Surely you've seen the fracas over Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by now. Misleading as the disturbing Wall Street Journal piece may have been about the true nature of the book, you have to admit that it is absolutely brilliant marketing. Yet, leaving aside the false "strict Chinese" versus "permissive Western" parenting frame, most of the discussions - and especially the comments - online are focused on oversimplifications and extremes.
For instance, sure: the crazy controlling mother is better for most innocent bystanders than the mother who lets her kids run amok. So what?
I'm not a parent, but I find the powerless attitude implied by a lot of the comments strange. Why should it be in question whether or not parents can control their kids (at least until they really start to grow up)? If your eight year old weighs 60 pounds and you weigh three times that, you can control your eight year old. End of story.
The better questions are: to what extent should you, and to what ends?
Unpleasant experiences can sometimes teach people valuable and useful lessons. If a person never is forced to apply themselves beyond what is comfortable, then one never learns the self-discipline to utilize one's capabilities under appropriate circumstances. It's pretty clear that this lesson applies, to some degree, to everything from schoolwork to writing a good novel.
But it is a very very fine line between this lesson and the alternative lessons: that one hates the specific activity in question, that one cannot take up anything in life without devoting oneself body and soul until you succeed or break, and that one has no idea when a problem or situation is best approached with brute force or some other tactic.
For example, I had to play a musical instrument I hated when I was a child. I didn't have to practice for hours and hours, but I did have to practice everyday. Nominally the lessons began because my handwriting and coordination were so poor. But improvement was never assessed. When I wanted to try another instrument instead, my parents said I could only do it in addition to the one they wanted me to do. Needless to say, after a year or two that second instrument was dropped. When, after ten years (by which time I was typing most of my schoolwork - I'd taught myself to type and was pretty fucking good at it - talk about lack of coordination - and my handwriting was never that bad, anyway), my parents finally let me stop taking lessons for the instrument I hated, I stopped and I haven't touched it since, nor taken up any other instrument.
My dad made me drink a glass of milk every day. I hated milk - it made me gag. The nominal reason for making me drink the milk was because my bones would evidently splinter from lack of calcium if I did not, though no discussion of whether this premise was true or not was allowed. As soon as he stopped making me do it, I stopped doing it. (When I read Karen Armstrong's story of forcing down macaroni and cheese - which made her gag - in Through the Narrow Gate, it reminded me of this.) I still hate milk - it still makes me gag (you should watch me try to drink a whey protein shake if you don't believe me). My bones haven't splintered. And I think there was probably some other way to get me the calcium I needed...if that was really the point, which it clearly wasn't.
I had to do many tedious household chores, some of which took hours each week. They had to be done right, too, or I'd never hear the end of it. So tedium doesn't scare me now, but for every time my high threshold for tedium might aid me, it hurts me ten. I too readily take on tedious work and establish a precedent for being the go-to person for it, which leads people to take advantage of me and diminishes me professionally.
A tolerance for tedium and unpleasant tasks never compensates for social awkwardness. I was the fool who - in fifth grade - was actually surprised when the girl I liked was not impressed with all the work I put into my big school project. It made me wonder, seriously, why I'd invested so much effort.
Some teaching styles actually reduce the likelihood of learning. Anything my dad tried to teach me in his usual coercive style - diving is a great example - is something I still can't do. Anything others in the family tried to teach in gentler ways - swimming and riding a bike are two - are things I learned and even excelled at. Bizarrely, my dad told just the same story about his own father.
The sad truth is that my dad had no larger goal in mind than control for its own sake. As bad as that would be if your kid was going to do rote shift factory work for his whole life, it's pathetic when translated into the modern, creative working world. Hard work is important but it simply isn't going to replace good thinking, and while good thinking can come of life-or-death necessity, it usually comes when people are enjoying what they do because they're confident and interested.
Enjoying what you do doesn't mean enjoying every minute of it the way you might enjoy every minute of lounging out by the pool. But knowing what real enjoyment is, and how to find it - rather than simply being reconciled to being miserable - now there is a valuable life lesson.
This issue of control touches a real nerve. Look, here is a piece by Amy Chua's daughter telling "her side of the story." But don't you understand that in a truly controlling family there is no "her side of the story"...and such a piece, if it existed, would simply be propaganda?
I don't know whether my wife and I will have kids, but this stuff really eats at me. What is the point of an existence devoted entirely to pleasing a parent? How are you ever supposed to really know who you are? If I can't do better than my parents did, surely the biggest favor I could do my kids is not have them.
And I haven't read Amy Chua's book, but if her daughter was able to effectively rebel at the age of 13 (and the rebellion didn't involve a rope or pills), then maybe she's not as bad - and certainly not as controlling - a mom as people seem to think.