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.