The fire storm unleashed by Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” (besides being a publicist's dream) swirls around a hot-button question that has dominated discussions of parenting and education since the 1960s: how do you help kids develop a strong self-esteem?
While Chua, a self-named “Tiger Mother,” doesn’t herself claim to have a “superior” method that would work for everyone, she does accuse “American” parents of coddling their children’s egos by protecting them from overly-harsh criticism or demands, in the belief that self-esteem produces achievement. “Chinese” parents, she counters, convinced of their children’s inherent strength, hold high demands and lavish pointed criticism, in the belief that achievement produces self-esteem.
Many of Chua's critics, however, share a common assumption that self-esteem rides on a perception of ourselves as being the best at something—whether it is schoolwork, music prowess, or parenting.
We all want to be the best. Why else would the WSJ choose the provocative “superior” in its title for Chua’s piece? Why else would so many readers lunge for the bait and disagree?
Even those respondents who claim that there is no formula for parenting, that every child is different, and that every relationship must find its own logic, do so from a place of wanting to be the best parent, or the better parent, for their own children at least.
So, what is wrong with wanting to be the best? Nothing. It is as “American” as it is “Chinese” as it is human.
However, there is a problem when we tie our self-esteem to a perception of ourselves as being better than someone else. For when we do, we bind ourselves—and our children—to an obsessive practice of comparing our accomplishments with those of others, ever suspicious and resentful of anyone who appears to be better than we are. We train ourselves and our children to perceive such individuals as threats to our well-being. So cramped and bound, our competitive spirits generate insecurity, fear, and bitterness in us.
Is that what we want for our children? Or for ourselves?
I remember the day that I learned: there are other moves to make.
I am about to dive into the pool for my regular workout. I am looking for a lane in which the swimmers are swimming more slowly than I do. I know that I always feel better and more energetic when I am passing others, rather than being passed.
Then I see her—the lone swimmer in her lane—swimming undoubtedly faster than I can. I stand there, mesmerized by the smooth rhythms of her churning limbs and split-staccato of her dashing flip-turns. An inner cry erupts: I want to swim like that!
Ordinarily I would avoid her lane. She is faster than I am. But this time I jump in eagerly, knowing she will lap me many times, and secretly glad. I will have more chances to watch her, and to learn from her how to move with such a graceful, easy flow.
My workout that day was one of my best ever. I hopped out of the pool, suffused with joy and celebrating with gratitude the strength of the woman who was a better swimmer than I was. I was free to affirm my self, and thus, free to learn how to become more.
Wanting to be the best is not a problem. This desire to be the best is what motivates us to learn from other people how to do what we want to do better than we are doing it. It is a vital energy that opens us to the benefits of being the social creatures that we are.
At the same time, in order to take full advantage of this energy, we must detach our sense of self-esteem from a perception of ourselves as better than others.
In this process, it helps to remember several crucial facts. First, any measure of “best” is arbitrary. There can be no absolute best—only various sets of hurdles and obstacles designed to pull out aspects of an infinite human potential at a certain time and place. Second, on any measure you choose, there will always be people who do what you do better than you do, and others who don’t. Third, as a result, it makes no sense to tie your self-esteem to being better than anyone at anything. It is simply impossible to be the best at anything other than being yourself.
Once you detach your self-esteem from the idea of being the best, then the path to making the best possible use of your competitive energies lurches into view: celebrate the accomplishments of others, especially, those who seem to be better than you at doing whatever you want to do. Acknowledge them. Applaud them. Open to them. And when you do, you will be free to learn from them all they have to teach you about how to be the best... at who you have the potential to be.
The same holds for our children, and we can help them learn so by being and becoming the best that we can be.
Call it Moose Mothering.
I wake in the morning, surrounded by mist. Crawling out of my sleeping bag, I perch on the edge of the lean-to, looking out into the wilderness I know surrounds me. I can see for twenty feet before my vision disappears into shrouds of gray. Geoff and I are here camping, at the foot of Mount Katahdin, in Baxter State Park, hoping to summit today. I am five months pregnant with my first child, wondering at the changes this small being will bring to our lives, wondering what kind of parent I will be.
A rustling to my right turns my head. A moose cow lumbers into view, calmly nosing about in the underbrush, paying no attention to me. I pay attention to her.
As she passes into the clearing in front of the lean-to, a calf prances out of the bush behind her, quickly catching up. He gazes around, meets my eye, glances at his mother, and then sinks his nose into the underbrush too. Two steps behind, three feet below, he is doing exactly what she is doing, making her moves. He lifts his head again, peers around, and returns to his nibbling.
I watch her some more. She is not looking at him. She doesn’t react to his antics. She stays the course of her own nourishment. Yet as I watch her, I know: her every cell is alert and alive to his presence. She smells, hears, and feels where her calf is with every sensory surface. If her calf strayed too far or fell in the way of harm, she would be there in an instant, all heft and hooves.
The thought flares through my mind: it’s perfect parenting. This moose mother is making the movements she would ordinarily do, with an expanded, heightened sense of self. Everything she does is more important than it ever was, for the little one is learning from her how.
At that moment, I vowed to be a Moose Mother, making the moves in my own life that I want my children to make in their own.
So, I applaud Amy Chua for having such accomplished daughters! I congratulate her for staging such a stunning book release! (My family memoir won’t be out until June.)