about it here. I obviously love my son and want what’s best for him. I have experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over whether or not I am doing the right things as his mother. I have often felt guilty for not being more “attached,” more intense and attentive in my interactions with B. I have even occasionally felt guilty for not pushing him harder to try new things or attempt things that are difficult.

The difference is: I get over those feelings pretty quickly because I just don’t believe, like they seem to, that B is fundamentally fragile, and that the intensity of my attention (strict or sensitive) will make or break his security and success into adulthood. Part of the reason I was never very good at attached parenting is because I valued B’s independence (and my own) too much to offer him constant attention, even as an infant. Like Chua, I believe that children are strong and resilient and not easily crushed. However, like Bialik, I believe that listening responding to my child’s needs is essential to good parenting, and I could never ignore or belittle his own desires and expressed needs. We tend to strike somewhere in between–it’s what works for our family.

For B, even the sky's no limit. (Photo by revjmk)

Most importantly, I just believe that all B really needs is to know that he is loved, that we will provide for him as best as we are able, that there are clear boundaries for behavior and safety, and that we trust him with the rest. If we offer him those things, he will be alright. D.H. Lawrence once said there were three rules for raising children: “First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone.” While that’s obviously a bit extreme, I think there is some wisdom there, especially for over-anxious, over-educated, over-intentional parents like Bialik, Chua and me. I think, in the end, children need both less coddling and less prodding, less protection and less pushing than either hard core Tiger Moms or committed Attached Parents are ready to offer.

It makes me suspicious that those two styles of parenting and most others are more about our needs than about our children’s. Like our need to believe we can protect our children from all hurt and harm. Or our need to believe that our efforts can somehow create ideal children–whether that ideal is success, brilliance, happiness, creativity, freedom or anything else.  Or our need to control our lives, and by extension our children’s, to ward off fear and anxiety about the unknown. Or our need to heal the wounds of our own childhood. Or our need to prove our worth through the accomplishments of our children. Or any other variety of normal adult longings and anxieties.

But children are people too. From an early age, they show their own preferences and choices, their own fears and desires, and their own ways of being in the world. They will all grow up to make their own mistakes and carry their own wounds, including some from their parents, no matter what we do. We love them, listen to them, be there for them, try to do what we think is best for them, pray we are right about what is best for them, and trust they will be O.K. in the end. Amazingly, most of them are.

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5 Responses to "A Tale of Two Moms"

I hadn’t heard about the Tiger Mom thing, but (obviously) was loving the Blossom post earlier this week.

I think everyone who’s into attachment parenting does it differently, but IMHO, I don’t think AP is about paying constant attention to your child. I think it’s just about allowing them to be present with you and experience the world in ways that are developmentally appropriate. And – most of all – it’s about falling deeper and deeper in love with your child, simply be being around them. For example – babywearing. A parent who babywears will sometimes get crap from other parents b/c we aren’t allowing them to explore the world on their own and learn from their toys, etc. Or people will say, “Don’t they get bored just riding around with you?” But babywearers are just trying to get done what adults need to do – walking, cooking, cleaning, working – and baby is along for the ride. This is far from being overly child-oriented. Instead, it’s just allowing baby to fit into the family system as it exists. I think a lot of AP is like that – cosleeping (they just join the family sleep situation), breastfeeding (they just latch on when they feel hungry), etc. To me, AP is all about trusting that if you’re just with your baby and follow their lead, they will be okay.

On an (almost) unrelated note – I just found out today that Dr. Sears has an ENTIRE BOOK about Christian parenting. Who knew?!? I didn’t even know he was Christian and I have read several of his books. I’m interested to see what he has to say.

Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. I was hesitant to post this, because it risks “mommy wars,” but I was so intrigued by the connection I wanted to put it out there.

I definitely agree with your summary of AP–those are the big things I take away about AP, and incorporate into our family life. I love your line about “trusting that if you’re just with your baby.” I think that’s exactly what I was trying to get at toward the end, but couldn’t find as accurate a way to express.

Your reply reminds me about the difference between the ideas in books (Dr. Sears) and the way people (not you) can codify them into rigid rules and practices. It’s like the difference between John Calvin (personal theological depth and spiritual exploration) and Calvinism (a series of rules, doctrines and principles to follow)–which don’t even always match up. I knew at the time I was speaking in generalities, but I realize now that I was also probably writing more with the practices than the theory in mind. In particular, it was in response to the commentary that flew around surrounding these two articles. It was in that anxiety-laden conversation — praising Bialik and demonizing Chua, growing shrill and adamant about the evils of NOT doing particular AP practices — that I picked up the similarities between the two.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of rigid-based plans. Or demonization. 🙂

Thank you for this, dear friend. I’m hoping to strike a similar balance in my own life. I look to mothers like you and Caela to mentor by example and I’m grateful for the way you articulate the very things I’m thinking about.

This is like manna for this mama-to-be.

Thanks for this, I was just trying to put some words to this same idea earlier today, not nearly as articulately.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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