Between the Lines

Perspectives on race, culture, and community.

The Tiger Mom in (Scientific) Perspective

Chua's arguments seem scientifically plausible. They aren't.

It seems that I can't get Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom excerpt in last week's Wall Street Journal off my mind.  Fellow Psychology Today blogger, Nancy Darling, described Chua's piece as "flinch worthy".  I couldn't agree more. I flinched many times.

If you haven't yet read it, here's how it opens:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than a piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

Apparently, this piece, though authored by Chua herself, somehow misrepresents, or at least takes out of context, how she really parented, or so Jeff Yang argues.  Either way, I was bowled over by how little autonomy the girls were allowed. It's not just that they weren't allowed to be in a school play. Apparently, they weren't even allowed to discuss the possibility.  Several days after reading it, I'm still not over it.

Tiger Mom, Amy Chua
Tiger mom, Amy Chua
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amy_chua_2007.jpg
Part of it is that I don't agree with Chua's parenting priorities. Traditional academic success isn't that important to me. Don't get me wrong: I'd like my kids (ages 8 and almost 4) to be smart, and I really hope that they develop a life-long love of learning, but I'm not about to drill them on multiplication tables (the older one still doesn't have them down) or otherwise "demand" some specific academic outcome. Unlike Chua, I'm much more interested in the learning process. I want them to enjoy learning, because I think learning is fun, and fun (unlike parental demands) is sustainable. I want them to learn because they are curious, not because they're forced. I want them to learn because it meets their own needs, not because it meets mine.

Chua argues that kids don't necessarily know what's good for them, and she has a point, but I'd rather spend my energy modeling the behavior I want to see and showing its benefits than demanding outcomes and imposing a punishment if the outcomes are not achieved. The bottom line is that I'll take "happy" and "compassionate" over "academically successful" any day, and while Chua argues that these are not mutually exclusive, that in fact children are happier when they achieve success, the reality is that everything has a cost and super academic achievement is no exception.  Just look at the suicide rates among physicians and students at elite universities.

Our different priorities aside, Chua's piece works marvelously as a sociocultural case-study and may even inspire some parents to create a home environment that is more conducive to educational success yet still allows the children to have some autonomy.   What Chua recognizes (and this is far from trivial) is that IQ is at least partly malleable.  As PT blogger Jefferson Fish explains, this has important implications:

Whatever strengths and weaknesses people begin with, the way to get smarter is to take advantage of formal education; and the way to do that is to work hard. When a child doesn't learn something, instead of thinking "It's too bad he isn't smarter," we should be thinking "He'll just have to work harder." Instead of the question "Why are some groups smarter than others?" we should be asking "How do groups that are really good at getting their kids to work hard at school do it?"

This is not to say that the rest of us should do what these groups do (or even that all parents from such groups parent the same way). All choices, all strategies, have costs as well as benefits. I am not questioning Chua's choices. To the contrary, it sounds like she and her husband made their choices with considerable care and that the choices were well-aligned with their priorities.  For parents that similarly want to prioritize educational or musical achievement, Chua's article seems to provide a blueprint for success.

Except it doesn't!

In his 2003 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker asserts that "The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology." Never mind whether or not he's right about their place in history, there is no doubting that behavioral genetics is changing the way we understand human behavior.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Blank_Slate.jpg
Here are the three laws:

Law 1: All human behavioral traits are heritable.

Law 2: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

Law 3: A substantial proportion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Pinker wrote an entire book about this, and I don't want to oversimplify what is a complex theory based on sophisticated methodologies, but the quick and dirty version is that, while parenting matters, genes matter more and that a very substantial proportion of who we are and how we behave is determined not by genes, not by family, but by our unique experiences.

What this means in this particular context is that Chua's own accomplishments (she is a professor at Yale law school), as well as those of her daughters should be attributed at least as much to their genetics as to how they were parented and more to their unique experiences (e.g., with their teachers and friends) than to either genetics or parenting. No doubt that the parental non-compromising demand for achievement was instrumental in Chua and her children reaching their potential in those areas, but the potential must have been there in the first place.  To point to the academic/musical results of children and argue that they are a product of the parenting they received is to ignore an entire body of scholarship that suggests otherwise.

My own academic and professional history underscores this scholarship.

I am different from my parents in several very important ways: They are both engineers (mathematically inclined), while I am a psychologist who never had much interest in mathematics (though I do enjoy statistical analysis). They are devoted Republicans, while my own politics are decidedly liberal, especially around social and human rights issues. They certainly didn't raise me to be different from them in these important ways. They probably could not have done that, even if they tried. We're different, my parents and I, because I had very different life experiences. Though they parented me with Russian-Jewish values, I spent most of my life in the United States, while they grew up and spent their young adulthood in what was then the Soviet Union. But it's not just that. I also watched different films, read different books, and was taught by different teachers. And of course I had different friendships and different romantic relationships and, obviously, different challenges and obstacles...and opportunities.

This is the take home point from behavior genetics - that our tendencies and certainly the limits of our potential are genetically influenced but that we still have ample room to grow and change and that we have the ability to shape how we grow and change through our choices, and yes, through our parents' choices too.

But there's another take home point as well, and that is that there are often constraints on our choices. Some schools, for example, simply lack the resources to offer up-to-date textbooks, much less music lessons and our families may not have the financial resources to obtain them privately.  Or we may have such opportunities but are discouraged from pursuing them by our parents and/or our peer group.  Such social constraints are not trivial and are generally underappreciated by both lay people and psychologists. They need not stop or change our dreams (we still get to decide what our dreams are and whether or not to pursue them), but they do limit our selection of strategies.  Chua's WSJ article suggest that parenting style determines children's success.  The reality is that it's just one of many contributing factors, and hardly the most important one.

And there's one last (admittedly non-scientific) point: Parental preferences are often based on their own interests and bias. Chua insisted that her daughters learn to play musical instruments. To ensure that they could devote sufficient time to this pursuit, she didn't allow them to participate in school theatre productions and presumably sports, as well. As I said, everything has a cost. But is music inherently superior to acting or athletics? Chua may think so, but I don't. I love the idea of kids pursuing excellence, but I also want them to have the experience of trying on and exploring different interests until they discover their own passion. There's nothing wrong with dedicating one's time to one activity at the expense of others. Indeed, that's the very definition of dedication and the very essence of passion.  Where I differ with Chua is that I don't think one's passion is something that parents should decide.

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Creative Commons License  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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