The Making of a Mensch: Lessons from Tiger Mom

Psychologist Ivan Lerner argues that “Tiger Mom” may have a point after all image

As an educator and a clinical psychologist for the past thirty-five years, I found the debate generated by the publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale professor Amy Chua most interesting. While I do not support Chua’s overall parenting style, she does make some valid points which are especially relevant to the observant family.

When I was a child, the primary issue in my education was not about how much information I could spew; it was about respect for elders, good behavior, and proper moral conduct. My parents expected me to get a good education at school, but there was no question that being an honest, respectful, and upright person was first and foremost in their minds.

But many children today—yes, even yeshivah and day school children—exhibit an extraordinary level of chutzpah that would not have been tolerated years ago.

Recently, I received a phone call from the vice principal of an Orthodox girls’ elementary school. She was concerned. A substitute had come to teach a class of twelve-year-olds. As she entered the classroom, one girl stood up and said, “We don’t have to listen to you; you’re a substitute.” Yet another girl chimed in, “We’re known as the class that ruins teachers.” The principal punished the guilty parties, but he was concerned that the problem was deep-rooted: Why would a twelve year-old child speak to a thirty-four-year-old teacher as if she were her peer? Worse, the girls in question did not believe they did anything wrong. A few of them wanted to know: Why should this substitute tell us what to do?

Another incident: I was invited to dinner at the home of a young rabbi. The rebbetzin asked their thirteen-year-old daughter to help clean up after the meal was over. “Why do I always have to do all the work around here?” she complained. “I don’t feel like it; I’m tired and I have a lot of homework!” she said, while she angrily stalked away.

While Chua does not emphasize moral education in her book, she does hit upon a failing in Western-style parenting that is directly responsible for the lack of respect among the young: the deterioration of parental authority.

Today, by and large, many parents are so insecure that the word “No” is simply not in their vocabulary. Parents spend too much time negotiating with their children in the hope that logic and reasoning will win the child’s approval. They place themselves on their children’s level, trying hard to be their children’s friends and to curry favor with them. Most extraordinarily, they indulge their children in a way that makes them believe their needs, wants, and desires are more important than those of their parents, teachers, and other adults.

We take it for granted, for example, that it is acceptable for children to interrupt their parents’ conversations. I recently witnessed a five- or six-year-old boy interrupting his father as he spoke to the shul rav. Do we really want to teach our children that interrupting a conversation between adults is acceptable? In many religious homes, emphasis is placed on keeping mitzvot—such as kashrut and Shabbat—but not on kibbud av v’eim (honoring one’s parents). One can find three-year-olds who are well aware that they cannot play with certain toys on Shabbat; why aren’t they equally aware that they cannot interrupt their parents?

Professor Chua hits upon a failing in Western-style parenting that is directly responsible for the lack of respect among the young: the deterioration of parental authority.

If the dictum “Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah” is not taken seriously when children are young, the results during adolescence can be devastating.

Children instinctively want—and need—parents and teachers to lead. When parents fail to take charge, their children develop a myriad of behavioral problems and insecurities. It is clear from the wisdom of our sages spanning thousands of years that parents are supposed to be in charge. If a child grows up without respect for his parents, he will most likely lack respect for all authority.

Rabbi Eliyahu Capsali (sixteenth century) noted that the Fifth Commandment “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), like the four that precede it, contains God’s name. The commandments on the second Tablet, which include “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” et cetera, concern one’s relationship with his fellow man while the first five, including “Honor your father and mother,” concern our relationship with God. What is the connection between honoring one’s parents and one’s relationship with his Creator? When a child is raised to honor and obey his parents, eventually there will be a seamless transition toward honoring God and His commandments.

My grandma called the undisciplined child a “brat.” Today such a child is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The truth is some children do have ADD, but the majority of children who are diagnosed with ADD also suffer from the “brat syndrome.”

Children must learn that when they break rules, there are consequences. When parents stand in the way of their child experiencing these logical developmental consequences in order to “protect their child,” they are in fact disempowering him by creating a false notion that someone will be there to save him from the consequences of his own behavior.

Chinese parents, writes Chua, “assume strength, not fragility.” Unlike most Western parents, Chua is a confident parent and has confidence in her children—in their capabilities, and in their ability to succeed. In this respect, Chua harkens back to a different era, an era when parents had the confidence to be parents, and, as a result, children behaved better, were more secure, and their “fragile psyches” were not harmed.

Today’s parent is often a politician. Politicians constantly explain themselves because they are trying to persuade people to agree with them. Politicians want the approval of others. Parents and teachers are not supposed to be politicians. They are supposed to be leaders. They should act as if they know what they want, where they are going, and how they are going to get there. They should believe that disciplining their children appropriately (which is sometimes difficult) will produce an independent, caring, moral, and upstanding citizen–or as my grandma used to say, “a mensch!”

Rabbi Dr. Ivan Lerner is a clinical and industrial psychologist. He has served as an elementary and high school principal, a community rabbi and a therapist. Dr. Lerner has led teacher training and parenting workshops in Europe, South Africa, Australia and Canada as well as in the United Kingdom and in the United States. He and his wife, Arleeta, reside in suburban Washington, DC.

This article was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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