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Oh, Mama!

Judging from my RSS and twitter feeds today, everyone can't stop talking about Amy Chua's WSJ essay this weekend on "Chinese mothers"--and it's a doozy of the genre, ripe with anecdotes and thin on data, primarily fixated on the concerns and experience of educated professionals, and seemingly designed to prey on parental guilt and feelings of inadequacy (which, give Chua credit, is at least consistent with the broader theme of the piece).

This drives me a little nuts. Not the article, so much as the conversation about it. For starters, Chua's trafficking in a view of American parenting that seems to be solely informed by well-educated professional parents (see Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods for examples of how lots of American parents aren't nearly as concerned about their children's individuality or self-esteem as Chua suggests). More fundamentally, what really gets me is that, there is, you know, actual research on parenting styles and effective parenting, and the impacts that different levels of restrictiveness/permissivity have on children's outcomes. But, when it comes to parenting, it's way more fun to talk in terms of anecdote, sterotypes, and generalized "shoulds" that leave out key nuances than it is to actually look at the research.

I'm not an expert on the parenting research--I probably know just enough about it to be a danger to myself and others--so I'm going to tread carefully here. But, what seems particularly dangerous about Chua's piece, in view of the research here, is her postulation of parenting as being on some kind of either/or 2 dimensional continuum from "restrictive" or "mean" to "permissive" and "nurturing." Any one who's at all familiar with the research on parenting styles, or just has a lick of common sense, knows it's more complicated than that. Some parents are both emotionally nurturing and permissive in the way Chua describes American parents as being (a parenting style researchers have described as permissive), and some parents are very demanding, restrictive, and not emotionally responsive or nurturing to their children (a parenting style researchers have described as authoritarian), as Chua seems to suggest Chinese parents are. But these things don't always go together. It's entirely possible for parents to be simultaneously emotionally nurturing and supportive AND to impose critical structure and demands on their children (researchers call this authoritative parenting). In fact, research tends to indicate better outcomes for children whose parents are both demanding and nurturing.

Indeed, Chua's own article seems to suggest some of this:

Once when I was young--maybe more than once--when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn't actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

Chua suggests that it was ok for her father to call her garbage because she was secure in the knowledge that he valued her and didn't actually think she was worthless. But if her parents really were totally disinterested in her emotional development, she wouldn't have had that security. In other words, this stuff is more complicated.

What does any of this have to do with education? Well, for starters, parenting is, if anything, an area where media reports and public debate are even less informed by research--and shabby in how it is handled when it does come up--than education. Which is saying a lot given the state of debate in education! Second, people talk a lot in education debates about the importance of parents, but a lot of those conversations traffic in vague cliches about the importance of parents, rather than dealing seriously with questions about what good parenting actually means and what educators and policymakers can do to encourage and support parents to behave in ways that encourage good child outcomes. Give Chua credit at least for being willing to go there in some sense. Third, research indicates that there are some similarities between what we know about effective parenting and what we know about effective teaching. Just as kids do better when their parents are both emotionally nurturing but also provide structure and demands, kids also tend to do better when their teachers are both emotionally supportive and instructionally demanding.

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