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Why Chinese Mothers Really Are Superior (On Average)

It's not stereotyping when it's right.

The firestorm erupted two Saturdays ago, when Amy Chua's essay "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Chua noted she is often asked how Asian parents raise such successful children. "I know," she wrote, "because I've done it." Chinese parenting, at least as she embodies it, includes obedience, hours of music practice, and sometimes harsh feedback to her two daughters.

Chua's essay echoes many of the same points I've written about in Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Our American obsession with self-esteem has not made us any more successful, and has probably made us less successful. Believing in yourself is not enough; you have to work hard. In trying to make our children happy in the short term, we may undermine the skills they need in the long term. Telling children how great they are does no good if they don't actually develop skills. Chua's essay echoes a factoid I often share during my talks: Asian Americans have the lowest self-esteem of any ethnic group in the U.S., but achieve the best academic performance (and, among adults, the lowest unemployment rate).

In raising my own two daughters (ages 4 and 1), I try to put some of these principles into practice, despite my white American background. I do my best to insist that my preschooler treats other people well and cleans up when I ask her to, even if that sometimes means asking 4 times and then counting to 5. I tell her that it takes hard work to get good at something, and that princesses are pretend (thus, she is not one). I don't tell either child she is special (instead, I say "I love you.")

Yet Chua's piece made me anxious that I was doing something wrong. I immediately wondered if I was being too lenient. Was I already setting up my kids for failure because I wasn't as harsh as I should be? Did I need to start drilling my 4-year-old on her reading skills every night? Were they going to be less successful because I wasn't insisting on hours of work?

I think this is why Chua's piece hit such a nerve. Americans are obsessed with competition these days, especially when it comes to our children, and here is someone telling us we're going about it all wrong.

Well, in many ways, we are. We (meaning Western, especially American parents) have spent decades boosting the self-esteem of our children and giving them trophies for showing up. This has not resulted in more success: achievement test scores are either unchanged or down, and both high school and college students do fewer hours of homework on average now than in the 1960s and 1970s (and that's true even among the most studious). It has resulted in higher grades -- twice as many students graduate with an A average now compared to 1976 -- yet another symptom of our overinflated culture of undeserved praise.

The controversy over Chua's essay flowed, hot and uninhibited, everywhere from to the page for her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Some people said she was stereotyping (with comments along the lines of "I'm Asian-American, and my parents weren't this way.") Others said those raised the Western way, such as Chua's white American husband, could still be highly successful.

These commenters fell victim to a classic flaw in reasoning: The idea that a few counter-examples disprove the general rule. They don't. On average, Asian parents use more discipline and insist upon hard work more than Western parents. And on average, their kids do better.

I hear the "But I can think of a counter-example" argument all the time when I write or speak about generations. "It can't be true that the younger generation is narcissistic," someone will say. "My son and his friends aren't narcissistic at all." Good for them. This doesn't trump data on over 100,000 people collected over time showing a generational increase in narcissism. The same is true for drug trials in medicine: Yes, we know it worked for your aunt's hairdresser's cousin, but does it actually work?

Despite how obvious this flaw in reasoning is, it is ubiquitous. People just can't seem to comprehend that generalizations are not stereotypes, but instead observations about average tendencies. It's partially because we judge the world from what we see around us and because we love stories. Cut and dried data and generalizations don't have the same grip on our thinking. But maybe they should.

So: Should we American parents be as harsh as Chua seems to be, and as insistent on so many hours of hard work? Perhaps not. But most of us would probably benefit from taking a page out of her book: Children are not the rulers of the household. Parents do have to insist on hard work, because kids left to their own devices too often squander their time and energy on video games, TV, texting, and Facebook. At the very least, Chua's essay gave me the confidence to realize that in the long run, a happy child (and teenager) is one who has learned the value of studying and practice. But no, I don't think I'd reject a birthday card, nor would I make a 3-year-old stand in the cold (both of which Chua did). And physical punishment such as spanking, which some authoriarian parents use, is ineffective and promoting of aggression in the child (according to a definitive meta-analysis of the research). On the other hand, sometimes the threat of time-out or taking away privileges is the only way to get things done.

Three days after Chua's essay came out, I mentioned it briefly when I gave a talk on narcissism and self-esteem to a group of parents at a private high school near Los Angeles. During the Q&A session, a Chinese-American man in the audience said, "At times during your talk you sounded like a Chinese mother." I smiled. "That's a high compliment," I told him. "I don't know if I can live up to it."