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March 10, 2011

With tiger moms or not, students can survive the jungle

by Jenny Sholar, Managing Features Editor
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

"From a clinical standpoint, have you ever considered getting some help?"

Uneasy chuckles fill the aisles at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.’s famous independent bookstore, in response to the question from an audience member. But the speaker at the front of the room, a petite woman by the name of Amy Chua, is unfazed.

Chua came to Politics and Prose last month to speak about her memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which diagrams Chua’s ultra-strict parenting method for her two daughters. Chua’s style goes beyond just demanding decent grades: her daughters were required to be the best student in all of their classes and to forgo social events to practice violin or piano. The book and accompanying essay in the Wall Street Journal, both published in January, have unleashed a torrent of national debate over the true "best" method of parenting.

But the problem with such a debate is that no one can agree on just what "best" means. Chua maintains that she was not asserting her parenting style’s superiority, or even that she had any agenda at all. In fact, most parents keep their agendas simple: to teach their kids to be good people. Blazers from vastly different backgrounds are evidence that diverse methods of parenting are all capable of producing happy, independent children.

Under pressure

Parental expectations dominate sophomore Sagarika Das’ life. She is enrolled in Blair’s Communication Arts Program (CAP) and takes computer programming classes and multiple Advanced Placement courses. But her obligations don’t end with academics; a self-described "extracurricular junkie," Das often stays after hours at Blair for Robotics, mock trial and debate team meetings. She also plays the piano and studies dance. On most weekdays, she does not return home until five, six or even nine o’clock at night. She regularly stays up until two in the morning before getting four hours of sleep and starting over the next day.

All this, she says, is necessary to maintain her straight A’s and to build her academic record in preparation for college applications. She’s just delivering what her parents expect — high grades, rigorous courses and hard work.

Grades are so important to her parents, she says, that they frequently disallow her from socializing with friends in her free time. Sleepovers are not an option. For a long time, even going to the movies or to the mall was a rarity. Her parents told her that since these activities did not directly improve her grades, she did not need them.

Nora, a junior, says her parents have a different approach. They trust her to get decent grades. Otherwise, there are few rules. Nora has hosted drug- and alcohol-fueled parties at her home — while her parents are upstairs. Her parents know she regularly smokes marijuana, and even give her a place to do so to ensure she will not go somewhere dangerous to smoke.

Authoritarian, authoritative

Das is quick to explain that her family’s parenting style is largely a cultural difference. Her parents are immigrants from India, where education is hugely important, says Das. In a country where hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line, education is a promise of greater opportunities. "You don’t care if you have shoes on your feet, you’re going to school," Das explains.

Nora’s parents let their style evolve over time, starting out strict with her two elder siblings but gradually shifting to their current, more relaxed method. Now, she says, her parents understand her desire to be a teenager and let loose, particularly since they partied hard when they were young. "The things I do don’t compare," she says. "They know I’m in high school and I want to have fun."

According to Reena Bernard, a family therapist based in Kensington, neither extreme is ideal. Experts classify parenting styles into three main types: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Authoritarian parents, she says, have high expectations, but do not sufficiently nurture or respect their children.

Permissive parents, on the other hand, create a nurturing environment, but fail to set strong boundaries, which can compromise their children’s abilities to succeed. "These children may feel loved, but they may not be getting the tools to accomplish at their potential," Bernard says.

The coach

But Nora does not feel as though she is living below her potential. In fact, she believes that her parent’s lenient methods have allowed her to explore and gain experience in the world around her, teaching her life lessons she would have missed had she spent all her time on homework. "You need to let your kids have space to be sociable and learn what can’t be taught in a classroom," she says.

Similarly, Das says she’s glad for the way her parents have raised her. Even when her parents are particularly demanding, she knows they are only looking out for her. The fact that they want what’s best for her makes it easy for Das to appreciate the hard work she puts in. "They’re like a really hard coach on the sidelines who yells until you get it right. And when you do get it right, it feels really good," she says.

Had they been more lenient, Das feels as though she would not be as accomplished as she is. "I’m thankful for the pressure," she says. "If my parents didn’t raise me this way, I wouldn’t be where I am today."



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