January 2011

In the past couple of weeks just about every major newspaper (including the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun) in Canada and the U.S., several in Hong Kong and elsewhere on the globe (even ‘down under’) have run coverage on Yale law professor Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom essay that originally ran in the Wall Street Journal.  If you haven’t read the original article, purchased the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother yet or read any of the follow up pieces (first of all, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!) the gist of it is that Chua raised her two daughters in a rigorous manner insisting upon academic (A’s only, NOT A minuses) and musical excellence (piano or violin ONLY) and limited their personal choices (extra-curricular activities) and social time (no sleepovers – EVER).

Chua has been quick to point out in interviews that her book is a memoir NOT a ‘parenting’ book.  Nevertheless, controversy has erupted (at last count over 7,000 comments had been posted to the Wall Street Journal piece) as parents throughout North America and beyond weigh in on Chua’s assessment of the benefits of Chinese vs. Western parenting styles.

In my household the parenting debate centers on Canadian (mine) vs. Australian (my husband’s) parenting styles.  There are some similarities to the Asian vs. Western debate.  A big part of it is whether or not to be concerned with the self-esteem of our children. Chinese parents, according to Chua don’t fret about their children’s self esteem the way western N. American parents do.  My husband claims that in his experience, neither to Australian parents.  Chua also claims that “the dominant or prevalent Western approach right now is much more permissive than parenting was in the West, say, 60 years ago. Western parents romanticize the idea of pursuing passions and giving your kid choices. If you give a 10-year-old the choice to pursue his or her passion, it’s going to be doing Facebook for six hours.”  She doesn’t think that “it’s going to be playing the violin or doing any school work very seriously”.

Chua also claims “westerners are too quick to let their kids give up. It’s very familiar to see an Asian kid and Western kid both start on violin. Six months later the Western child is switched to the clarinet because the violin sounds so terrible when you start. But the Asian kids will still be playing the violin because the parents make them. Then often the Western child is moved to the drums or the guitar because that’s going to be easier. I wasn’t going to allow that. Let’s stick with something before you decide whether you like it or not.”

Alyson Jones and I had a conversation about Chua’s view and how it relates to our passion for parenting as a leadership journey.

Alyson: How do we provide effective leadership for our children?  I truly believe that in North America we’ve lost the vision of what that is for our children in our parenting.  In our society parents are often so worried about doing their jobs well.  They’re questioning, “am I doing my job well, am I meeting the emotional needs of my kids, the physical needs, educational needs?”, that they’re not actually doing their job.  The doing of it is hard work!  And parents are all too often too consumed thinking about it rather than doing it.   The saying no, holding limits, the following through on things, these are difficult and take self-discipline.  From there we provide discipline to our children.  Children need to respect and take their parents seriously.  The way children will respect and take their parents seriously is by them showing consistency and following through on what they say.  If we’re inconsistent we’re only hurting ourselves as parents and we’re certainly not doing our children any good.

We can’t get too caught up in our children’s ‘self esteem’ or our ‘relationship’ with our children, although I really believe strongly in the relationship piece, and that we parent through the relationship but the relationship is not separate from the structure.

In many ways our relationship with our children is earned through the structure.  It’s a balance.   And we’ll make mistakes.  We need to be attentive to that and be honest when we ourselves have made mistakes.

Laura: Chua’s piece has really brought something to the forefront of the parenting dialogue.  We’re examining what’s different between cultures and also between generations of parents.  And when we bring that into the leadership realm, both in parenting and in the business environment, there’s an inquiry and an evolution that is taking place there as well.

Alyson: Leadership terminology is more commonly used in a business setting.  When we think of organizations we can see the value of having a boss.  The organization will not work well if everyone is the boss, nor will it function if no one is the boss.  Everyone needs to have their roles.  Having a clear division is a positive thing.  Feeling understood and valued is also important both in organizations and in families.  This can create a desire to contribute and passion for what you’re doing.

It’s finding the balance.

Laura: Passion is an interesting element of this inquiry isn’t it?  Chau’s attitude seemed to be that she wasn’t giving her daughters a choice about what they would be passionate about.  She decided that they would be focused on specific academic and musical pursuits and there was to be no argument about it.  Discipline over passion.  Our N. American parenting style tends to be about finding out what our children are passionate about and encouraging that.  And if they decide they’re not interested, well then they’re off to the next thing.

Alyson: That’s so true.  All too often we’re enrolling our children in too many things rather than providing them with opportunities to gain mastery over a few things.  And most children will choose to avoid the hard work that it takes to get good at anything.

Laura: That’s so true.  I remember my son showed a passion for tae kwon do, but left to his own devices he would have eventually drifted off from it.  There were times over the years that he was engaged in that practice that I had to ‘hold his feet to the fire’ to get him to classes but eventually when he earned his black belt it was HIS self-discipline that took him there.   And he sure feels good about having achieved that.

But even so, I do find that I’m more of a momma bear than a ‘tiger mom’.  I’ll push from time to time but I do negotiate a lot with my son. In my view this has built his self esteem as well as his ability to advocate for himself.  Of course some would say he’s learned skills of manipulation but I try to look at it in a positive light.  He’s certainly persuasive.

Alyson: In the end self-esteem is something they earn.  They earn it through the difficult things.   It’s not something we give them.  Joy is a great thing as is celebration but it’s not where we get our deepest lessons.  Learning to deal with disappointments and the reality of life that sometimes you fall but you get back up and go again.  This is where parents need to do their job and hold their children to their commitments so that they EARN their self-esteem.

Alyson and I look forward to your thoughts on this topic.  Please post feedback and we’ll be deepening this dialogue in the days and weeks to come.



I’ve been looking for new ways to spend quality time with my fifteen year old son.  Some might question my choice, but I chose to take him into Canada’s poorest ‘large urban’ postal code last Friday night and introduce him to 30 survival sex trade workers.  Actually, I wasn’t the one doing the introductions.  Jen Allen, a former survival sex trade worker turned advocate was conducting the introductions.

Jen Allen runs Jen's Kitchen - an outreach program

Let me explain.

2010 came to a close with me really wondering about my parenting skills.  My teenager was making a series of choices that were leading to an ever increasing series of consequences that were expanding beyond my domain.  He was hurting himself and others in the process.  I was frustrated and frightened and  at a loss for what to do next.

I began 2011 forming an intention formed to do things differently.  More creatively.   I thought that introducing my boy to some folks I consider leaders, people who inspire me, would be a bit more worthwhile than spending my time with him either lecturing him or just delivering consequences.  My hope is that he will find inspiration from these introductions and find a pathway to making better choices when faced with some of the challenging options that all teenagers encounter.

Jen Allen inspires me.  I met her over five years ago and volunteered only once before to help her with Jen’s Kitchen.   I was a bit shocked when I phoned her to see if my son and I could do a volunteer shift with her that five years had passed since I had last made that offer.  She gave me instructions on how to prepare 30 meal bags with sandwiches, juice boxes and granola bars.  We met her on Powell Street near the ‘strolls’ with our bags of food that my son had prepared.  (btw – it was less than $40.00 to supply a meal, drink and snack to 30 survival sex trade workers)  It was a bitterly cold, windy night last Friday and since this was my son’s first time volunteering with Jen, she chose to conduct our outreach from the car rather than walking the streets and alleys as she more commonly does.

As I drove Jen directed me to slow down when she saw a woman who she recognized to be ‘working’, rolling down her window to call out “are you hungry?”  Most said yes and gratefully accepted the brown paper bag offered.  As we drove up and down the streets Jen provided a running commentary combining history, statistics and anecdotes.  My son was full of questions and Jen also questioned him, ensuring that he had properly absorbed the information she was sharing with him.  She has tremendous compassion for the women she serves, but is a no nonsense advocate that is willing to take on the police, policy makers and has a goal of meeting with the United Nations this year.  Jen’s position is that the sex trade has always existed and always will, and ensuring that the women who work in the trade are safe should be a priority.

It was a powerful experience for my son. As we chatted with Jen over dinner in a Chinatown restaurant he asked if he could help her again next month.