Now and then, friends and I will exchange phone calls for what we call "spine straighteners." These conversations revolve around moments in domestic life when a stated policy -- a teenager's curfew time, the continuance of an expensive after-school activity -- goes all wobbly. The jelly-vertebraed mother usually makes the call, so as to confess and receive correction. Maybe she told her son he needed to finish the season with his basketball team even though he no longer enjoys the game. Now he's miserable and she feels like a tyrant. What's the point of forcing the kid to play a game he hates, anyway? Should she let him quit?
The spine straightener's job is to put steel in her gelatinous friend, even if she secretly sympathizes. Of course he has to finish the season. It's good for children to struggle. Plus, you told him he had to play, so you have to follow through.
This sort of agonizing makes up a surprising proportion of parental conversations-- though not, it seems, among a certain high-achieving subset of families.
If Amy Chua is to be believed, no self-respecting Chinese mother would give a moment's care to whether her son "loves" the instrument or sport chosen for him. His job is to excel, and if he doesn't then he's evidently lazy and in need of browbeating.
In Chua's delightfully incendiary new book about the Asian model of parenting, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," she draws sharp and unflattering distinctions. Western mothers come off as fretful but loving softies; Asian mothers as flinty but loving bullies who turn out superior children.
For instance, Chua points out (and she's right about this), Western parents worry endlessly about their children's delicate self-esteem, and lavish praise for fear of damaging it.
"Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches," the author says. "Chinese parents aren't. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently."
How differently? Well, if a son is unproductive he might get called names such "fatty" or "stupid" or "worthless." If a daughter brings home an A- on a test, Chua goes on, "a Western parent will most likely praise the child. The Chinese mother will gasp in horror and ask what went wrong."
Not surprisingly, Chua's book has touched off a firestorm. Irate proponents of more relaxed and nurturing parenting styles point to suicides among Chinese children, the unfairness of demanding straight-A's from kids who might not be capable of them, and the specific genetic advantages of Chua's high-achieving daughters (both the author and her husband teach at Yale Law School).
But what a spine straightener! We squishy Western mothers may not adopt the Chinese model of hurling insults to motivate our children anytime soon, but I feel sure we have plenty to learn from a woman like Amy Chua. Children do need to struggle. They often can do better than they're doing. And, truth be told, many of us could use a little more parental backbone.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.