If you think typical western parenting styles have not served children well, you might be interested in Amy Chua’s new book:
The Tiger, Chua explains, is “the living symbol of strength and power”, inspiring fear and respect. And as a “Tiger mother” herself, she assumed the absolute right to dictate her children’s activities and demand rigorous academic standards of them at all times, ridiculing them if necessary to spur them on to greater efforts.
Her children were never allowed to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, watch TV or choose their own extracurricular activities. They were also expected to be top in every subject (except gym and drama) and never get anything other than A-grades — because, Chua explains, Chinese parents believe it is their responsibility to ensure their children’s academic achievement above everything else.
Chua argues that western parents. with their emphasis on nurturing their children’s self-esteem and allowing free expression, have set their children up to accept mediocrity. “Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently,” she says. If their child doesn’t achieve perfect exam results, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because he or she didn’t work hard enough. “That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child,” Chua says. And it is crucial for a mother to have the “fortitude” to override her children’s preferences, because to enjoy anything you have to be good at it, to be good at it you have to work, and children on their own never wish to work, she adds.
Update: Barbara Kay disagrees with Chua about the need to oppress your children to get them to excel:
This article and the book will spark furious discussion in the media. Coincidentally, in today’s Post, Dan Gardner’s column, “From Haiti to Harvard, culture matters,” bolsters the idea that culture is the single greatest predictor for academic success, and it is well worth reading in tandem with “Why Chinese mothers are superior.” He is right, of course, even though political correctness forbids us to say so, and even though Ms Chua’s extreme methods are unnecessary, as the Jewish experience — high expectations, high sensitivity to children’s psychic needs — proves.
It’s too bad Ms Chua’s extremism will become the focus of interest. The larger issue is worthy of respectful attention. As Gardner notes, the reason Asian students are so wildly disproportionately represented in universities (3% of the population, about 25% on campus) is because they came from homes in which “Chinese mothers” ruled the roost. It isn’t racism to say so.
Update, 23 January: Lawrence Solomon thinks the threat of “Tiger Mothers” is overstated:
The statistics seem to bear her out — Asians disproportionately make it to elite schools in the West — they represent 5% of the U.S. population but 20% of the student body at Ivy League schools, for example. No one can but marvel at the uniformly successful students turned out by the “tenacious practice, practice, practice” and “rote repetition” that she considers “crucial for excellence.”
But such statistics don’t tell the whole story. In truth, Chinese Mothers fare poorly in achieving excellence compared with western mothers, even western mothers burdened by political correctness.
[. . .]
Practice and rote learning have their limits. While imposing single-minded discipline on children will dramatically raise test scores and technical proficiency, and for most children may represent the best strategy for accomplishment and satisfaction, it can come at the cost of curbing the creativity necessary for true excellence. Chinese Mothers make great moms, as evidenced by the unusual cohesiveness of the Chinese family: Chinese kids clearly understand whatever berating they absorb as the tough love intended. Chua is justified in saying western parents are doing their underperforming kids no favours in failing to confront them.
But Western parents retain the edge in producing the next generation of creators — those whose breakthroughs will cure cancer or supplant the Internet. Here, too, Chua may be pointing to the right balance in her personal life, by choosing as her husband and father of her children someone who is anything but single-minded. Jed Rubenfeld, an American Jew determined to avoid a career in academia, waffled as a student, starting with philosophy and psychology at Princeton, switching to acting at Julliard, then moving to law at Harvard before accepting an academic position at Yale, where he is now professor and assistant dean of law.
Update, 2 February: Bryan Caplan (who has an upcoming book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids) addresses the downside of the Tiger Mother approach:
No wonder Chua confesses that, “For the first few weeks after Lulu’s decision [to radically reduce her musical practice time], I wandered around the house like person who’d lost their mission, their reason for living.” If I’d lived through thousands of hours of drudgery and cruelty for nothing, I’d be despondent, too.
But hasn’t all the musical practice indelibly shaped Chua’s children’s characters? Highly unlikely. Behavioral genetics finds roughly zero effect of parents on personality. And contrary to teachers’ fantasies about changing their students’ lives, learning is highly specific. Practicing X makes you better at X — and little else. Furthermore, the effects of environmental intervention erode over time — that’s fade-out for you. Chua seems to know this on some level: She favorably quotes a music teacher who says that, “Every day you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.”
But all social science aside, Chua’s own life history raises severe doubts about the character-shaping power of mastering an instrument. Yes, she practiced piano as a child, but not to excellence. And what became of her? She became a Yale professor and best-selling author anyway!
In the most insightful passage in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, cost-benefit analysis finally makes an appearance:
Why torture yourself and your child? What’s the point? If your child doesn’t like something — hates it — what good is forcing her to do it?
But Chua immediately represses her thought crime: “As a Chinese mother I could never give in to that way of thinking.” My response: You can and should give in, because this way of thinking is true. Cost-benefit analysis is not a Western prejudice. “Give up when the costs exceed the benefits” is one of the universally-valid maxims that allows millions of Chinese businesses to survive and thrive. Why shouldn’t Chinese mothers use it too?