The Lady or The Tiger

This was published about a week ago and I’ve been pondering it since. After careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s mostly rubbish.

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.

A bit of background here. Amy Chua, the author of the piece, is a Professor of Law at Yale. Her daughters are highly successful, being musical prodigies and excelling academically. The article claims that this is a result of parenting that was obsessive, almost abusive, doing such things as calling her daughters “garbage” and threatening to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she didn’t learn a difficult piano piece. The article contrasts these methods against “western methods” that are more laid-back.

Chua is now backing away from her comments, claiming the WSJ only published the most extreme excerpts of her book, that she had a great relationship with her daughters, that much of the quoted article was tongue-in-cheek, etc., etc. I’m assuming that the WSJ article would not have run without her approval. If it was taken out of context, it was done so on purpose to provoke book sales.

Still, the general point about parenting is being discussed everywhere. Did her strict parenting make her children successful?

I’m sure you see the immediate problem with her thesis. Chua is a professor at Yale, married to another professor at Yale. Actually, she’s married to a Jewish professor at Yale (Jews, as a minority, outperform even Asians in measures of academic and financial success). Does it not occur to her that there may be some genetic or other environmental component at work here? As Bryan Caplan asks in this you-really-should-read-the-whole-thing article:

A vast literature finds that heredity is not merely part of the reason for family resemblance, but virtually the whole story. How can a professor at Yale act as if this consensus doesn’t even exist?

Twin studies and adoption studies have both shown that parenting has, at best, a small effect on children’s success in life. I remain very hesitant to embrace this idea. Among other things, I believe that passive parenting is more important than active parenting. That is, your children seeing you read is more effective than you telling them to read; your children seeing you get drunk has more of an impact than you telling your children not to drink. Another reason is that the social sciences are notoriously slippery. For example, consensus literature told us that spanking negatively impacted children, to the point where many countries outlawed it. Recent analysis has indicated that it has a positive impact on young children, little impact on older ones. Who’s to say what will come out as more data is gathered and social scientists learn basic analysis techniques?

There’s also the problem of context. Your child may have a genetic predisposition toward good and moral behavior; but it’s up to you to explain what behaviors are good and what are bad. To take an example almost at random: race stereotyping has declined not because of any changes in genetics or parenting method, but because it’s no longer socially acceptable.

Context is even more important to academic and financial success. You can push your child as hard as you want. But if you’re living a in a ghetto — as opposed to living in New Haven as one of two professors — your child’s not going to get as far. A perfect (and scientific) illustration of context is the Flynn Effect (the sharp rise in IQs in industrialized countries over the last century). The Flynn Effect can not possibly be genetic and is unlikely to be a result of parenting getting stricter over the last century. Some research indicates that IQs are rising because our society — with its computers and remote controls and MP3 players — forces our minds to develop more of their potential.

Finally, self-motivation is a critical element to success. In claiming her parenting made her daughter’s successful, Chua is taking their credit away from them. To hear her tell it, her daughters would have been failures without the constant pressure. She completely ignores any success they might have had without that constant pressure.

Can children succeed without parental pressure and/or encouragement? Absolutely, as the nation’s income mobility numbers attest. All of us probably know someone who succeeded despite terrible parenting. My dad went to medical school with a woman whose family forbade her from getting educated, thinking it unsuitable to women. I knew a doctor whose parents were worthless drunks who resented his success and “book learning”. And on the flip side, we all know those born with every advantage in the world who turned out worthless. Take the Kennedys. Please.

Much as we’d like to think otherwise, there is no secret formula to successful children. Genetics appears to play a large part. Culture, circumstance, parenting, setting an example — these all play roles. Some children thrive under pressure; some cave under it. But in the end, “chinese parenting” is no more a guarantee of success than waving voodoo rattles over the child’s crib.

I do think there is a kernel of truth in what Chua says. Our society in general has become far too tolerant of mediocrity and far too concerned with children’s self-esteem. Some years ago, I saw a survey that showed that while American students are the worst in the industrialized world in math and science, they were tops in self-esteem. They’re dumb as dogshit, but they feel good about it. This trend has only been exacerbated by such stupid laws as No Child Left Behind, which further defined successful schools as those that produce sufficient mediocrity. I think this has more to do with the atrocious state of our public schools than anything else. But that too is reflective of a society that tolerates failure and doesn’t want to push anyone to succeed.

The WSJ wraps things up with a poll asking which style of parenting is better — “demanding eastern parenting” or “permissive western parenting”. But this is not an either-or. There’s a large sweet middle ground where you can encourage your kids and push your kids without resorting to becoming a screaming maniac (indeed, according to her later response, this is the path Chua eventually found). This is the path most people take because we understand that you only get to be a kid once. Children should be encouraged and even pushed. But they should also be allowed to be kids.

Frankly, the chinese-western dichotomy Chua is pushing strikes me as absurd. There are millions of “western” parents in this country who make great sacrifices to help their children succeed in whatever they are good at. Parents put themselves in debt to pay for college, work themselves blind to afford a home in a good school district and schlep their kid all over creation to play piano or kick a soccer ball. This is not a western or a chinese thing; it’s a human thing.

And as long as I’m mentioning sports … Chua seems to regard sports as of little importance, having denied her daughters any role in it (although her oldest has now picked up tennis). But there are well-established connections between athletics and academic performance, athletics and health and athletics and social skills. You don’t need to be a star quarterback to enjoy those benefits either. Even the worst player on the field benefits from getting out and playing. Athletics puts the lie to Chua’s claim that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it”. I suck at basketball but I love playing. This is true for millions, from the beer league right fielder to the worst volleyball player in the Yale Intramural leagues. Read Posnanski’s wonderful post about his daughter’s basketball team for more on this. And now apply that many times over to all kinds of things outside of the strict success path Chua describes. There’s more to life than good grades.

(One final note: As a Jew, I’m a member of one of the supposedly genetically-advantaged groups that Caplan references when he argues for a genetic link to success over a cultural one. And I’ve had some measure of success in academia (less so in finance). While he’s right that the strict model Chua describes is less prevalent among Jews, that’s arguing the extreme. I grew up surrounded by educated people with the expectation that I would do well in school and be successful in life. My most vivid memories of my rabbi were from learning and discussing Torah. It wasn’t “chinese parenting” but it was an unmistakable social and developmental context. That context was not necessarily genetic. It developed, in part, because Jews, through history, have often had restrictions on what professions they could enter. Banking, for example, became dominated by Jews because the Church considered it sinful for Christians to do it. Jews were going to hell anyway, so they might as well provide a service on the way to the fiery pit.

What if I had been dealt the same genetic hand of Ashkenazic cards but been raised in an inner city drug war zone with parents who wouldn’t know a treble clef from a trombone and either no religious leader or one who only cared that I accepted Christ? Somehow, I rather doubt I’d have ended up in the same place.)