Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chinese mothers, intelligence, and parenting

Probably many of you have by now read Amy Chua's essay in the Wall Street Journal, adapted from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, on "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." She claims that western parents are squishy, and that one of the reason "Chinese" mothers (a certain archetype, and certainly not encompassing all or only Chinese parents) get high achievement from their children is that they demand it.

There's a lot to like about "Chinese" mothering. Namely, you assume that your children are strong. They are smart and capable kids. While I don't agree that motivational insults are a good idea (the world is not going to be a supportive place -- why shouldn't parents be kind?) accepting failure as the best the kid can do isn't a good idea either. Chua also has a great point that nothing is fun until you're good at it. You get good at things by working. But kids often don't want to work. This is where a parent steps in to force the early stages (though again, it's hard to know why only piano and violin are considered worthy things to be good at).

Chua's essay has sparked a lot of controversy, and I'm really curious what Gifted Exchange readers think. But one of the most interesting commentaries (of course) is from that gadfly Charles Murray. He blogs that "large numbers of talented children everywhere would profit from Chua’s approach, and instead are frittering away their gifts—they’re nice kids, not brats, but they are also self-indulgent and inclined to make excuses for themselves. There are also large numbers of children who are not especially talented, but would do a lot better in school if their parents applied the same intense home supplements to their classroom work."

That said, Murray notes, here's a point that Chua doesn't necessarily raise. Her kids were going to do pretty well regardless (indeed, Chua's more indulgent husband seems to have been raised in a different fashion, and yet he's incredibly successful too). As Murray calculates Chua's children's genes:

"Mother: able to get into Harvard (a much better indicator of her IQ than the magna cum laude in economics that she got there); Executive Editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School.

Father: Summa cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, now a chaired professor at Yale Law School.

Guess what. Amy Chua has really smart kids. They would be really smart if she had put them up for adoption at birth with the squishiest postmodern parents. They would not have turned out exactly the same under their softer tutelage, but they would probably be getting into Harvard and Princeton as well. Similarly, if Amy Chua had adopted two children at birth who turned out to have measured childhood IQs at the 20th percentile, she would have struggled to get them through high school, no matter how fiercely she battled for them."

There is probably something to this as well. Parenting and genes both play a role, though since they often come in a package, it's hard to tease out what matters.


Laura Vanderkam said...

In case it isn't clear, the 'Guess what" paragraph is also a quote from Charles Murray. My formatting on my screen doesn't look quite right, but maybe it does for others.

hschinske said...

I was appalled by that article. There's an enormous difference between having high standards for your children, and giving them tools they need to achieve at a high standard, and child abuse.

Here's a music teacher's detailed criticism of the practicing incident: I thought it was a fascinating analysis, and probably applicable to other aspects of parenting.

The Princess Mom said...

"accepting failure as the best the kid can do isn't a good idea either. "

There's a difference between accepting failure and accepting something less than A. Despite what Chua, and apparently Murray, believe, B does not equal failure.

Stefany S said...

I agree that Westerners have become a bit soft on parenting and academic expectations - just look at the continual lowering of academic standards in our schools. We do seem to have forgotten how capable children really are and that they only reach as high as our expectations. But Chua has reduced childhood to a resume of achievements. And to do it by insulting and shaming the children into obedience is abusive - my own very sensitive children punish themselves enough with their feelings of shame and unworthiness when they think they have "failed". While they don't need excessive sympathy, they certainly don't need me berating them for their "failures". (My children are always at the top of the class by the way, despite their "failures" - in fact, I would prefer it if they weren't at the top so they would meet with more challenge).

We do need to instill an ethic of hard work in our children in order to teach them how to really succeed - especially for the gifted children who don't usually have to work very hard to be at the top of the class - but to insult and berate them into it is reprehensible.

PotatoPi said...

Laura, thanks for sharing the article.

As a mother myself who was born in China and who also has kids, I am surprised and also amused to find out I am disqualified by Mrs. Chua as “Chinese mother”. I guess Mrs. Chua was trying to be provocative here, but there is no way her particular child raising style could represent “Chinese mother”. She should just title her article “Why My Children’s Mother Is Superior.” and that would be a much better one for her article.

Steve said...

If Ms. Chua had to rank "happiness" in a list of attributes she'd like for her children, I wonder where it would wind up. Probably not too high, judging from her article. Being successful is important, sure, but what's the point if you're not enjoying the ride through life?

PotatoPi said...

One of the very good analyses on this issue I came across:

Though the author also has her own limitation and was off the mark on the English learning of Japanese students, but hey, nobody is superior and knows everything and let us learn from each others, no matter it is western or eastern, Chinese or not-Chinese mothers...

Anonymous said...

The ironic thing is, if these girls do indeed get into Harvard or Princeton, that will be a hollow accomplishment because of the factor of legacy. So scratch that as any measure of these girls' talent.

Marianne said...

"Successful" is one of the most loaded terms in our world. If we all submit to this model of parenting, which I find elitist and insular, keep in mind that trash collectors are a sine qua non of civilized society. We are always just a couple blue collar strikes away from disorder, in which case an Ivy League education won't get you as far as social ties will. Concern for one's fellow man, and society, seems to be missing from the mix. Western parenting may be squishier, but the introspection we allow ourselves is what keeps us safe from fascism, totalitarianism, and dictatorships. Vive la difference!

Mary VK said...

I ran out of books to read on vacation and picked up Lang Lang's autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles for $1--a serendipitous find actually. His father is an example of "Chinese mothering". At age nine, his dad encouraged him to swallow pills or jump off the eleventh floor balcony because he was late for his piano practice time. He responded by refusing to play at all for quite a while even though he loved the piano. His mother was the nurturer but was back in their village earning money to support his education in the city. It's a sad and frightening story to read. Thank God others intervened with encouragement and support for the young pianist.

Anonymous said...

Contrast this with "Race to Nowhere" and all the attention that is getting and it become clear that a happy medium is the answer. I think kids, especially those with the ability to do so, should be held to high standards. However, in-born personality is difficult to change, especially if the child does not want to change. You can push a Type B child all you want and it is still unlikely to make him want to excel.

Someone gave me the actual book and I think Chua way over-estimates the lengths to which other parents go for success. Yes, we should hold our kids to high standards, but making a child practice their instrument for hours on vacation while the grandparents cool their heels in the lobby and the entire hotel hears the screaming, is just giving up too much.

High standards do not mean a child is a failure if they get a B ot if they are not the "best". Clearly, only one student can be the best - does that mean #2 or #10 is a failure?

Ms. Chua gives a bad name to parents of high-performing kids, especially Asian kids. Parents of gifted kids already get comments about how they must "teach" their young children to read or force them to study. This will only make it worse! My son barely opened a book, yet people assumed he was studying all the time because he was smart and did not go to parties.

I have a friend who is not a Chinese mother but whose son is in a high-level youth orchestra. She now thinks, after reading this boek, she understands why the Asian kids are over-represented in the top orchestras and at the top chairs. While that may be true in some homes, it is certainly not the norm. Also know a boy who got to play piano at Carnegie Hall whose parents are completely Western. He was the motivated one!

All in all, this is one family's story. While I have had some rough moments with my under-achieving son, I have also come to accept that at some point it become his choice to achieve or not and making us both miserable is not worth the minimally higher results.

Leah R said...

I believe that there is a fine line. In some ways, Western parents have beicome more lax with their students. I've often read that parents of this generation are responding to the strict ways they were raised and in turn, are raising children to have more voice in their homes.
There needs to be love and motivation, so that children can succeed. Supporting achild's interests and hobbies is not wrong, and neither is introducing them to new ones. There just needs to be balance and truly inquire as to what the motivation is for the child. Living vicariously through your child is not going to make him/her more successful or the parent more happy. Genes do play a big part and so does the parenting!

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this book because I felt:

1. She was HONEST as she could to herself and actions. She didn't whitewash anything as far as I could tell.

2. I also felt she had a wicked sense of humor as she was writing about "chinese mothers". Many people really read that literally.

The pitfalls of raising gifted kids are many. I taught myself how to read english by 2. (I was multilingual in 3 languages by that age in India). However, I was so cossetted by my grandparents I didn't know how to tie my shoes or button a shirt till 10. When I joined my parents as a tween, believe me harsher measures had to be taken to get me functional.

If my mother was to write about all the ways she dealt with my slight ADHD tendencies and behavioural issues stemming from being medicated young for neurological issues...believe me people would react.

My father was a professor and my mother a stay at home mom who had formally practiced medicine. There were times I was tied with curtain pulls to a chair to stop me from going to the restroom too (mom got tired of my inability to focus).

Guess what! It worked and wasn't abuse. It was a non-violent way to get my attention and force my focus without medication.

Conny Jensen said...

"Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success." ~ Erich Fromm ~

Anonymous said...

Of course I think it was totally over-the-top and from what I read she was horrified at her own behavior most of the time. Clearly the chapter about the dog's dreams showed she had a perfectionism problem in general. Having said that I think it is time for the west to STOP rasing the lasiest, most spoiled and inept children in history. They barley do chores, sit on computers all day and surprise...they don't just grow out of it...they become lazy adults. I do think its time to expect more. I in no way mean to suggest that I would use the methods Amy used quite the contrary..but at least she BELIEVED her kids could achieve. We don't EXPECT anything from ours...All the girls worry about is who can wear the tightest pair of jeans and get the cutest boy to take them to the mall and the boys play video games all day and can't seem to remember to take out the trash. We are not doing them any favors. A little Tiger mother is okay in my book.