Thoughts on “Tiger Moms” and Dog Training

Recently, I read an article called Why Chinese Mothers are Superior on the Wall Street Journal website. The author, Amy Chua, is a first-generation Chinese...


Recently, I read an article called Why Chinese Mothers are Superior on the Wall Street Journal website. The author, Amy Chua, is a first-generation Chinese immigrant to the United States. She touts herself as a paragon of maternal virtue, obviously taking great pride in the fact that she forbade her two daughters from basically having any fun whatsoever. No sleepovers with friends. The children had no choice in the selection of extra-curricular activities. They were not allowed to participate in school plays. They were required to be number one in their class in all but physical education and drama.

She indicates that calling one’s children “garbage” is a family tradition, inherited from her father.

Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fattylose some weight.” … the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.

Finally, she concludes by making ridiculous assertions and overgeneralizations, like “No Chinese child would ever get a B.” (which leads the reader to falsely conclude that China is a nation of 1.3 billion doctors and that each citizen will eventually have a PhD at a minimum) Basically, what she’s trying to get at is – “Western” parents are too soft, with a focus on making learning fun and building self-esteem. She obviously feels that a more militant style of parenting, where learning should be tedious, stressful, and unpleasant, is preferable. Threats, shame, fear, and questioning self-worth is the name of the game in the effort to raise a successful child, per Chua. She prides herself on denying her 7 year old daughter water, the opportunity to go to the bathroom, etc., until she learned how to play a song on the piano.

Ms. Chua would make a great traditional dog trainer. I wouldn’t doubt that if she thought she could literally shock her children into better performance, she would pursue that means of “teaching” as a necessary and even laudable part of the learning process. The goal is more important than the process – who cares if your child is emotionally stunted, lacks compassion and empathy, if she is a doctor?

At the end of the article, WSJ had an informal poll – which do you think is preferable, Western Style parenting or “Tiger momming”? The majority of readers felt that the latter was preferable.

What are the downsides of this type of teaching? According to the World Health Organization, the rate of suicide for Chinese women is nearly four times higher than it is for American women. Bullying is one of the most frequent contributing factors to teenage suicide. At least when most children are bullied at school, they can look forward to going home at the end of the day and escaping the bullying. Children of Tiger Moms get to return to their house at the end of the school day and spend their off-school hours with the biggest bully in their lives….their mom?!

There have been a few articles recently about how Chinese children are coming to American schools, leaving their parents, in greater numbers than ever. Maybe they are seeking what their parents refuse to give them – the opportunity to self-actualize, to make decisions for themselves. To make, and learn from, their mistakes without criticism or fear.

What is the fallout from coercion? For those really wanting to delve into the topic, I can’t recommend Murray Sidman’s classic book, “Coercion and Its Fallout” highly enough. For those not wanting to spend the time tracking down an out of print book (and spending quite a bit of money obtaining a copy), check out this article – Tiger Mothers Leave Lifelong Scars. Successful psychologist Lac Su who has earned both his PhD and the respect of colleagues within the field, recants his experience as an adult survivor of tiger parenting. He speculates that the power-tripping parental style of “Tiger Momming” is a reflection of the “tiger’s” internal unhappiness. His father, who Su defines as a tiger, said, “I love yous are for white people.”

Later, upon seeing Su rear his own children in the “Western” fashion, Su’s father admitted he regretted his parenting decision. Perhaps he was surprised at how wonderful it is to see children shine with a light from within as opposed to hiding from the spot light that parents shine on them, a spotlight designed specifically to highlight flaws, imperfections, myriad ways in which the child will never be good enough.

When I read Dr. Su’s article, I couldn’t help but think of many of the traditionally trained dogs I’ve met. Dogs that reach high levels of achievement but in the process, have developed personally and socially unhealthy coping mechanisms. Some urinate, tremble, growl, snap, or leave at the sight of a leash, collar, person’s hand reaching toward them, the appearance of a particular pair of workboots or a spray bottle. These dogs are often great at responding to cues and terrible about making decisions. They are “book smart” but socially inept – lacking confidence. Much like Dr. Su admitted to “shutting down” and not offering behavior for fear of ridicule (a common side effect of punishment), traditionally trained dogs tend not to offer behaviors. I’ve met many dogs that have stellar obedience titles and yet, when you sit down to do a shaping session with them, stare at you, confused, frozen. They don’t move. In the shaping game, everything they offer is “right” initially. Unfortunately, these dogs have been taught so many times that offering behaviors is wrong, they just don’t bother. Creativity has been punished out of them.

Dr. Su has had to seek treatment for alcoholism. He’s not alone, alcohol use increased 50 fold in China since 1952. I would be interested in investigating mental illness statistics, but good numbers are hard to find from a society which stigmatizes mental illness even more than in the U.S.

Dr. Su concludes by saying:

In spite of this, my parents’ approach failed. I’m torn to pieces on the inside.

Now in my mid-thirties, I’m sure I appear successful and happy on the surface. I’m a published author, a successful executive, and I have a Ph.D. in psychology.

In spite of this, my parents’ approach failed. I’m torn to pieces on the inside.

I’ve been through countless hours of psychotherapy, and my lack of self-worth beckons me to rely on alcohol to numb the pain.

I should be chasing my dreams, not chasing pain.

Children need their parents’ love and acceptance in order to develop real self-esteem. Belittling children sends the message that they are not worthy of love and support — as do mind games, emotional abuse, and tight-fisted control.

This message lasts a lifetime. I still question every day if I am, indeed, stupid. I didn’t even raise my hand in class until graduate school because I honestly believed that a moron like me has nothing worthy to say.

If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it’s that I would trade every last bit of my success in life to live without the deep wounds given to me by a Tiger Mother. “

Ms. Chua makes it seem as though one has to choose between proper emotional development and intellectual or professional development. If I had human children and had to choose between raising a happy, emotionally sound, compassionate, empathetic son who absolutely loved his job as a customer service clerk or a daughter with a PhD who was so emotionally stunted she didn’t know how to hug her daughter and listen well the first time her heart was broken, I’d choose the customer service rep with a GED and happy grandkids.

But the real heart of the matter is that you don’t have to choose. Fostering creativity, in children and dogs, is the key to success. In another fantastic article on the subject, author Samantha Leese seems to solve the equation eloquently in a way that really resonates with me:

Where Chua sees that nothing is fun until youre good at it, my parents and my teachers saw the other side of that logic: most children are already good at something, which means it is fun from the start. If you allow them the little space they need to discover it, they will want to do the work without you hysterically waging war on them.

Its easy to stand over your kids, forget their individuality, and make sure they succeed according to what you think that means. It seems much harder to let them go and figure life out for themselves, with the confidence that you have done and will do all you can to guide, rather than bully, your children.

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