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Are Playdates Keeping Your Child Out of Harvard?

Like moms across the nation, both Care.com Editor-in-Chief Wendy Sachs and I had a strong reaction to Amy Chua’s article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”  Since the article first appeared in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal, it has caused a firestorm of both outrage and support on Twitter and Facebook in addition to the blogosphere.
To give you an idea of Ms. Chua’s described parenting techniques, she states that she DID NOT allow her children to do any of the following: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, and play any instrument other than the piano or violin.

Wendy and I sat down to talk about why we struggled so much with Ms. Chua’s point of view.  While we both saw the merit in encouraging excellence, the approach felt extreme.  The playdate is sacred to the modern mom, after all.  Other mothers online weren't so generous, calling her tactics nothing short of abuse.  It got us thinking: Do cultural values really allow for such a range of parenting practices? We decided to further examine both our own culturally developed notions of parenting and how they have affected our families. Thus, here are the musings of two women: a Filipino-American who was raised primarily in the Philippines in a highly-disciplined family and a Jewish American who was raised by lawyers and writers.  Both of us are working moms navigating the murky waters of raising kids today.  

Wendy: This extreme parenting philosophy is fascinating to me, both as a mother and a parenting writer.   As a mother of a 9-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, I was envious of Ms. Chua's ability to achieve that level of discipline from her daughters and horrified by how much she denied her children socially.  I want the straight A’s and the musical virtuosity from my kids, but I disagree that the only way to get those results is through belittlement and denial of playdates and school plays.   

Sheila: I can empathize with Ms. Chua's point of view.  My Filipino parents were loving, but they did have a prescriptive approach that placed a high value on educational discipline. I tried a similar approach with our first son Ryan.  Ryan loved music.  What he really wanted to do was sing, but we didn’t encourage that; we forced him to play a string instrument since that’s what many Asian parents did.  We battled over his cello practice and ultimately let him drop it. I do think he regrets it at times, but I didn't think the battle was worth it.  We changed our parenting style with Adam.  We saw that he loved singing as a child, too. And this time, we encouraged him. He takes piano lessons, but I require teachers that don’t force him to learn classical piano, but rather teach him the chords to accompany his singing.  He now will play tunes on his own in the piano and experiment with music.  We’ve even bought him an electric key board.

While I have always stressed hard work – there are no shortcuts – I hold empathy and kindness as equally important values that I encourage in both boys.

Wendy: I think there's a validity in the argument she makes about American parenting as a little too permissive, a little too soft. We tend to coddle our children.  I would argue that her method of extreme parenting would hinder critical thinking skills and creativity. Success is not just about getting all A’s.  I’ll admit that after reading the article, I found myself channeling Ms. Chua's strictness when it came to getting my son to study for his math test.  I began offering ultimatums and delivering threats.  The end result was my son reduced to tears.  It was awful. I was drained from it.  And it stirred another fear:  burnout. Ultimately, I see a real backlash to this strict discipline. And what happens when Ms. Chua's children have to go to college and think for themselves?  Or when they enter the workforce and don't have the social skills to lead a team or empathize with the different views of others? You learn how to play with others on a playdate.  These are not skills on which you can be graded.  And not placing a value on them is doing a disservice to children and our society.

Sheila: We took some things we thought worked and experimented with things that didn’t. In the end, it really varies by family and also by child.  Ryan and I are much closer now. We’ve traveled together on mom-son trips. He talks to me and ask regularly for advice about everything.  It wasn’t just the cello, we’ve learned to not be authoritative about aspects about his life – where to go to college, what his major should be, what he wants to be when he grows up... It's different from how my parents raised me. I know I turned out okay, but I do think we are raising children in a different world now and cultural norms.  I still place a high value on hard work, but I put happiness right up there at the top of my list.

Wendy: Sheila, I think your shift – and willingness to part from how you were raised – is BOLD and even brave.  I know you work really hard to create special relationships with both of your boys.  One thing that's important to note in both of us, is that we've both sought out help.  We've outsourced. We both have had child care providers help us to raise our kids.  I've hired tutors, dog walkers, housekeepers.  While I found Chua’s piece disparaged "Western" or modern parenting, I do believe that we see the value of help to both benefit us and our children.

Sheila: I really did think that I could do it all at one point in my life!  But I never wanted to deny motherhood to explore entrepreneurism.  Ron and I have found that having help enables us to focus on Adam when we're home at night. Believe me, I've experienced care crises like any working mom.

Wendy:  It is so important to have a dialogue about these matters.  Parenting is hard work.  There's no silver bullet in its success; not strict discipline, not pure freedom.  It's somewhere in the middle.  Whether or not this book kicks off a fad or a firestorm, I do see its value.  I think I'll try a few of her points with my kids.  And if they don't work entirely, that's okay. 

Sheila: Care.com members, please join our discussion: What do you think about this article and about the differences between cultural parenting philosophies in general? What works for your family?  How is your style different from your parents?

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