I really hate the term “verbal abuse”. It came into vogue in the 1990s when studies show that children who were yelled at repeatedly had just as poor outcomes in many cases as some who were beaten. The thought went, then, that since yelling is just as bad as beating, we can call yelling “verbal abuse”.
But that’s not necessarily true, and verbal abuse is such an amorphous term. I have known women who have left their husbands who justify it, saying he was “verbally abusive” towards me and the kids, because the church allows you to divorce for abuse. But when questioned what they meant by verbal abuse, they would say that “he picked at little things all the time”, or “he never said anything nice to me”, etc.
I’ve seen other cases in my husband’s pediatric practice where a divorce has occurred, and one parent has claimed “verbal abuse”, convincing their children that their dad is abusive because he gets loud. And they start cowering in front of him.
So I’m not big on the term. I do agree that words can be as damaging as blows in many cases, but to me, context matters. If a person has a short fuse, but they’re also really affectionate, then we’re not going to interpret what he says in those moments when he’s angry as really reflecting his feelings. On the other hand, if that’s ALL he ever said, then it is abusive.
And so, with that background, I’d like to revisit that whole “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” thing, because some really interesting things came out of the comments last week. For those of you who didn’t see that original post (and you really should read it), here’s the low-down: Amy Chua, a Chinese mother, published an editorial saying Chinese moms are better because they push their kids towards excellence and don’t accept laziness or failure.
I said that doing anything without God is wrong. Our job as parents is to equip kids to do what God wants them to do, not what we want them to do. But we do need to equip, which means teaching things and expecting their best effort. Chua’s problem is that she’s expecting “success” defined very narrowly, and basing worth on that.
Anyway, others smarter than I have commented on this essay, too, and I want to draw your attention to just a few things before making a larger point about parenting styles (and verbal abuse!). First, Kejda Gjermani writes in Commentary that Amy’s whole parenting style seems to breed socialism/communism. It’s really interesting, but it boils down to this:
To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same.
Wow. That’s just one sentence long. That’s a very DEEEEEP and LOOOONG sentence. But what Kejda is saying is this: The Chinese method doesn’t produce beauty and grace and virtue; it produces obedience and a lack of creativity, the very opposite of what we want. And then we wonder why China lives under a Communist government.
That’s the intellectual critique. Now let’s go for a more practical critique, by Katie Granju. She writes:
I reject Chua’s assertion that her children are necessarily “superior” to their classmates being raised in a more relaxed, western fashion. That’s because Chua’s definition of success for her daughters is extremely narrow, focusing as it does on music (classical only, and only on acceptable instruments), academics (specifically math and science) and complete acceptance of parental domination. The only way Chua’s hypothesis of superior parenting producing superior children is if you accept this very limited definition of success.
So true. The only success Chua thinks counts is academic and classical music. She is the dictator demanding what the kids must do.
Which brings me to a larger point, and back to verbal abuse. In one particular instance Chua recounts in her essay, she had to bully her young daughter to perfect a piano piece for a recital. She called her names, yelled, stole toys, and threatened. But the girl got her piece right, and Chua sees this as success.
Is this verbal abuse? I don’t know, but it does seem like in other areas of her life Chua is affectionate, so I’d hesitate to call it that. Context matters. But what Chua is doing is trying to use Power to force her children to do what she wants.
We can operate, as parents, from a position of either Power or Authority. Power makes a child do something; Authority makes them want to do it. When someone has moral authority over you, they may not hold any strings over your life, but you want to live up to their expectations. You want to do the things they want you to do. When someone has power, they can make you obey, but they can’t touch your heart.
God has ultimate Power and ultimate Authority, but He chooses to lay aside His power to exercise His authority. He could zap you when you do wrong. He could compel you to do right. But He doesn’t. He would rather we freely choose it.
As parents, that’s what we need to be working towards, too. We start out with power, yelling, “No!” and slapping a wrist if a toddler walks too close to the stove. But as they get older, we use raw power less and work on developing a relationship so that we have moral authority.
If we exercise only power–constantly grounding kids and punishing kids and yelling at kids–then when they leave home, they’re very unlikely to go in the direction we want because they haven’t internalized any of our values. They’ve been made outwardly to do things, but not inwardly to want to do them.
We must parent with a mixture of power and authority, and as children age, the power must grow less and the authority must grow more. That doesn’t mean that we don’t discipline; only that the environment in our house must be about a free exchange of ideas, so that children feel as if they are free to choose their path, and free to explore what God wants for them, outside of what we want for them. They shouldn’t be under our thumb, in other words.
Ms. Chua doesn’t give her children any choices, and I don’t think that’s healthy. It may not be abusive, but it does rely too much on Power and not enough on Authority. The problem is that authority takes a long time to develop. You have to spend time with kids, show you love and value your kids, show you want what’s best for them, so that they want to follow you. When you haven’t built up that relationship, all you have to go on is raw power–and that’s when parents and teens get into these power struggles, where the teens go off the rails, and the parents try to clamp down really hard. They have no other leverage.
Don’t do that. Don’t try to control your kids like Amy Chua does, because you lose your authority. But also spend time really getting to know them, showing you value them, and leading them to God. Then you do have authority. It has to start when they’re very young, but the more you do that when they’re 2-5, they more they’ll listen to you when they’re 12-15.
Parents, do not exasperate your children, as Paul wrote in Ephesians. Love them and lead them. Don’t force them into a mold. Don’t ignore their feelings. And you just may find that they WANT to follow where you lead.
UPDATE: I’ve been getting some comments that I’m being too hard on Chinese culture–they have to be strict because there is no leeway in their society. You fail as a teen, and your life is severely restricted. I understand that, and I understand the need for discipline. I just want to reiterate, as I said in my first article about this, that I don’t consider myself a “Western” mom, I consider myself a Christian mom who probably leans more towards the Chinese model than the lax Canadian one. I also consider my Asian brothers and sisters in Christ closer to me than the North American parents who buy into the consumer mentality. So this isn’t a West (ie. Me) vs. Them thing–it’s just a comment on culture without God, which both the West and Asia currently have.
I should also note that I have plenty of Korean/Chinese friends who came to Canada to escape the pressure on their children. And my own half-brother is half Asian, raised in similar methods to Amy Chua. So I am not trying to make a racial judgment, only a cultural one. And I speak as one who does not consider myself really part of Western culture in particular, but part of a bigger global culture, which encompasses my Chinese/Korean/Japanese brothers and sisters.