21 April 2011

Mommy Wars: The Tiger Mother Throws Down the Gauntlet

Stephen Kershnar
The Tiger Mother at War
Dunkir-Fredonia Observer
April 18, 2011

In her bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Amy Chua defends her version of “Chinese Mother” parenting practices and the philosophy behind it. The publisher (Penguin Press) knew the book would be huge and paid her in the high six figures in advance for the book. Her book and article have created a firestorm that has been covered by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, National Public Radio, and the like. Chua has an endowed seat at Yale Law School (best in the U.S.) as does her Jewish husband who is less of a disciplinarian. Her family contains other similarly accomplished academics.

Her daughters were not allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, 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 best student in any subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not play the piano and violin.

The “Chinese mother” philosophy, nicely summarized by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic Monthly, consists of the following claims. First, children are inherently strong, not fragile. Because of this, parents can demand that their children work hard and excel at school without worrying about their self-esteem. Second, self-esteem comes from accomplishing difficult-and-worthwhile projects. Third, the better children get at doing something, the more they will enjoy doing it. Fourth, parents know better than their children what is in their interests. As a result they often override their children’s own preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters aren’t allowed to have boyfriends in high school or to waste their time being Villager Number Six in the school play. Fifth, Chinese mothers love their children. They are not content to let their children turn out badly and will make sure they have what they need to flourish.

Chua claims that “Chinese mothering” is not limited to the Chinese. She allows that Korean, Irish, and Ghanaian mothers can be Tiger mothers. This is likely politically correct cover. Her argument focuses on what she claims are the characteristic practices and attitudes of Chinese mothers. Perhaps she might include other East Asian mothers (that is, Korean and Japanese mothers). Other reviewers have also interpreted her in a similar way.

Critics have raised three main criticisms of the Chua’s thesis. First, Chinese parenting practices do not produce more successful children. Second, even if the practices produce more successful children, they are bad because they produce less happy children. Third, even if Chua’s practices do work and do not produce children who are less happy than those with Western parents, they still reflect some defect in Chua or the Chinese culture.

Consider the criticism that the Chinese parenting practices don’t work. One concern here is whether Chinese children do better because they have a genetic advantage. In her previous bestseller (“World on Fire”), Chua pointed out that the Chinese have dominated markets in a number of Asian countries outside of China. As Chua is surely aware, professors Richard Lynn, Arthur Jensen, J. Philippe Rushton, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, and others have found that East Asians have on average a higher IQ than whites (5-6) points and other races. They argue that the difference is due in part to genetics. It has been argued that 40-80% of intelligence in populations is heritable. This view is quite controversial, but one now dated poll it reflected the plurality view of specialists in the field. If this is correct, then at least part of Chinese success is likely genetic. It is not clear how much, if any, Chinese parenting practices add to their genetic advantage. Furthermore, East Asians do better on math-related subtests. This would lead the heredity crowd to predict that they would do strikingly well in math and science fields. This is what we find.

The parenting-practice issue becomes less clear when we compare East Asians to Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent). The latter have the highest tested IQ. On some studies, it is 112-115. They outperform East Asians in the various intelligence-related contests: earning money, attending Ivy League schools, winning the top intellectual prizes (for example, Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, and Turing Awards). This is not to say that Jewish mothers don’t have special parenting practices (for example, guilt) or that Chinese parenting techniques don’t improve the performance of Chinese children relative to others, but it is to say that the quick inference from Chinese success (outside of China) to Tiger-mother practices is unconvincing.

Consider the criticism that even if Chinese practices work, they produce less happy children. The arguments to this extent tend to beg the question. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Christina Schwarz writes that during ages 3-12, play is good for children, despite its being disordered, unproductive, and unclouded by reason. She argues that this is what makes childhoods worth remembering. Her implicit message is that Tiger mothering lessens it and is therefore bad.

On a different tack, Chinese-American women quoted in Psychology Today, charge that Chua’s practices are cruel and abusive. They don’t cite any studies or conceptual arguments to support their charge. Ayelet Waldman writing in the Wall Street Journal points out that Asian-American girls aged 15-24 have above-average suicide rates, but she does not make it not make it clear whether this is true for East Asian families, let alone high-achieving ones.

On one study, East Asians were somewhat less happy (satisfied with their lives) than other relatively wealthy and free peoples. It is not clear to what degree this results from culture, genetics, or something else. Also, if the Chinese parenting practices work, they likely result in a greater chance at marriage, employment, and higher occupational status, some of the factors that correlate with greater happiness.

A third group of critics provide arguments that appear to be a series of anecdotes and personal attacks against her or the Chinese culture. They claim she is sadistic, racist, narcissistic, a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) who knows nothing about Chinese culture or language, and that she doesn’t respect or cherish her daughters. The plural of anecdote is not data (not my line). In the anecdote-war, Chua has a powerful ally: her oldest daughter. Writing in the New York Post, Sophia Chua Rubenfeld publicly thanked her mother for helping her to have a meaningful life. She claims that she finds meaning in pushing herself to the limit of her potential and exalting in the feeling of doing more than she ever thought she could. “If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent. And for that, Tiger mom, thank you.”

Why then did so many mothers savage the book? One explanation put forth by Flanagan is that the liberal upper class mothers (read: rich and well-educated white mothers) who want their children to have a carefree, creative, and effortless childhood will soon discover that their children are going to get spanked in the competition for admission to elite colleges, medical schools, top music conservatories, and so on. She posits that Chua and other Chinese mothers are forcing them to choose between the childhood and the future they want for their children and they resent it. Another explanation, implicit in Waldman, is that Chua makes Western feel guilty because they expend less effort on parenting and are more preoccupied when compared to the Tiger moms. I’m not sure I put much stock in either explanation, but am also unsure what accounts for the rage the book has unleashed.


The Objectivist said...

Steve Sailer in Vdare points out that on some estimages (e.g., Malcom Gladwell's) it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on something. He notes that the trip to the 10,000 is ugly and this book captures some of that ugliness. It is an interesting insigh.

How else does one family produce big-time professors at Berkeley and Yale Law and another professor at Stanford.

The Objectivist said...

Note the ferocity of the Asian-American women who turned on Chua. It is an interesting question what raised their hackles so high.

Bill Hawthorne said...


My name is Bill Hawthorne and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)maacenter.org)