The Thinking 

A Tiger Mother and Parental Hysteria

January 18, 2011


FEW RECENT STORIES in the mainstream news are less compelling to me than the uproar over Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The article is based on Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is about raising her two daughters to be the sort of hyper-engineered students who are worthy of an Ivy League degree.

Chua, who seems to have done well by American educational institutions, criticizes American culture for being too lax with children. Having benefited from American largesse, she now turns on her hosts. This sort of criticism from an Asian reduces parents to a state of quivering, jello-like fear.

Americans are already in the grip of manufactured hysteria about whether their children can compete internationally. From the earliest moments of parenthood, they lie awake wondering whether their offspring will get into good colleges and if they will have the enormous treasures to pay for it. They read articles about how their children are dumber than the rest of the world, articles which are skewed by the failure to mention the demographic realities of American educational statistics, which include a large underclass that will never compete globally. They then welcome the heaps of homework their children receive. They give their sons and daughters over to assembly-line education all in the mistaken belief that training is all that matters.

Then Amy Chua comes along and tells them all this is not enough. Their children are still stupid, destined to sink to the nether levels of the global economy. I haven’t read all of the enormous commentary about Chua’s points, but I wonder if it has occurred to American parents that their children might not have to compete so hard if our colleges did not admit the best and brightest from the four corners of the globe and if our nation did not often fail to protect its own economic interests. In the grip of their irrational fears and great eagerness to please, they perhaps do not have the clarity of mind to see this.

Amy Chua is right that American children are spoiled. One reason they are spoiled is that their parents are so busy earning the money to pay for expensive colleges that they are not around to raise them and not around to give them brothers and sisters who might puncture their self-centeredness. Amy Chua is right that Americans should not let their children watch TV. One reason Americans let their children watch TV is that it is a cheap babysitter and they are not around to raise their children themselves.

But the Amy Chua Guide to Childrearing is missing one essential ingredient: purpose. Grades and extracurricular accomplishments, while important, do not meet the whole of a child. Americans will never possess the Asian faith in educational regimentation, though they are coming perilously close. I have yet to meet an Asian parent who was determined that her child love Shakespeare, The Wind in the Willows or Jane Austen. Asians are very successful in American school orchestras but that is partly because this is an area in which the competitive standards are clear and tangible. Every milestone can be entered on a college application. Memorizing one of King David’s psalms or a sonnet will never fit on that application.

American education is in need of great change. But it can’t be changed by aping the modern upwardly-mobile, rootless Asian parent, whose fixation on grades is nothing less than pathological and who does not see the purpose of that education as the transmission of a specific culture in its totality. The best of American education is founded on the great truths that lie at the center of Western culture. Without vision, children perish. The purpose of education is to form character and transmit culture. Asians will never love those truths and that past in the same way Western descendents of that past do, or at least once did. That love is what our children need. They cannot compete without it.



                                                                                                        —  Comments —

Y. writes:

From ABC News:

 In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Chua stated that the Wall Street Journal’s article strung together the most controversial sections of her book and failed to highlight that the book is a memoir about a personal journey of motherhood.

“I was very surprised,” she told the Chronicle’s Jeff Yang. “They didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

“I’m not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But I’d also note that I’m aware now of the limitations of that model — that it doesn’t incorporate enough choice.

“I now believe there’s a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there,” said Chua, who was unavailable for an interview with ABC News.

Laura writes:

David Brooks also says the book, which I have not read, is very different from the WSJarticle, but his description of it doesn’t make it seem so. By the way, Brooks makes the point that Chua is wrong to not let her children play with others on playdates and sleepovers because social interaction is more intellectually demanding than schoolwork. The man is an idiot. Of course, it is wrong to deny children the chance to play but not because social interaction is intellectual work.

David Brooks’s mother must have let him play too much.

Karen I. writes:

There is no need for parents, even parents of below-average students, to panic. That may sound hard to believe, but I know from experience that a child can do quite poorly in high school, not take the SATs and go to community college anyway. The community college credits will transfer to most major universities and save the parents tens of thousands of dollars. The child, if they do well enough, will be able to get into excellent colleges upon graduation from community college. In fact, our state even has a guarantee that anyone with an associates degree from a state community college will get into the competitive state four-year university, which has been rejecting more high school applicants every year. Some students from my local community college have gone on to Yale.

As for the Tiger Mother, she is despicable. I live near a Tiger Mother type, but she is Indian, not Asian. Her girls are number one in their classes and one is in my son’s grade. Sadly, they never go out to play and I rarely see them even smile. In contrast, my son (and his Asian friends) are encouraged to do well and given plenty of support but they are also allowed to go out to play, even on school days. They look so much happier and even healthier than our Indian neighbors’ girls. All of the boys I am referring to, including my son, have their names on the Honor Roll along with the Indian girls. I don’t think that the sacrifice of the girls’ childhoods is worth the slightly higher class standing. I’d rather have my son be number 15 or even 20 in his class and well-adjusted. 

I wonder if the Tiger Mother could or would have taken her brutal approach with boys. If so, I wonder if the result would have been the same. I also wonder if the father would have stood by and allowed sons to be treated so badly.

Bruce writes:

People are misinterpreting this whole area of education and educational outcomes – as did I for most of my life. 

Although unmeasured factors and sheer chance play a significant role in life; a person’s educational success is mostly predicted by their IQ and personality (especially the trait of conscientiousness) – and IQ and personality are mostly hereditary. 

This means that educational outcomes cannot significantly be improved by a person’s educational experience (although, of course, an individual’s IQ or conscientiousness can be damaged by some types of disease or trauma, and this would damage the outcomes). 

If you control for IQ (and East Asians have a higher average IQ than Europeans; as well as being more conscientious) then the Chinese are no more successful than would be expected for their IQ. 

(Also, higher social classes have higher IQs, and most most modern Chinese migrants are from higher social classes.) 

(For comparison, Ashkenazi Jews, who have an even higher average IQ than the Chinese, are even more successful in terms of educational outcomes. ) 

In other words, the distinctively Chinese social practices, high-pressure parenting, masses of homework and exclusive focus on buffing the curriculm vitae have precisely no measurable effect on outcomes; and racially-Chinese Americans or Brits raised in the relatively relaxed US or UK education systems perform just the same as those raised under Chinese education systems. 

So, if the Chinese really are focused purely on improving educational outcomes, they are simply wasting their time and effort with no discernable benefit. 

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that East Asians have de facto quotas operating against them at elite universities (especially in California), due to affirmative action quotas favouring other groups. If East Asian parents really want an ‘Ivy League’ education more than anything else, they would be better advised to oppose the current system of racial preferences. 

All this does not mean that education is unimportant, but that we should be focusing more on things like the content of education and its moral effect; rather than trying to improve aptitudes and outcomes which are constrained by heredity.

Laura writes:

Yes, East Asians have demonstrably higher IQ than whites, as well as different temperaments. These affect both parents and children.

An excessive focus on IQ sometimes leads people to conclude that education is not important as long as it provides the obvious. But I think you have expressed it well. Students are affected by the content of education and its underlying worldview.

Mabel Le Beau writes:

It may seem that I’m too opinionated about this topic and still not having read Ms. Chua’s book; only stirring up a pot in this time of polarizing opinions, but if anyone denies the discriminatory attitude toward those of light color, only see how this topic raises the ire. Admittedly Ms. Chua has had some of this public censure drop in her lap, but it’s my opinion that the matter is of the same humor as Ms. Wood brings to her Thinking Housewife, a bit tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating to make a point. I could see that the situation of a minority family aligning itself with strict stereotypical behaviors, the imagined antithesis of a more typical recent European ‘immigrant’s’ actions, would be less inclined to be as widely acceptable as the family that is just as strict, yet with a European ancestral lineage.

Laura writes:

If Chua was not Asian, the reaction to her piece would not have been the same. But that is not because there is widespread antipathy toward Asians in everyday life in the Northeast, where Chua lives. It is because people recognize that the many East Asians who now live in America are different by nature and that their children often do better academically than American children. People are trying to process this reality and understand it.

The success of Asian children, as Bruce has noted, does not come purely from parenting practices. However, the ethic of Asian families, with their focus on grades and the sciences, has affected the atmosphere in some schools in various ways.

Fitzgerald writes:

Here is a more balanced perspective on the state of U.S. education. Many of the major points are valid especially regarding how comparisons between highly integrated societies typically show better on tests when compared against the entire US.. This contradicts the edicts of multiculturalism. Surprise, not.

Fitzgerald adds:

I forgot to lodge a protest against the above article I mentioned regarding socialization. David Brooks had similar drivel in his piece the other day as well. I do think the testing “gap” is inflated. For instance, China produces eight times the number of “engineers” than the U.S., but in reality they label any degree vaguely associated with some technical aspect as an “engineering” degree. Very much a joke. Are they surging? Yes. Is the U.S. sliding? Yes. But neither is as dire as often trumpeted by political and business leaders both with dubious agendas.

Lawrence Auster writes:

You see something almost no one sees. Asians cannot serve appropriately as our models. The reason for this is that while Asians, such as the “Tiger Mother,” may be engineers of achievement, they are NOT PART OF OUR CULTURE. But American parents are so lost, so stripped of historical American and Western identity and culture, that they think that someone like Amy Chua, who is not part of our culture, who does not love our culture, and whose notion of achievement is that of an engineer, should be their model. 

I admire you tremendously for seeing this and saying it.

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