Sunday, February 10, 2013

How do people hold on to their kids: the Tiger Mother and the immigrant parent

There's one key part of the book Hold on to Your Kids that I haven't yet discussed in my commentary thus far. How do we hold on to our kids? The answer, in this day and age, isn't necessarily obvious. After all, most of us aren't stay-at-home parents with the time and resources to homeschool our kids and do whatever else it takes to shield them from long-term exposure to large groups of peers. Gabor and Mate make familiar calls for more family dinners, as well as recommending more parental floor time" with young children, more family outings, judicious use of family vacation time, and increased use of "grounding" as a consequence for troubling peer-oriented behavior. The basic idea, they say, is to maintain yourself as your child's primary obect of emotional attachment, confidently and lovingly asserting control over the amount of time he or she spends with friends and peers vs. parents, family, and other adults.

One would hope that love, especially of the unconditional parental variety, would go without saying. Confident control is another matter--particularly in this age of child-centered everything. But somewhere in the course of Gabor and Mate's discussion I found myself free-associating to one such paragon: Amy Chua, the infamous heroin of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

In the course of reading the many articles about Chua's book (I haven't read the book itself), it occured to me that one thing that she is doing, consciously or not, is minimizing her kids' exposure to peer culture. Consider some of her more extreme measures: no sleepovers; music lessons (requiring lots of solo practice) rather than theater; piano in particular, a solo instrument; in short, a regime in which the child spends most of her after-school hours working at home under parental supervision and as few as possible among friends and other peers.

It's quite possible, of course, that Chua has gone way too far in this direction, and I gather that one daughter ends up rebelling. But from what Chua herself says, and from I've observed in my own little window into comparative parenting, her approach is typical of many South and East Asian parents. And so much of what's specific to these parenting subcultures is the conscious or subconscious priority of minimizing peer orientation (particularly to native-born peers). Children of these immigrant groups are famously successful in academics; is this one reason why? Are they also more polite and sociable, better adjusted, less afllicted with anxiety and depression?

For all the extra challenges they face, at least some immigrant parents may have one key advantage over native-born parents: those whose children enter school looking and speaking differently from most of their classmates are less likely to be assimilated by their peers. The immigrant child who does assimilate, on the other hand, may end up even more strongly oriented towards her peers and away from her parents (and her language and culture of origin) than is the case with the more typical American-born child. Indeed, we see just this happening with hearing children of Deaf parents--another unusual subpopulation that it would be interesting to take a closer look at.

12 comments:

Auntie Ann said...

As a regular reader of this site and of FreeRangeKids.com, there seems to be a delicate balance and a problem here. Kids need the freedom to explore, time for free play, and to be taught how to maneuver in the real world; all of that requires a stepping back of the parent--not to allow peers to take their place, perhaps, but to allow the child to test their own limits and gain confidence.

However, the amount of time parents are spending supervising their kids has grown tremendously in the last few decades--to the detriment of children. We used to be sent outside after school, unsupervised, and were expected back home in time for dinner or when the streetlights came on. We were active physically, roving widely in our neighborhood, always under our own power. We ran, we kicked pine cones, we climbed trees. We played afterschool sports without our parents always in the stands cheering us on. We met our friends at the pool or biked to the library on our own. Our town was open to us and available without our parents there to chauffeur. Playdates were unheard of, we simply called up a friend and walked or biked over to their house. When we wanted to make up a game, we had to cooperate with our friends and work through the rules together, both giving and taking when necessary. When we had conflicts with peers, we had to work them out without an adult stepping in. We learned that you could fight with someone one day, and be best friends the next (an important skill if you expect to be married one day.) We had responsibilities and opportunities. You could start babysitting at the age of 10 during the day and 11 at night. We cooked dinner, used knives, whittled sticks, and built forts. This all seems to me to be good things for kids to be able to do and to learn, and much of it is peer-focused.

Today, every moment in a kid’s life seems pre-planned and structured. Kids don’t go anywhere without a parent to take them there and an adult to supervise. That requires tremendous time commitments from parents. Today’s parents are under incredible pressure to live their lives totally focused on their children, completely sacrificing their own priorities, needs, economic realities, and sanity. If a kid is left alone for five minutes, the parents are taught to worry that they are missing out on "enrichment" opportunities; or worse, they are taught to worry that CPS will be called in because their kids were seen playing alone in their own yard (it happens.) Where a 13-year-old used to be old enough to babysit, today, CPS can get called in if they are left at home alone. Kids aren’t allowed to explore their environment or talk to the “people that you meet when you’re walking down the street.” They are supervised, protected, and controlled at all times. What relations they have with peers is often under the supervision of adults, who arrange and structure the “play” time.

This even extends into adulthood. Residential colleges are having to put deadlines on when parents have to say good-bye and leave their kids behind, because so many were holding on. College professors are having to deal with parents calling to complain about their adult-children’s grades. Even employers are now finding that they have to deal with parents during recruiting and contract negotiations. These are not symptoms of parents being too distant from their kids, but quite the opposite.

So, I find it hard to reconcile all of this with the idea that what our kids really need is for us to “hold onto” them even more.

Anonymous said...

Auntie Ann, the crucial difference is that the kids we interacted with (in a free-range way) in our neighborhoods were a mixed-age group. At school, and in many organized/structured activities, the kids are all the same age and there is where the peer dynamic gets difficult. And, there was subtle discouragement from parents when kids began hanging around with slightly older, up to no good kids.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The other issue is that the way we grew up is a very particular artifact of a certain place and time (in suburbia/small town where a significant portion of mothers stayed home.) For instance, in my neighborhoods of the 80s and early 90s, most moms didn't work, or only worked part time during the school day. So we were encouraged to go out and play BUT there were a lot of eyes on the street and moms to step in if things went awry. (Like-- large group of small boys spotted heading to the creek when it was at flood stage.).... That's not possible now.... There just isn't the concentration of available, responsible adults....

Also, I'm not clear that my generation represents the pinnacle of human potential and goodness. I mean, sure we're better than Gen Y and those idiotic Millenials.... but.....

C T said...

Perhaps an unspoken problem in the book is less "peer-orientation" per se and more "peers-as-displayed-via-modern-media orientation". After school in the 80s, I either read, played with siblings and/or neighbor kids, or watched TV shows where parent-figure adults typically were wise mentors who generally ran things and helped solve their kids' problems (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Brady Bunch, Family Ties, He-Man, Jem, even Gidget to some extent). Now we have Hannah Montana, Avatar, multiple Nickelodeon shows, and MTV "reality" shows where children and teenagers are the smart ones who make the cool stuff happen and adults rather nonessential. As for pop music, I'm at a loss to think of a female popular music star (besides perhaps Adele) who's comfortable actually acting like an adult (I'm looking at you, Gaga and Madonna); acting mature just doesn't get a person "fame" in pop culture! Our youth shows today, which kids watch even more of as they sit inside safe from CPS-calling neighbors, teach kids that parents aren't very necessary and give them fictional teen celebrities as role models.
My theory helps explain the effectiveness of tiger mothering, too. Avoiding sleepovers and practicing piano for hours cuts out a lot of time that might otherwise be used on shows that weaken parents' importance and authority.

kcab said...

In some ways, I think Free-Range might actually fit fairly well with Gabor and Mate's book. With Free-Range, part of the idea is that kids are taught by their parents how to do things safely (travel in the environment, use tools, interact with other adults), then allowed to do them - they aren't just turned loose without any thought or instruction. I think the instruction by parents, followed by parents trusting their kids enough to follow through, helps strengthen the relationship in a way that is consistent with the "Hold on to Your Kids" book.

Then again, I haven't finished the book yet, so perhaps I am wrong.

kcab said...

I live in an area with a lot of immigrant families and a lot of Tiger parents. Student mental health is a big concern, at least on the part of the school systems, as teen suicide has been a recurring problem. I have no idea whether the kids with the Tiger or immigrant parents are the ones having difficulty though.

Auntie Ann said...

Or is it not about parent-or-peer orientation at all, but about the responsibility we expect our children to take for themselves and the people around them. We have very low expectations of what kids are capable of these days, and the live down to those expectations. That's not necessarily a lack of parent-orientation, but a failure of parents to understand what our kids are capable of and to challenge them to be more.

Auntie Ann said...

I would disagree with the idea that stay-at-home moms were responsible for the way we grew up. Most kids in the world today spend much of their days unsupervised--and many with the responsibility for their younger siblings. Most childcare in the world is provided by pre-working-age kids, while the parents are both working. I come back to the idea that the difference is the level of responsibility that we expect from our kids. When children are responsible for caring for siblings, feeding and milking the livestock, gathering firewood, fetching water, etc. they grow into their role in the community. Expect nothing of them, and you get nothing.

Auntie Ann said...

For a while I blocked Cartoon Network, when I realized that every character was perpetually mean, nasty, snide and insulting to every other character. But I like both Hannah Montana and Avatar. In the former, the dad is actually pretty smart and a good guy, who's there for his daughter (whatever you think of Cyrus as a dad in real life.) In Avatar, with one exception, the adult parent-figures are very good, and it's hard to beat Uncle Iroh as a parent in kids' fiction.

C T said...

I like Avatar, too, but I mention it because the kids don't have a parent figure steadily taking care of them. They're pretty much on their own most of the time, from what I've seen so far. I have never watched Hannah Montana; I bring it up because of the celebrity aspect. I don't recall any shows in my youth where the kids were on their own or the money-maker of the family to the extent that I see on modern shows.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say that as someone who enjoyed his very free-range childhood and who would love it if the same thing were possible for his son ... that if your kid goes out by himself and starts playing with whatever kids he meets, they won't necessarily be the kids you'd like him to hang out with.

It's sad to say this, but if the kids are out there wandering the streets in this day and age, there's a reason and it's not likely to be a good one.

Used to be all the kids on the block were out there, the good ones, the bad ones, the nice ones, the mean ones, and things balanced out. It's not like that anymore. You'll still be running a selection process on your kid's companions if you send him out to find other kids hanging around, but it might not be the process he'd benefit from the most.

Crimson Wife said...

The "free range" kids of the 70s and 80s typically had one or more older kids charged with looking after the younger ones in the group. Today this sort of age mixing is not at all the norm except among homeschoolers. My kids (who are homeschooled) have complained about age segregation when spending time with public and/or privately schooled kids. The kids spend almost all of their time with same age peers in the classroom and organized activities and the majority are only children so they don't have siblings to play with.