Widely Popular New Parenting Books Resemble Traditional Jewish Teachings

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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was released in January 2011. It is a memoir about a Chinese mother and the successes and failures of her parenting approach.In the last two years, two top-selling books have been published on parenting that have sparked increasing discussion about the efficacy of American, or “Western” parenting.

Last year, Amy Chua, a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a professor at Yale Law School, published a memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which received great media attention and questioned the various benefits of both Eastern and Western parenting. While Chua was asked to reconcile her Chinese values and upbringing with an increasingly materialist social climate in the United States today, Pamela Druckerman, a former Wall Street Journal writer and New Yorker, was forced to integrate her American style with the French while raising her young children in Paris. In Bringing up Bébé, Druckerman assiduously tracks the attitudes and behaviors of French parents and provides insights on the pros and cons of French parenting. Both Chua and Druckerman ultimately conclude that each culture can offer insights into child-raising, but that each toddler should be treated as his own entity with different needs and desires. This assertion is consonant with Jewish values, and contrasting the books’ suggestions with Jewish parenting methods offer equally illuminating conclusions.

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was published in January 2011, Amy Chua chronicles her parenting efforts with her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, and the successes and failures borne by her Chinese approach. In the early part of the book, Chua explains her child-rearing philosophy and prefaces her memoir by elucidating exactly why Chinese mothers are so strict with their children, and why they see harshness and intransigence as uncompromising values for any parent. Chinese parents are widely viewed as unduly stringent in their parenting, as they austerely drill their children with schoolwork and demand scholastic and all-around success at all costs. Chua says that this Eastern method was installed to honor both parents and children, to extend the legacy of Chinese ancestry through one’s offspring while also ensuring that the offspring enjoy their experiences along the way. Preventing “generational decline” was the guiding parenting principle by which Chua operated.

“The next generation is the one I spend nights worrying about,” she writes. “Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents, this generation will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class… They may or may not attend private schools, but in either case, they will expect expensive, brand-name clothes. “

“Finally, and most problematically, they will feel they have individual rights guaranteed by the constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice,” Chua adds. “In short, all factors point to this generation headed straight for decline.”

In order to ensure the continuance of her family’s tradition, Chua conjured ways in which she could instill “Chinese immigrant” values while occupying a spot in the American upper middle class. “I knew that I couldn’t artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids,” she explains. “But I could make sure that Sophia and Lulu were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were.”

Chua thought the answer rested in classical music instruction. “Classical music was the opposite of decline, laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness,” says the “Tiger Mom”. “It was way for my children to achieve something I hadn’t. But it was also a tie-in to the high cultural tradition of my ancient ancestors.”

Besides for sending her kids to music lessons at an early age, Chua gave Sophia and Lulu lessons in Mandarin, accepted no less than A grades in school, and occasionally asked her daughters to conduct mild physical labor. These activities and commands, coupled with instruction on modesty and humility, were the means through which the Yale Law School professor aimed to mold “Chinese” children in the U.S.
Chua explored all available options to actualize her hopes for her daughters, and, for this, she has undergone intensive scrutiny. Throughout Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua bribes, threatens, excoriates, and fights with her daughters to enforce her rules and commands. She assumes strength, not fragility, and thinks she knows what is best for her children. These views give her license to answer cries with commands and condemnation, success with silence and selected praise. According to Orthodox Jewish parenting experts, this approach does not mesh well with Jewish values.

“If you are trying to influence your children in a certain direction, and fail at doing so, the solution is not to resort to threats and fights,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, a licensed therapist in New York and director of parent mentoring and the KESHER school program at Agudath Israel’s Project YES. “From a Jewish standpoint, one should seek to provide a strong alternative. If the child repudiates the Torah and wants to leave his faith, for example, the answer is not to criticize. Acknowledge what your child continues to do that you approve of, and continue to give him the opportunity to repent.”

“Show that, if he wants to come back, you are there to welcome him,” Rabbi Ackerman added. “Never give up on him.” 

In a telephone interview with the Jewish Voice, the rabbi emphasized the fundamental principle of “Chanoch le’naar al pi darko”—training a child according to his own way. At the end of her book, Amy Chua concedes to this precept. Sophia, her elder daughter, emerged as a happy teen with a robust academic, social, and musical life, but Lulu, her younger child, failed to adhere to Chua’s system. Lulu demanded independence, and her mother was forced to retreat. Chua’s conclusion: When Chinese parenting works, fantastic. When it does not, it is better to forfeit before tensions boil over and your child rebels.

Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother sheds light on the foundations of Chinese parenting. It shows how Chinese parents raise such academically successful kids, and what a Chinese child experiences during toddlerhood and through adolescence. In Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman takes a different turn as she focuses exclusively on babies and toddlers, elaborating on the experience of being pregnant, giving birth, and caring for infants and young children in French society. Published earlier last month, Bringing up Bébé has already earned a top-ten spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

 Druckerman, a Jewish former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, moved to Paris with her British husband, and talks about her discovery of French parenting and its distinctive qualities.“It turns out that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy,” Druckerman writes. “You need a very different view of what a child actually is.” While Druckerman cites a plethora of examples to characterize French parenting, what stands out at the book’s end is the French perspective that underpins Parisian child-rearing ways. According to Druckerman, the French view of children is predicated on the views of two scholars: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Françoise Dolto.

An eighteenth century philosopher, Rousseau gained renown in the parenting realm when he famously wrote Emile, or On Education in 1762. In Bringing up Bébé, Druckerman notes two important ideas first mentioned by Rousseau that she sees being played out in contemporary society: allowing children to “awaken” themselves and “discover” the world, and establishing a framework—cadre, in French—to circumscribe the freedoms of young ones as they learn about themselves and the world around them.

“Rousseau thought children should be given space to unfold naturally,” Druckerman writes. While the philosopher advocated for autonomy and discovery, however, he was also careful to set limits. “For Rousseau, the only possible master is the parent,” explains Druckerman. “He often seems to be describing the cadre—or frame—that is the model for today’s French parents.  The ideal of the cadre is that parents are very strict about certain things but very relaxed about most everything else.”

For Jewish parents, this cadre manifests in the Torah and its dictates. Children are asked to adhere to certain principles from a young age, but are given freedom within the Torah framework.

“The Torah contains infinite wisdom that can be applied practically to any given situation,” says Dr. Meir Wikler, a columnist for Hamodia and author of Partners in Parenting: The Questions Parents Ask. The Answers They Need, among other parenting books. “I think children can be ‘awakened’ and ‘discover’ the world around them by being Torah observant and learning Torah.”

 Druckerman also notes Françoise Dolto, who came to a head in the 1970s as a pediatrician and psychoanalyst. She instructed parents to treat their children as rational beings from infancy, and this view is seen in France today when mothers verbally explain things to their nonspeaking children.
“In a sort of emancipation of babies, [Dolto] claimed that even infants are rational, and indeed they understand language as soon as they’re born,” the journalist writes. “It’s an intuitive, almost mystical message. And it’s a message that ordinary French people still embrace, even if they don’t all articulate it exactly.”

According to both Rabbi Ackerman and Dr. Wikler, there are instances in the Torah suggesting that children can be taught in the womb and during infancy.

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