Until now I have studiously avoided commenting on Amy Chua's recent article which has the world of upper middle class parenting in an uproar. There are several reasons I have chosen not to comment.

To start, from the brief excerpt printed in the WSJ, Chua's behavior borders on abusive and is clearly presented as being primarily in service to her own narcissistic needs for a "perfect" child. Beyond that, the description of her parenting style is incomplete, exaggerated, and probably bears only a passing resemblance to her actual parenting or to the most significant aspects of her parenting. The take-away from her article is that if you want to raise a child who can get into an Ivy League school it is best to have extremely bright, academically successful parents, go to the "right" schools, have the "right" hobbies, and accumulate the "right" extracurricular activities. She does not mention that without any legacy effect, even a child who scores in the 1500's, with all the "right" accoutrements, has only a random chance, on the order of <5%, of getting into Harvard. I could also add that despite her self-identification as a Chinese Tiger Mom, from every indication she is merely an exaggerated version of the Upper West Side American Mom whose self concept and value system depends on the attainment of the status that can only be confirmed by credentials. This is fine as far as it goes but has only a passing association to "success" in life if we default to Freud's rubric of success as a three part axis consisting of Love, Work, and Play.

[For example, to a great many Americans, were their child to enter the military, they would see this as a wonderful achievement, worthy of great pride for their parents; on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, having a child join the military earns pity and/or contempt. The values that imbue Amy Chua's piece are not universal.]

I have decided to offer some comments at this time because a very thoughtful blogger has written a couple of pieces discussing the question of American versus Chinese parenting: What we sow, and what we raise:

Chua does have a point. In America we have allowed genuine excellence to be sacrificed upon the altar of our children's self-esteem, and our barely earned praise has become a kind of cheap grace. In our schools, every test gets a star, every assembly gets a "participation certificate" and every sporting try gets a trophy. Often children do begin to realize that when everything they do is overpraised, their specialness has been undervalued through condescension. That, in turn, reveals the flimsy foundation upon which their self-esteem has been so carefully built. Such a realization can be shattering.

[The idiocy of our pedagogical devotion to "self esteem" is based on a complete misinterpretation of the concept and has led to, as so many foolish pedagogic techniques tend to, an epidemic of people with damaged self concepts; they have unearned, elevated self regard without commensurate accomplishments. Such damaged narcissism interferes with learning since to recognize that they do not know what they think they know damages their self regard. The result is anger rather than the kind of humility that facilitates learning and exploration.]

Elizabeth Scalia continues:

Have Americans become such hypersensitive violets that they cannot bear a bracing wind?

Six years ago, then Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested that the underrepresentation of female scientists at elite universities could partly be attributed to "innate" differences between men and women. His remark caused a female biologist from MIT to dramatically depart the meeting in a near swoon.

Perhaps some of this is a reflection of cultural differences that seem sharp-edged in the first throes of immigration, but eventually dull.


But there must be some happy medium between making extreme demands of our children and being too afraid to demand anything at all. The recently released book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" has made the case that our students are not developing critical-thinking skills, and that their learning seems more centered on how to "get by and get through" than a genuine pursuit of excellence. The book may serve to bolster Chua's assertion that by not allowing our children to struggle, and not demanding persistent hard work from them, we have dulled their curiosity or the sense of competitiveness in a way that, Chua suggests, will deprive our children from reaching their full potentials.

There is much more in her article so read the whole thing; then take a look at her follow up, US vs Tiger Mothers, Lion Fathers - UPDATED (which includes some interesting quotes from Todd Zywicki and Timothy Dalrymple) about the vapidity of the education we foist upon our children:

Clearly, there needs to be a balance between achievement for sake of excellence and excellence born purely of passion, and unimpressed with what anyone else thinks. Educationally (and perhaps otherwise) we're schizophrenic. We want our kids to have the best opportunities but we hobble them with insipid curricula that are too heavy on social engineering and too light on personal accounting. We watch the government pay lip service about the importance of a good education and the crippling effect of poor schools upon our young, then we watch the same gasbags do everything they can to prevent poor kids from getting into good schools, because they're real concern lies with their union-filled coffers, and not the kids.

What Chua misses (most likely by editorial decision; after all, a balanced approach would sell few books) and Elizabeth understands implicitly, is that there is no single best way to raise a child. There is also no single ideal metric by which to measure the success of that child. Each parent must decide for themselves, recognizing that ultimately they have only the most limited control and that the unconscious determinants are far more important than the conscious elements, what they desire for their child. Most parents have a tremendous narcissistic investment in their child(ren) and unconsciously love those aspects of the child that resemble what they value in themselves and hate those aspects of their child that they detest in themselves. Finding a way to minimize the effects of one's unconscious Narcissistic investment and tolerating, even enabling, the child to find and become the person he wants (needs?) to be, is a rare skill in parenting. Some Chinese Tiger Moms will, in between the demands of piano practice, find ways to encourage or at least tolerate their child's interests and developmental diversions, even while being disappointed that he prefers the flute (possibly an acceptable instrument) or the guitar (unacceptable) or, God [they-don't believe-in] forbid, baseball. An argument can be made that a parent who wants a child to study piano 3 hours a day and is able to compromise on 1 and 1/2 hours a day exchange for allowing their son to go to baseball practice or their daughter to learn to cook (or go to baseball practice for those very few girls who prefer) is a mother who is able to set her own narcissism in second place to the needs of their child.

Along with the discussion (argument?) over which style of parenting is superior, a non-starter as far as I can tell, the point is often made that American children are more creative than Chinese children. (Whether or not that is still true when American children are being offered pabulum in school rather than being challenged academically is another story; there is some evidence, for another post, that American creativity is waning.) There is no adequate theory for creativity and how to foster it in children. Certainly we want to allow our children the freedom to let their imaginations run free. One of the terrible effects of child abuse is the inhibition of imagination seen in its victims; free thought can always be dangerously drawn to intolerable experiences and therefore is dangerous to such children and the adults they become; yet even with that proviso, there are adults who have emerged from horrendous childhoods who have been creative and have enriched the human race. There are many children of privilege who have been so constricted in their marathon race for the brass ring of an Ivy Education that there imaginations have never soared; yet others find a professor who opens the door to realms they never knew were there and in their explorations they advance our knowledge in unique and ultimately beneficial ways.

I suppose this is an argument for raising children as valued as-yet-uncivilized creatures, with love and limits, with the full awareness that there is no single idealized rule book for engendering adults who are able to Love, Play, and Work effectively, and are fully capable of pursuing happiness in what ever way matches their potential.

About the Author

Perry R. Branson M.D.

Perry R. Branson, M.D., is a psychiatrist in New York.

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