The parents I’m holding up as a model are flexibly directive— they guide, but they bend, and they even allow themselves to be influenced by their kids at times. They contrast sharply with two other kinds of parents. One is the tyrannical parent. In authoritarian families and societies, parents reserve much more power over children—especially fathers, and especially when children are female. The parent dictates whom the child marries, what occupation the child pursues, where the child lives. Nicholas Kristof's books and his New York Times columns are full of examples of girls (and less so, boys) whose lives are controlled to a great degree by fathers and male relatives in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Wayward daughters are brought into line quickly and sometimes even violently, as the practice of honor killing horrifyingly demonstrates. Traditional parents are also obedient—to their own parents, but also to the community as a whole, to elders and religious leaders, to traditions and customs. The man who kills his daughter for kissing a boy before marriage or choosing a career as a fashion model (both examples are from real life) does as he is supposed to, according to some of the cultural and religious voices around him.
But to what end? In an authoritarian society, many individuals lack many of the essential ingredients of a good life. Living in a society in which so many decisions are already made for them, they may not be as happy as they would be if they were more free. Even more strikingly, people without choices don’t develop their own identities, lack autonomy, and tend to stagnate, held down by the preconceptions of parents and community. But let’s come back closer to home, where authoritarian parenting also exists, though usually in a milder form.
A rather tyrannical style of parenting is candidly described in the riveting book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. As a Chinese-American Yale law professor, Chua had very strong ideas about the sort of life her daughters should live. They had to be not just A students, but A+ students; they had to be not just musical, but musical on the violin or piano (no other instruments would do); they had to be not just good at the violin or piano, but stellar. To accomplish all of those aims, the girls were required to spend long hours every day doing homework and practicing their instruments, with virtually no time off for the standard amusements of American kids—no TV, no sleepovers, no hanging out at the mall.
If all this had lavishly furnished the girls with all of the essential goods, both in the present and in the future, then "No harm done.” You can at least imagine them enjoying all these activities, finding their identity in musical and academic achievement, and growing by leaps and bounds. You can even imagine this way of life not compromising the girls’ autonomy, provided they were offered options, and actually chose to stay the course.
But life in this family was indeed a battle, as the book title suggests. When Chua first introduced her three-year-old daughter Lulu to the piano, Chua got her to stop smashing multiple keys at a time by threatening to put her in the backyard on a freezing day in New Haven, Connecticut. A few years later, she motivated Lulu to practice a hard piece by putting her dollhouse in the back seat of the car and threatening to donate it to the Salvation Army. As Chua tells it, these are success stories, because the child does become an extremely accomplished musician and an excellent student, but one has to wonder about what was sacrificed in the process. Fortunately, the family does eventually wind up bending to Lulu’s preferences: Lulu stages a major rebellion at the age of thirteen and opts out of elite violin performance, finding passions of her own, including competitive tennis. A few years later she can be found at Harvard, so her parents did get the successful child they wanted, but that is surely not redemptive; the central question has to be whether Lulu succeeded in living a life that suited her.
We can encourage our children to move in directions that we value, but only as long as they continue having enough of all the critical life goods, including autonomy. Allowing them autonomy will mean backing off in many cases, admitting that the life we would have wanted doesn’t suit our child. We have to be prepared to let a child quit the Little League, at least after a reasonable effort to give it a go; or quit violin lessons; or stay home from the hunting trips; or eat meat when the family is vegetarian; or become vegan when the family wouldn’t dream of it; or develop a passion for conservative politics when the family is liberal; or be openly gay when parents find that foreign. If we are sufficiently flexible and receptive, our children will remain a part of our extended identity—second selves, but separate.