How Strict is Too Strict?

The new Tiger mom approach has us all wondering if we need to be tougher on our kids.

Too Strict Moms - Parents CanadaGeorgie is an adorable eight-year-old who is about to have her first piano recital. She is no virtuoso, but plays very well for her young age. Her mother, Evelyn, is quite pleased about this, but she is more serious about the process than her daughter is. Evelyn supervises the practices as a matter of routine.

“Georgie, start from the pick-up in the eighth bar. No, not there, right here. Start there.” Evelyn’s words are piercing and precise.

Georgie begins to play, but her mother interrupts. “No, it needs to be softer here. Let the dynamics build slowly. We are going to do this until you get it right. Try that again.”

Georgie has the slightest hint of a scowl on her face, but says nothing. She has learned that the quickest way to end these unpleasant lessons is to try and “get it right” as fast as she can. Complaining only prolongs the misery.

This scenario is too strict for most of us. Isn’t this supposed to be fun? Well, you’d be surprised at how many people take this approach. For this is precisely the tenor of the lessons in parenting suggested by Yale University Law professor Amy Chua in her recently released book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it Chua implies that parenting in Western cultures is too indulgent and the strict values and practices of traditional Chinese parents is what leads to a more capable adult. In Chua’s world, children should do as they are told, not indulge in what Western children enjoy such as play-dates or sleepovers, and of course TV and computer games. The only acceptable grades in schools are all A’s and generally children should be seen and not heard.

Beyond Cultural Issue
Though many, including Chua, have tried to portray this strict description of parenting through ethnic and cultural lenses, it has historically pervaded in virtually all cultures. Indeed, researchers have long been studying the “Authoritarian Parent,” who is routinely strict about all rules and is cold and non-responsive toward their children’s desires. This parenting style is in marked contrast to the “Permissive Parent”, who imposes little or no rules on their children and attempts to raise their children as friends and collaborators. Permissive parents will argue that reason and the child’s unbridled self-expression, instead of oppressive rules, will result in happier and healthier children.

So, how does this style of parenting play out in the day-to-day? Let’s look at an example of a child raised in a really strict Authoritarian manner.

Ten-year-old Tommy is a serious young man. His father is strict and isn’t much for hugs and kisses. There also isn’t much in the way of conversation or discussions about the reasons behind discipline or anything else in life. On the rare occasion that Tommy complains about “why” he has to do something, his father responds with the parenting classic “because I said so.” (Not to be confused with the tongue-in-cheek title of the back page column of this magazine!)

Generally speaking, Tommy is a compliant boy who does what he is told. He’d better, because his father would give him a good spanking if he didn’t. The fact is that his father has probably only spanked him a handful of times in his life. But by this age, just hearing his father raising his voice gives Tommy the needed fear to watch out for what he says and does.

The problems that Tommy started to have appeared only subtly in school. At the first teacher conference, Tommy’s teacher nicely, but directly, indicated that he seemed to have a hard time answering any questions about his reading if it called for a judgment or an interpretation.

“It’s as if he is afraid to make a mistake,” his teacher described, “and, I just can’t get an opinion out of him. He seems to always want to be told what the right answer is without considering what he thinks about a problem.”

Tommy’s mother also began to notice other things. Something as simple as ordering food off the menu in a restaurant seemed like a challenge for Tommy, who preferred his mother to order for him. Or, he would always want to wear the same few clothes every day and could never make up his mind about alternatives. He was becoming narrow-minded and rigid in his thinking.

What’s the “fix” for Tommy? Being given a “voice.” Being allowed to render an opinion. Having rules that include him deciding for himself what and how he should solve problems, rather than always being told what to do.

Children raised by a strict Authoritarian Tiger Mom approach may be highly obedient, it’s true, but the risk is that they won’t think and speak for themselves. Standing your own ground and speaking your mind are learned skills. Similarly, permissive parents risk raising children who are self-centred and do not develop skills for caring about others.

Down the Middle
The best outcomes for children seem to be associated with a mix of both styles. Parents who demand high levels of appropriate conduct and are warm and responsive to their children’s wants and desires will have children who do best throughout life. These kids are more likely to have good and enduring friendships, do well in school and career, be personally responsible and be caring of others.

This type of parenting, known as “Authoritative Parenting” (not to be confused with Authoritarian!), is the way any psychologist in my business hopes that parents will raise their kids.

Enforceable rules that fit your kids are crucial to have in your parenting toolbox. But, please don’t confuse that with not giving children all kinds of latitude in asserting their wants and desires. The message to our kids should be “do what you want to do.” You want to have a sleepover? Knock yourself out. TV or computer games? Go for it. But, the other part of the message is, “First, get done what you’ve got to get done.”

Teach balance. Kids need to know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and expectations, but they also need to know that we respect their wishes and desires.

A self-disciplined child who learns to find his or her own voice that is heard by their parents, grows into a teen who will know how to say “no” to their peers when they go too far. Hey Tiger Mom… what do your kids do for fun (especially when you’re not looking)!

Published in May, 2011.

Michael J. Weiss, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in helping families and schools manage developmental differences in children.

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