An End to Fear-Based Parenting – The Middle Way
By Randy Colton Rolfe
(This is a long entry but please read and pass it on!)
Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal last week has caused quite a commotion. Titled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," (Chua has since said she was not responsible for the article's title and doesn't agree), the article was excerpted from her new book, a memoire of her parenting experience so far.
There is no question that American parenting in general has become way too lax in the last 15 years. But the Draconian approach which is described in the article - and from which Chua herself acknowledges in her book she eventually moved away - is no better. There is a third way, which I have advocated for over 30 years, based on my personal experience, decades counseling thousands of families, and much study and research.
Since Chua and I are both attorneys and have both taught law school, it is interesting that we chose such different approaches to parenting. Following the path of what she believed to be her Chinese heritage, Chua chose to lay down the law for her children and to enforce it, as would police, judge, jury, and sheriff. She asserted her control by deciding for her daughters what they should be learning and how they should perform and not concerning herself with what their interests might be.
In contrast, I chose to treat the law as a last resort, just as it is in the larger society. Basically, people go to lawyers and court battles only as a last resort, to avoid for the good of society resorting to fisticuffs or despair. My approach was to do all the things that should be done in the larger society to prevent reaching that point of open conflict and desperation which requires judges and judgment, instead cultivating behaviors like listening carefully, expressing my own thoughts clearly, giving as much freedom as possible so long as no harm would occur, being firm and persuasive when limits were necessary, allowing time to find common ground when there’s resistance, and having faith that things will eventually work out.
This approach may sound a lot more complicated than just laying down the law and insisting on obedience, but in practice, this way is actually easier and makes for much less stress and pain on both sides, while nothing is lost. When children, like other people, do things for their own reasons, they do a lot better job. Even if they will finally get parental praise at the end, that praise does not create the same kind of internal motivation which comes from doing something well because you want to do it. In the latter case, you don’t even care much about praise.
The term tough love is applied incorrectly to the kind of parenting Chua’s article describes. Withholding respect and love by making it conditional on performance is the opposite of the meaning of tough love as originally developed in the handling of difficult – namely, addicted - people. Tough love refers to the drawing of boundaries and limits in relationships while still showing respect, patience, love, and faith in the person. There is no place for verbal or emotional abuse in the concept of tough love. Even if Chua claims that Chinese parents regularly use shaming in their parenting, it seems a shame to me, since it is entirely unnecessary and is likely to leave wounds which must be healed later.
It is my firm belief, and my experience in counseling thousands of parents, that being concerned about being in control is one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make. If you think your authority is threatened by a child, you have already lost it. If you behave as if they can actually defy you, then they certainly will try, and if you act as if they are defying you, you have already lost your authority and they will inevitably feel insecure and test you further, until you get it that you are in control by definition, by virtue of your position as parent.
Kids want a parent to be in control, to guide, protect, and direct them, while respecting their evolving personhood. It’s their job as developing humans to push the envelope, but they absolutely count on there being an envelope! That’s where so many modern American families have gone wrong. They forget that they are the envelope. They must set the limits on TV, computer, smart phone, video games, dirty talk, disrespect, and inappropriate behavior. But, you may ask, how do the children learn to stay within all these limits without their crying and without your yelling and shaming?
Easy. By parental example. Kids learn by imitation. They learn language, reading, calculations, respectful relationships, love, play, intellectual curiosity, social participation, as well as how to pick out their clothes in the morning, from seeing the example of the people around them. And nature set it up so that those people would usually be parents and close relatives.
Two problems have contributed inexorably to the apparent loss of authority by America’s parents today: Working parents and overworked schools.
The first problem is families with both parents employed outside the home or single parent families whose parent must work. In many cases, two parents are holding down not just two but three or four jobs! To put it simply, there just isn’t enough time for parents to be with their children long enough to set the example the children need to show them how one should spend one’s day.
For example, how many parents chat with their children daily about how to interpret new information, whether from the news, the violent video game, the hot new music album, or a careless comment from a friend? How many parents even know their child has been exposed to any of these or how very many of these there are in a day?
The shameful neglect of the importance of parenting in American society is responsible for this sad situation: Either parents believe that having a career is more important than staying home for a few years with their children or they feel they must have a job in order to provide for their family’s basic needs, or in some cases not so basic needs. The idea that a woman will go crazy spending day after day with a young child is a myth perpetrated on society in order to justify getting more cheap labor – that is, women - into the labor force. And the fact that we don’t give more economic support for child-rearing – including more paid time off, as does every other advanced economy in the world - is a disgrace. Poor performance in school is to be expected when children do not have enough time with their parents to feel like their existence and contributions matter.
It’s hard to make up for that deficiency by using emotional force and manipulation, but unfortunately many parents try. Others simply give up. The missing ingredient is the beneficent example of how to live demonstrated daily by the parents.
A few years ago a busy professional client complained that her children never ate a balanced meal and were always snacking on candy and demanding pizza for dinner. After reviewing what she tried to put in front of them and their constant resistance, I asked her if they ever saw her eating a balanced meal. She thought for a moment and answered, “No.” She ate quickly after they left for school and before she left for work and didn’t bother eating in the evening until after they were in bed because it was all such a rush with homework and sports practice and bedtime battles. After a careful review of the week, we found two meals where the family could sit down and eat together. Things began to change when the kids had a parental demonstration of appropriate eating and also relaxed attentiveness at the meal.
It may be that families in Asia can get away with more harsh pressure for academic success in the later years because they put so much emphasis on the loving, supportive, extended family in the very early years, which attitude is much less prevalent in America. This is when the child absorbs the most important lessons about love and self-worth. As Chua has said, she treated her toddlers much like any American mom who takes the time – lots of cuddling, reading to, hugging. And in China, with the restrictions on the number of children, it may be that the child of the family feels infinitely important from the start.
American children don’t have that kind of attention early on. American women have been trained to believe they must get back to work. It is a hardship on parents today who arrange their lives so that at least one parent can be home in the first few years, and even then, American parents are warned not to shower attention because it may “spoil” the child. True spoiling of course is about giving bribes. That is, rewarding natural cooperative behavior which should be expected with excessive gifts and privileges. In fact, you can never show too much affection to a baby or toddler, as long as they are welcoming the particular mode of showing it.
The second problem which has diminished the American family’s chances of raising children who have a strong work ethic, believe in their own abilities, and can learn what they need to know to excel in the marketplace is reliance on an overworked school system.
Many studies have shown that straight A students are not the ones who excel in the end. They are too busy pleasing teachers to learn all the other things one needs to know out in the world. They may even burn out before they get to college, or soon thereafter. Meanwhile, the school teachers are overworked, underappreciated, given too many students to handle, limited in what they can teach, and wholly inadequate to substitute for parental example and guidance.
That said, many former students credit one teacher in particular who stepped into a mentor/parental role and made all the difference in their lives. I believe that all it takes to keep a child on a good path is one adult who gives them unconditional love while exercising tough love when needed. Innumerable movies have portrayed this scenario. For example, consider all the “Karate Kid” movies.
But that role is meant to be played by the child’s parents. No teacher can be that person for 30 or 40 kids or even more kids, who may be within her responsibility.
The most successful schooling in this country comes from parents and schools being aware of their separate roles. Once a child is in school, let her learn to deal with the pressures there and keep those pressures out of the home. If the child asks for help with her studies or withh her relationships with teachers or fellow students, then offer your help. But don’t do her work for her or assume responsibility for her grades or relationships. If she cannot handle situations at school when you are not there, then she is actually not ready to be sent to school. School is her business, not yours.
More and more parents in America today view the pressures of school unfair and unnecessary for proper development of children and they opt for homeschooling. In that case, achieving As is irrelevant and learning is the only goal. You might ask yourself, why do parents accept the grading standards of an outside institution over which they have no control to define and categorize their kids?
Early schooling can’t substitute for parents and caring relatives. Again, American society has discounted the importance of parents and has led people to believe early schooling is good. In some situations, of course, intervention by early institutional caretaking is better than the alternative. But it certainly is not the ideal. Rather we would do better, as a society, to give greater support and encouragement to parents in the home.
I wrote my first book because as a parent I became passionate about the idea that a job, a career, a scolding, a lecture, a meal, bedtime, a phone call, and just about anything else can be postponed, except for love. Love happens only in the present moment. A child feels lack of love immediately. If you bring a child to tears because she didn’t perform well, love has been postponed and there will be a cost.
Punishment and shaming have the same effect. I have seldom seen a child who did not know, when they did something wrong, that it was wrong. Punishment is a foolish way to deal with that situation. All you are doing is demonstrating your own frustration. Avoidance of pain or embarrassment is a poor motivation for behaving well. It’s much better to behave because it makes you feel good about yourself. And that comes naturally, not from over-indulgent parents applauding you every time you behave or from over-controlling parents punishing you every time you misbehave!
If you believe your child wants to please you and wants to be all she can be, which I believe is the very nature of a human child, then the intelligent thing to do when a child chooses to do something wrong is to find out why she chose to do it in the first place or why she was acting so reckless as to let it happen. That requires patience, thoughtfulness, listening, and guiding – and, by the way, not lecturing about stuff you know she already knows.
If they didn’t know it was wrong, then you can’t punish them because it’s your fault for not letting them know before they were capable of doing the act. So punishment makes no sense then either.
Once when I was a guest expert on a TV talk show, a father in the audience explained that he figured he didn't have to teach his child not to touch the hot stove because eventually the child would touch it and get burnt and then the child would know. Meanwhile most parents try to insist the child not go anywhere near the stove and then yell if the child reaches out to try to test their rule. I simply told each child that the stove was hot and gently took his or her hand towards the stove until they could feel the warmth increasing. Neither child ever got burnt. And there was no testing or yelling. The most successful as well as the easiest parenting is by example and gentle guidance.
If you know your child has a gift and she wants to pursue it, she may well not appreciate the time and effort it takes to develop her gift. But again, patience and guidance, rather than force, work better in the end - and certainly more pleasantly.
I know many an adult who gave up a skill like piano or violin because they had so many bad memories of being forced to practice when they could have been developing relationships on the playing field or with overnights or play-dates. I also know and have counseled many adults who wanted to play guitar, sing, dance, draw, or play tennis, whose parents forbade it as a waste of time. How many of them are now working in unsatisfying jobs when they might have been much happier making other people happy with their artistic inclinations?
I was able to guide some of these adults to increase their enjoyment by taking up hobbies along the lines of those early inclinations, but it’s a poor substitute for the chance the parents missed to teach the child to trust her own instincts and believe she could achieve her heart’s desire.
So instead of indulgent parents who will do anything to be friends with their children or strict parents who will do anything to feel in control of their children’s lives, there is a third way, which for lack of a sexier term I would call the way of the "responsible" parents.
This is not to say that the strict or permissive parents are automatically irresponsible. Rather, it is to point out that the responsible parent focuses on her responsibility, rather than on control or being a friend.
These responsible parents take their natural responsibility as parents seriously. Their children were born because of their choices and now the children are their responsibility. As far as who owes whom, all societies are clear that children should honor their parents, but shoulds never get us very far. Children are programmed from birth to honor their parents, since in evolutionary terms, if they didn’t, parental abandonment meant death. But children in fact generally continue to honor their parents because they are also programmed to expect their parents to care for, protect, respect, and love them. They can still conform if this doesn’t take place, but the chances for the parents being honored once the children are adults are inevitably diminished. The true payback in honor to the parent comes much later, when the child becomes adult and still enjoys your company, or even better, wants to imitate your parenting. It’s not a true payback when the child performs merely to keep you from using verbal abuse. How does the saying go? Love is when you let them go and they come back.
The responsible parent is also focused on appropriate responses - not their child's but their own. It is parental responses that children watch intently. Next to initiatives parents take in their own lives, like providing for their family, eating well, getting enough sleep, and watching out for their kids, it is their responses to the initiatives of their children that provide the most direct evidence to the child of how one is to behave.
So, the responsible parent doesn't wait for a child to act and then blurt out a reaction based on her first emotion, nor based on her most desired long-term outcome. Instead, she sets an example for the child of a thoughtful response appropriate to the moment and proportionate to the weight of the current situation. She neither minimizes nor exaggerates the significance of the child's action or her own.
Sometimes this means the parent must do a lot of homework, working through her own fears and projections a good bit before she interacts with her child, whether in the morning, after school, or after any incident. Responsibility and appropriate responses guide and educate the child like neither indulgence nor control approaches can.
There is lots of evidence that first generation immigrants to America are more adamant than ever that their children achieve at school and make a way for themselves, and the parents are willing to endure hardships, ugly jobs, and close quarters, to avail their children of opportunities to succeed. This has been true not just in Asian families but in virtually all immigrant groups. The apparently cushier lifestyle of Americans then becomes a temptation to the younger generation, to the great consternation of their parents, who sacrificed for them and their future. It is good to see that Chua has come to realize that some of the Draconian measures of her early parenting were perhaps unnecessary. Even the Premier of China is reported to have recommended in 2010 that Chinese children need more than knowledge – they need to learn to think and to believe in themselves.
I believe that much of this kind of controlling parenting comes from a place of fear – fear that the children might have to struggle as hard as their parents did if they don’t excel, fear that they have a handicap in the aggressive competitive marketplace of America because of their ethnicity and must therefore work harder than others, and fear that their own choices will turn out to have been wrong in coming here if their children don’t prosper.
American parents have been subject to their own set of fears as well, especially in these economically troubled times. Education seems more critical than ever. The thought goes something like this: “If you don’t succeed in kindergarten, elementary school will be harder and then you’ll fall behind in high school and get into trouble and won’t get into a good college and you won’t be able to pay for it either and you’ll never find a good job, and in the end I’ll feel like a failure and maybe you’ll blame me for not pushing you harder.”
So, on the one hand, we have this desire to stay in control of the child’s progress, based on parental fears. American parents who have adopted this fear-based mind-set will be wondering how they can adopt Chua’s allegedly traditional Chinese approach.
On the other hand, we have the friendship approach of so many American parents today, which I propose is also still fear-based. The thought of these parents goes something like this: “If I push you to do better and spend what little time we have together trying to set limits for you and trying to direct your choices while denying you things you want when you see others with all these toys and privileges, then I’m afraid you will end up resenting me and my work and my life choices and wishing that I had been easier on you or at least that I had given you the things you wanted to keep you amused or had not made you feel bad about your level of achievement in school. Besides, I’m so tired, I’m afraid I’d wear out if I tried to exert more control."
These parents feel successful when their child confides in them and treats them like a trusted friend. Often, unfortunately, they are surprised as well as chagrined when their child underachieves or gets in trouble and they frequently feel completely helpless.
Some experts have identified this desire to be friends with your child as resulting from misplaced guilt or parental uneasiness about not being at home enough, while others consider it the result of over-emphasis on the need to foster self-esteem in children.
Concerning parental guilt, I personally regret that American society has so misled parents that most of them don’t believe that once they have children, they are programmed to want to be with their children just as deeply as their children are programmed to want to be with them. They don’t even realize what they are missing. So in fact the guilt is natural, not misplaced. But because they don’t know where it comes from or believe that there is something wrong with them that they feel it, they often express it by overcompensating, with parental over-indulgence and permissiveness, which only increases the problem by creating children who are ever more demanding and less cooperative and seem to require ever more time and attention, which leads to more guilt.
Concerning self-esteem, I agree with Chua that self-esteem does not come from undeserved praise, but neither can it come, as she implies, from accomplishment forced upon you.
True self-esteem - which indeed helps to protect a person from the slings and arrows of adult life - comes from a deep sense of self-worth, which derives from feeling valuable and valued by the people among whom the child lives. It comes neither from personal accomplishment or excellence, nor from cascades of warmth and expressions of love, but rather from active participation in the meaningful activities of the family and being respected enough to be allowed to make any decisions for yourself which you are developmentally capable of making.
Perfection is not an option. Children know this when you yell at them. What’s perfect about a parent yelling? Yes, a concert pianist will hopefully play the piece perfectly, but that is a finite action. Being a parent, being a child, and being a happy person are never perfected but always interesting and productive. Parenting is not as hard as people make it appear and it certainly does not have to be as painful as some would lead you to believe. But you need to start in the right place, with assumptions based on love, not fear.
Instead of these two fear-based options, which manifest at the classic extremes of parenting, the strict, controlling parent and the permissive, friendly parent, there is a middle ground, the responsible parent, whose behavior is love-based, not fear- based.
Of course both kinds of parents love their children, but they aren’t really showing it in a way that will bring out the best in the child and in the parent and in their relationship – a relationship designed by nature to nurture the child and meanwhile mature the parent so that the human race and culture will perpetuate successfully. Both styles of parenting view love as background rather than foreground, a given rather than a daily responsibility.
I believe love can be defined this way: It is the process of looking for the good in others, finding it, and celebrating it. It is not about forcing good onto the children or out of them or into some activity, nor is it about praising good when it is not showing. Instead it is about looking for it, and finding it, and then celebrating it simply by showing your own delight in it. The happiest and most successful adults I know remember the fun they had with their parents and how their parents delighted in simply being with them.
Love-based parenting holds no fear. There is no fear because the parent has a deep-seated confidence, call it faith, that the human model of parents raising children is meant to work, has worked for millions of years, and will work for them. Even though modern culture is perhaps more complex than ever before in history, we now take 21 years rather than the traditional 12 or 14 to acculturate our children, so it is still a model that works, if you work it.
Parenting is a huge responsibility to the child, but it is not a responsibility for determining the child's life. The child will lead her own development, just as she determined when she was willing to nurse as an infant. Parental responses to the child's growth initiatives are as important as any parental instructions. Keeping a safe, stimulating, loving environment is all you need to do to inspire the human child to seek success and accomplishment on her own.
So I propose that the only task of the modern parent is to look deep inside and be guided by her best instincts, much like a mother tiger in the wild. If you watch film clips or read up on that feline mother’s behavior, you will see that there is lots of nurturing and cuddling and play, lots of demonstrations of necessary life skills, and judicious setting of limits when the environment or particular actions threaten permanent harm. The rest is up to the cub.
One could almost say that parents should been more seen than heard.
Randy Colton Rolfe, JD, MA, is mother of two grown children and a lawyer, theologian, longevity trainer, parenting counselor, and author of five books, including three on parenting: You Can Postpone Anything But Love; Adult Children Raising Children; and The Seven Secrets of Successful Parents.