The new parenting catfight: Tiger Moms vs Fun Slobs

The nature/nurture debate is as unhelpful as ever in solving the problem of raising children.

Jennie Bristow

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The latest battle of the parenting tribes pits the Tiger Moms against the Fun Slobs. In one corner growls Amy Chua, proud hot-houser of her daughters, whose book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother extols the virtues of achievement-oriented, ‘Chinese-style’ parenting. In the other chills Bryan Caplan, whose book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids tells us that we could have more fun raising our little darlings if we just recognised that none of this pushy parenting works in any case. Our children’s fate is in their genes, apparently – and nothing that parents do (at least after very early childhood) makes a blind bit of difference to how our children will turn out.

Both these authors are American, but as is so often the way, the debate has crossed the Atlantic, bringing waves of anxiety in its wake. Parents balk at the implication, from the Tiger Moms corner, that those of us who do not spend every waking moment chivvying our children along the path to an Olympic gold medal are slobs with an aspiration deficit disorder. But nor are they convinced by Caplan’s let-it-all-hang-out philosophy. Surely making children do their homework, taking them to sporting activities, and pushing them to achieve more than watch TV and ‘be themselves’ cannot be a total waste of time?

In their reluctance to side with either Chua or Caplan, it seems to me that parents have got it right. Because in the obsession with the relationship between parenting practices and children’s achievements, the very idea of the parent undergoes a terrible metamorphosis. The parent is no longer an adult, whose relationship to his or her child is governed by a complex combination of experience, personality, personal morality, responsibility, emotions, needs, desires, practical pressures and other such amorphous qualities that make up the stuff of life. For both Chua and Caplan, the parent is a mere cipher – either of genes (Caplan) or cognitive stimuli (Chua) – which rankles with those of us who consider ourselves to be more than that.

Part of the reason why the Chua / Caplan debate has exploded is because it fits so neatly with that old nature / nurture question: can individuals ‘be who they want to be’ or are they just ‘born this way’? This dichotomy was always pretty unhelpful, given that human beings are a fascinating combination of their biology and their experience. But at least people used to try to answer this question through attempting to explore deeper questions of human nature, or the social world.

The modern twist is that, when it comes to child-rearing, both the nature and nurture questions have been reduced to their most direct and meaningless components – the genes of the parents or the particular parenting practices used in raising particular children. In this way, the generational responsibility for raising children has been re-defined as a mere question of breeding, with the parent as the sole determinant – one way or another – of the outcome of the next generation.

Caplan’s insistence on the importance of genetic legacy has led some to point out the uncomfortable association of such ideas with the tradition of eugenics – the idea that the human stock can be improved through encouraging ‘better’ adults to breed ‘better’ children. But Chua’s apparently nurture-centred focus on parental pressure is not free from these associations either. This notion ties in with the emphasis of current Anglo-American parenting policy upon cajoling parents to raise their children in specific, closely scripted ways, based on the erroneous assumption that kids can (and should) be thus programmed.

As Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent explains, whereas eugenic ideas historically attempted to ‘breed out’ apparently deficient qualities, today’s parental-determinist approach is based on the idea that it is possible to ‘nurture in’ the kind of qualities that policymakers see as desirable. The effect of this is to present the parent-child relationship in a peculiarly rigid, reductionist fashion, as though the sole contribution parents bring is the direct input they have into their children.

This is reflected in the phony war currently being played out between the Tiger Moms and the Fun Slobs, where the disagreement comes down to little more than how, exactly, one can measure the relationship between what parents do and what children become.

The truth is that there is a lot more to raising children than this. As adults, it doesn’t really matter if we see ourselves as Tiger Moms, Fun Slobs, or some other category entirely, provided that we are clear on two things. First of all, to the extent that parents can shape how our children turn out, it will not be determined by the number of hours parents put into their children’s piano practice, but by the context of our family lives as a whole. It is simply bizarre to pretend that the impact of particular parenting practices can be separated out from other factors, from where families live and how they earn their living, to their values, relationships and experiences. In any event, there are all sorts of other experiences that children have – through friends and schools, for example – that will have a big impact beyond the realm of the family.

Moreover, as they grow up, children gradually start to ‘make’ themselves; they become moral beings in their own right that make their own choices – a process well illustrated by an incident Chua recounts where her 13-year-old daughter very publicly rebels against her mother’s discipline.

Secondly, it is up to us – the grown-ups – to shape the context of our family lives. This is not the responsibility of policymakers or so-called parenting experts, and nor should it be their business. If obsessing about children’s daily faults or achievements becomes a way of shying away from making choices about one’s adult life, hot-housing is no less fatalistic a child-rearing strategy than the Caplan approach of plonking the kids in front of the TV because drug addiction is in their genes anyway. To raise children, we have to see ourselves as adults first.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.)

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Topics Politics