Feb 10, 2011

Department of WTF, tiger mother bureau

I just finished World on Fire, and I've got some thoughts coming up on that, particularly with this wave of protests coming across the Arab world.  But for now I'd like to focus on something else: the author, Amy Chua, had a disturbing article in the WSJ not long ago where she outlined her parenting philosophy:
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 the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin.
She goes on to outline her underlying premises and relate a vicious fight she had with her daughter.  Judging by the comments, this kind of parenting strikes people as barbaric, but I think there are several different issues with what Chua is saying.  First, there's a kind of categorical imperative problem with the grades.  Suppose every parent behaves according to Chua's scheme.  Grading on a curve (still somewhat common) means that it is physically impossible for every child to receive an A.  Pressure like this on children and administrators are, I suspect, largely behind the trend of grade inflation.

Second is a kind of elitism.  I played saxophone in high school, and loved being in the jazz band.  Is that really so much worse than piano?  In my opinion, Charlie Parker is a figure of comparable significance to, say, Rachmaninoff or Paganini, and if Chua disagrees she can bite me.  Why is drama so worthless?  And TV aside, computer games are an art form, full stop.  Like any other art form, they're about 90% crap and 10% brilliant, but this kind of snide dismissal is baseless and irritating.

Third is her idea of being extremely demanding.  Now, Chua takes this a lot farther than most, but I think there's probably something to it.  I've known a lot of people whose parents were very demanding, and it seemed to make them smarter, at the cost of a great deal of animosity.  It's not how I'd raise my kids, but I don't think it's quite as horrifying as people seem to think, and I think a bit of high expectations is probably a good thing in general.

Fourth, and I notice that a lot of people are conflating this one with number three, is her idea of being very controlling. I know parents that will let their kids mostly run wild, so long as they're doing well on the chosen metrics, and only punish them or take away their freedom if they fail to perform (not to necessarily endorse this view, just to distinguish it analytically from number three).  I think this is where Chua is most insane, and she doesn't really defend it in her article; she mostly concentrates on the demanding part.  No school plays?  No sleepovers?  No playdates, fer Chrissakes?  Being a human being is not all about playing the piano and solving differential equations.  A much greater part is taken up by interactions with one's peer group.  Aside from those kind of experiences being some of my most treasured memories of childhood, playdates and sleepovers are where people begin to learn those key skills.  We are primates, and it seems borderline psychotic to isolate one's children so thoroughly.

Chua seems to think raising a child is like stamping a license plate out of recalcitrant scrap metal.  For my money Yglesias had the best line on the subject:
The larger issue about Chua’s piece is that it just seems very strange for her to be so worried about this. On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”


  1. Well, it appears that you weighed in fairly heavily about a book based upon a single news article about it.

    The book itself contains quite a bit of explanation about the points you focused on. In addition, the author has been interviewed quite extensively as have her daughters. The stories about how that mother came to terms with her overzealousness, and even managed to strike some compromises with her daughters were something worth discussing among other parents and hope-to-be parents. Further, there is a real difference between the reporting of her being 'demanding' and her description of herself as maintaining high expectations.

    As usually happens with most news stories, and especially with reviews (books, movies, plays, concerts, Etc.), as I am sure you have experienced, the public rarely receives a full and balanced exploration of the subject. I am not suggesting that you read the book, but I do feel that you might consider the limitations and possible biases of your sources when you are forming an opinion. These day, there is almost always a 'back story' to every news article.

    BTW - - - the sale of that book was rather lackluster before the news hyped it. What was it that the Hollywood types used to say? Was it "Bad publicity can still be publicity?" It appears to have become actualized among the street culture here in the States, when youth enjoy being recognized for being bad. A craze that has been expanding this past year has been to wear T-shits that display the word "iLL" where "Ill" has become the latest code for "bad." These T-shirts are selling in all 50 States. Yep, all ages are proud to proclaim that they are B-A-D (!).

  2. I hope my child likes dirt. And being wrapped in a piece of cloth and strapped to my body. And has all parts intact. Other than that, woo hoo! Let's see what happens.

  3. I have to confess that I only just now realized that the article was an excerpt of a full book. Reading around a bit I see that the article is a bit misleading as to the actual content of Chua's book.

    I would have cut her some more slack if it were an article about her book by somebody else, but I don't think I can really be faulted if she published that excerpt as a kind of controversy-stirring link bait that was deliberately more fanatical than her actual thesis. I reckon if an author wants to publish an excerpt or article to boost publicity and sales of her book said article should stand on its own or make its limitations clear.

    Be that as it may, it was my bad for not noticing that it was an excerpt of a larger work, and I will download and read the whole thing as soon as I get a chance. It sounds like she's not quite as crazy as I was led to believe. Thanks Lew for pointing that out.