Parents as Tigers and Wimps: Cycles in Child Rearing and Schooling

Amy Chua at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Aust...

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Amy Chua may be laughing all the way to the bank at the fuss she kicked up about her tough-love parenting of daughters–no sleepovers–in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  Time magazine reports that her Wall Street Journal op-ed garnered over a million readers, 5000 comments, and an animation made in Taiwan.

For educated, financially comfortable non-Tiger Moms, however, the thought of giving up “Baby Mozarts,” chants of “well done” to build self- esteem, and, yes, even sleepovers–is too much.  In response to Tiger Moms, Ayelet Waldman says, developing empathy in children, nurturing them, and giving them room to decide things for themselves, while still achieving high grades and gathering awards, are traits that she and other non-Tiger Moms want to develop.

Competing ways of rearing children, of course is nothing new. Since the 17th century, ministers, mothers, and, later, physicians, and psychologists have written manuals to guide parents in raising children. Historians have analyzed these advice manuals. What they have found are basically two child rearing models that are similar to Tiger Moms and Guilty, Nurturing Moms.

I label them Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent. Of course, these models–see George Lakoff’s version–span a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Many parents use hybrids of the two in their families.

Strict parent model teaches children right from wrong by setting clear rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishments, typically mild to moderate but sufficiently painful to get attention. When rules are followed and children cooperate, parents show love and appreciation. Children are not coddled since a spoiled child seldom learns  proper behavior. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant by following the rules and listening to parents.

Nurturing parent model teaches children right from wrong through respect, empathy, and a positive relationship with parents. Children obey because they love their parents, not out of fear of punishment. Parents explain their decisions to children and encourage questioning and contributing ideas to family decisions. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being nurtured and caring for others.

No surprise that these competing models of child rearing have entered schools. Parents want their schools to be extensions of what is taught at home. Nor is it a surprise that the ideological and practical conflicts in schools today are anchored in these rival approaches to child-rearing.

In the early 19th century, for example, taxpayers, parents, and public officials saw public schools as proper places for the tenets of Protestant Christianity, steeped in Biblical views of parental authority, where teachers would teach that disobedience was a sin. Thus, raising children to respect authority, be self-disciplined, and know right from wrong–the Strict Parent model– was expected in one-room schoolhouses and, later, age-graded elementary schools. This dominant Strict Parent model of raising and schooling children was viewed as natural and, best for children and society before and after the Civil War.

In the late 19th century, another view  (history of progressivism schools PDF)  emerged challenging the religious-based popular model of child-rearing. The onslaught of industrialization, rapid urban growth, an emerging middle-class, and massive immigration spurred reformers to advocate a more “progressive” view of how best to raise and school children. Confined initially to manuals for middle-class parents, readers were urged to cultivate the innate goodness of children rather than dwell on their potential sinfulness. Parental love and example, not punishment, would produce respect for authority, self-discipline, and moral rigor in children.

For post-Civil War urban reformers who saw hard-working immigrant parents living in  slums, traditional schools were inadequate. They got schools to expand their usual duties and take on nurturing roles that families had once discharged. Schools offered medical care, meals, lessons to build moral character including respect for authority and job preparation. Teachers were expected to develop children’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacities to produce mature adults who acted responsibly. This rival ideology became the progressive model of schooling.

By World War I, then, these competing progressive and traditional ideologies constituted different faiths in the best way of raising and schooling children. These beliefs had become embedded in educators’ language and school programs thus creating a platform for subsequent struggles over what “good” schools were and should be. The “culture wars” since the 1960s over teaching reading, math, science, and other content in schools are variations of this century-long see-saw struggle of ideas over what ways are best to raise and school children.

Today’s media hullabaloo over Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom and angry rebuttals from many parents (and grandparents) are at the root of the traditional vs. progressive cyclical conflicts that have ebbed and flowed over what reforms work best in U.S. schools.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, Reforming schools

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