Being a Parent and Being a Teacher

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In a recent blog posting, entitled “Self-Actualization Is Not the Sole Purpose of Human Existence,” Freddie deBoer, who is among the most eloquent, prolific, and insightful commentators on contemporary American culture and society, subjects the recent Disney/Pixar film Turning Red to close critical scrutiny.  

The movie, in case you haven’t seen it, depicts the protagonist’s struggle to break free from the weight of her mother’s restrictive parenting practices.  Mei, a fun-loving Chinese-Canadian, craves freedom from her mother’s crushing and overwhelming expectations, and seeks to define her own independent identity.  

deBoer quite rightly considers the animated feature an exaggerated and extravagant expression of the hyper-individualistic idea that self-validation and self-actualization ought to trump all other values or duties.  He’s certainly not alone in his fear that an excess of expressive individualism is contributing to a crisis of intimacy and attachment, an epidemic of chronic loneliness and isolation, and the erosion of the traditions and dense social networks that are valuable sources of support and meaning.  

What he doesn’t say, but which I think we should add, is that the film is a self-conscious attack not just on the Amy Chua Tiger Mom ethos, but on a set of values widely held among many immigrant families today and in the past.

Yale Law professor Chua’s 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother represented a full-throated defense of extreme parenting, unbending, iron-willed, firm, and resolute.  Some praised its emphasis on high expectations, but others condemned this approach to childrearing as unfeeling, overly controlling, devoid of warmth, and utterly undemocratic.  Maternal love, far from unconditional, was wholly contingent on the child’s success.

Much of the parenting literature rests on a typology of childrearing styles.  Family therapists typically distinguish between Indulgent parents, permissive parents, authoritarian parents, anxious parents, neglectful parents, disengaged parents, controlling parents, and supportive parents.  

Some parents hover.  Some protect.  Some are strict.  Some are relaxed.  

But much of that literature heaps praise on a particular style of parenting: Authoritative parents who are warm, responsive, and understanding, but who also monitor their children closely, communicate frequently, and set clear boundaries.

The authoritative parent might be viewed as the familial embodiment of Aristotle’s golden mean.

Yet, from an anthropological, cultural, and historical perspective, this ideal is clearly culture bound and class delimited.  It’s an ideal that holds a peculiar kind of cultural hegemony.  

Years ago, the American historian Aileen Kraditor illustrated the concept of cultural hegemony with an intriguing metaphor: a fishbowl.  To a fish, the fishbowl’s glass might seem invisible, and the bowl itself might seem limitless.  Only when a fish touches the glass does it realize that it inhabits an enclosure. 

All too often, I fear, even those of us who study social institutions, roles, and behaviors forget that we are often embedded within a particular cultural paradigm.

Studies of Asian American and other immigrant parenting practices offer a powerful reminder about the danger of cultural and intellectual insularity.  

I am well aware of the dangers of overgeneralization and the risks of attributing any common attributes to families that differ markedly in terms of class, date of arrival, national background, religion, and countless other variables.  Nevertheless, there are certain gross generalizations that do contain important kernels of truth and convey significant insights.  

Among many immigrant families, we see:

1. A greater emphasis on family interdependence than is found in the stereotypical white, non-Hispanic upper middle-class nuclear family.

2. A heightened stress on reciprocal family obligations.

3. Greater respect for the elderly.

4. Investment of children and adolescents with more family responsibilities, including caring for siblings and family members, cleaning the home, and cooking meals.

5. A high value attached to family harmony.

6. A tendency to frown upon the open emotional expression of resentments. 

7. A deeply held belief that intimacy and closeness ought not be expressed through hugging and kissing.

8. Deep concerns about personal and familial shame and the importance of maintaining propriety

9. Parental resistance to praising or cheerleading children. 

10. Very high expectations for children’s achievement.

11. A belief that parents should coach their children and take the lead to introducing them to matters such as musicianship.

You’ll notice that those tendencies differ sharply from those we often associate with native-born upper-middle-class non-Hispanic white parents, who often exist within a culture that places enormous amount of pressure on parents and especially mothers to:

  • Boost their child’s self-esteem.
  • Communicate frequently with their child.
  • Entertain their children and ensure they are happy and never bored.
  • Express love frequently, physically and verbally, and unconditionally. 
  • Praise their child incessantly

Within this particular cultural regime, the mother is often expected to serve as servant, chauffeur, tutor, and entertainer, arranging playdates, throwing lavish birthday parties, asking children what they want to eat, and helping their children with their homework.  The goal of parenting is a (futile) effort to protect children from risks to their physical or emotional well-being, intervene and advocate on their behalf, invest in enrichment activities, excuse any faults, and address any problems or shortcomings.

This is, of course, quite different than an earlier parenting idea (when this was called childrearing): to focus on correcting behavior and forming character, rather than emphasizing achievement, instilling manners, and forming a responsible, self-regulating adult. 

What, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with college?

I think we as teachers have a great deal to learn from the literature on parenting.  As the psychologist Douglas A. Bernstein has observed, much as particular parenting styles tend to elicit certain kinds of behavior, so, too, certain “teaching styles can affect behavioral and educational outcomes.”

Bernstein maintains (without, in my opinion, sufficient substantiation) that:

“Permissive-indulgent, permissive-neglectful and authoritarian parenting have all been associated with a variety of problematic personal, social and emotional characteristics that can play out in academic settings in the form of anxiety and low achievement, but also in irresponsibility, impulsivity, dependency, lack of persistence, unreasonable expectations and demands and dishonesty.”

My response: A Scottish verdict: “not proven.”

But I do believe that instructors have much to learn from parents and vice versa.

Here are my take-aways.

1. Beware of the dangers of ethnocentricity.
Much of the literature on parenting was, for far too long, culture bound and class specific.

It is all too easy to view a topic through a lens that reflects the standards of one’s own culture or historical moment.  Much of the value of anthropology and history lies in the way that these disciplines “exoticize” present-day customs, practices, or values that are often regarded normal or natural.  Anthropologists and historians expose kinds of diversity that we shouldn’t ignore, including diversity of values, perspectives, customs, behavior, and expectations.

2. Remember: Effective instructors are culturally responsive but also culturally resistant. 
Get to know your students.  Tap into their cultural capital.  Be cross-culturally aware and culturally sensitive.  Acknowledge and respect your students and their points of view. Reflect deeply about your own beliefs.  

But much as many parents must parent against the culture, teaching, especially in fields without an obvious financial return on investment, often entails teaching against the culture.  This requires an instructor to respond to the presumption that a particular topic is worthless or irrelevant or insignificant or that a reading or writing assignment is without value.

3. Note that deep learning is effortful learning.
As every parent eventually learns, children grow by surmounting challenges.  Ditto in the classroom.  If learning is easy, it won’t produce meaningful results. 

Lasting learning requires productive struggle – the application of existing knowledge and skills to solve problems or challenges that lie in the zone of proximal development, which a student can solve with appropriate scaffolding and support.

4. Recognize that insofar as an effective instructor is like a parent, a teacher must combine the attributes of an authoritative parent and a tiger parent.
Project warmth.  Be empathetic and genuinely caring.  Communicate clear and high expectations.  Be supportive. But, also, demand excellence. Be vigilant.  Plan, design, organize, and initiative learning activities that push students.  

Don’t serve as your students’ frontal lobe.

I don’t know if it’s true, that “teaching will make you a better parent and being a parent will make you a better teacher.”  I only wish that parenting and teaching had done for me what a teacher, parent, and blogger named Catlin Tucker claims it did for her.  

From teaching, she writes, she learned:

  • To be calmer in a crisis.
  • Not to hover, but, instead, to encourage her children to be independent and to explore.

From motherhood, in turn, she learned:

  • The value of patience, flexibility, and compassion. 
  • To regard “kids as kids,” as beings in a process of development and maturation, who are striving to find their way in the world.

And from both teaching and parenting, she learned that her goal was not just to instill skills and impart knowledge, but to foster curiosity, creativity, kindness, and confidence.

Sounds right to me. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.