Tiger mom for some, not for others

By Razib Khan | February 10, 2011 3:36 pm

In a rumination on the “Tiger mom” phenomenon, Andrew Gelman suggests:

…Back when I taught at Berkeley and it was considered the #1 statistics department, a lot of my tenured colleagues seemed to have the attitude that their highest achievement in live was becoming a Berkeley statistics professor. Some of them spent decades doing mediocre work, but it didn’t seem to matter to them. After all, they were Tenured at Berkeley. Now, I’m not saying Chua is like that–in writing this book, she’s certainly not coasting on her academic reputation–but I do think it’s natural for someone in her position to define her success based on where she stands in the academic pecking order (and, for that matter, a best-selling popular book will help here too) rather than on her accomplishments for their own sake.

That is an unfortunate, and frankly, scary side effect of the way meritocracy sometimes works. Some people fixate more on the proxy measures than the underlying variable which it is intended to measure. I immediately recall two close friends who were going to graduate school M.I.T. and Harvard at the same time, and by an unfortunate coincidence they made the same complaints about their advisors: that once these academics had reached their ultimate goal, they lost all sense of purpose, and simply decided to glide along after tenure. Status, not substantive contribution, turned out to be their ultimate motivation (one of my friends complained that his advisor had transformed himself into an extremely devoted family man after his reputation had reached its maximal value and there was no status return on labor investment!). No one could take away their positions as tenured faculty at M.I.T. and Harvard, and that was enough.

I think this is connected to this Slate piece, Mary Gates and Karen Zuckerberg Weren’t Tiger Moms: Is the Amy Chua approach bad for the American economy?:

This point was picked up by Larry Summers—hardly known as lackadaisical in personality or parenting style—who pointed out in a debate with Chua at Davos that if Karen Zuckerberg and Mary Gates had been tiger moms, they never would have let young Mark or Bill leave Harvard to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, and we might not have Facebook or Microsoft (though America would probably have two more very competent dentists or lawyers).

Of course, it’s hard to invent Facebook or design the iPhone without developing sound foundations in math and science, the kind of preparation that Gates, Zuckerberg, and others born to privilege receive in America’s elite private schools. The dismal showing of American students in international tests implies that we’re limiting the pool of possible innovators by failing to provide this training to most children.

It also doesn’t mean that tiger moms should be any more forgiving in strict violin practice schedules or demands for A+’s in everything (except gym and art): That depends on whether they’re willing to give up stronger prospects of Ivy League acceptance for the long shot of producing the next Bill Gates. But for the American economy to exploit its relative advantages fully, we may in fact be better off with a few more easygoing parents and fewer tiger moms.

The scary thing about the “Tiger mom” idea is that it will spread among the intellectually gifted elite, and grind away the spirits of the innovation generators. A mechanical fixation on outcome and lack of deep understanding is actually probably better for the average future worker bee. By analogy, I do not have the mathematical talents to actually do original mathematics research, so someone like me sees math as a purely instrumental (or sometimes fun) enterprise. I use it. I learn it. I memorize and get comfortable with useful tricks and techniques. And that’s OK, because I’ll never see the forest. I lack the capacity.

People differ, and have varied strengths and weaknesses. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all “method.” Specialization is one way that aggregate economic productivity can rise. We should remember that.

MORE ABOUT: Amy Chua, Tiger moms

Comments (25)

  1. Jason Malloy

    Hopefully Chua’s book works to spread the popularity of Bryan Caplan’s new book, which (unlike Chua) gets the economics and sociology right.

    Even aside from the facts, Chua’s elite anxiety mongering is dysgenic, while Caplan’s elite pro-natal optimism is eugenic and socially beneficial.

  2. The scary thing about the “Tiger mom” idea is that it will spread among the intellectually gifted elite, and grind away the spirits of the innovation generators.

    Is this a real worry? At least in my spheres, the zeitgeist is that she’s nuts, and that people buy her book for the same reasons they rubberneck at car crashes.

  3. Miley Cyrax

    @ Joel
    To some extent I agree, but also blank slatists love this kind of idea that kids can do anything as long as their parents encourage them enough. The argument then is that if kids can do anything with the right resources and guidance, the state should step in where parents are absent/incompetent. And thus the rest of us will be footing the bill to “encourage” these kids in the name of justice. Actually, this is already happening.

  4. Antonio

    “that once these academics had reached their ultimate goal, they lost all sense of purpose, and simply decided to glide along after tenure. Status, not substantive contribution, turned out to be their ultimate motivation” interesting: I kinda would expect the opposite; we need status to get the tenure and thus sometimes we cannot pursued what we think is relevant because our colleagues don’t agree. Yet, after the tenure this is no longer a problem: we can take bigger risks.

  5. Antonio

    Maybe the tenure process deforms people 🙂

  6. antonio, these are just two people. a type. plenty of professors do take risks, and are super passionate about what they’re doing. i’m just suggesting that some people are over-achievers, but at the end of the day their main motivation turns out to be seen as over-achievers, rather than achieving anything of substance.

  7. “fixate more on the proxy measures than the underlying variable which it is intended to measure”

    There’s a term for that: Goodhart’s Law.

  8. “The scary thing about the “Tiger mom” idea is that it will spread among the intellectually gifted elite, and grind away the spirits of the innovation generators.”

    I’m not too worried about that. I run in a small crowd of very intellectually gifted people (I keep it well hidden where I am concerned =cough=) and we all think Tiger Mom is full of it. If anyone is going to read and take her book seriously, I suspect that it is going to be the average American who is not intellectually gifted and does not have naturally intellectually gifted children – someone who wants a one size fits all answer to forcing their child to be a prodigy. You know, the same people who go on fad diets and watch Oprah religiously, waiting for the next pill or face cream or magic answer to instantly change their life to whatever their fantasy of what it should be is. Not that I don’t feel sorry for their kids, but if it wasn’t Amy Chau they’d find someone other wack-job to follow.

  9. TGGP: Thanks for pointing out Goodhart’s Law; I wasn’t familiar with that.

    Razib Khan: I agree that pursuing the proxy instead of the underlying construct is a deep and fundamental problem, whether in economics or in education. As I mention on my blog, “Mistaking the measurable for the worthwhile is a fundamental problem in assessment.” Many end up gaming the system (much like “teaching to the test”) as they aim for the rewards instead of the more meaningful and enduring characteristics or skills that produced the achievement. We need better assessment, as well as better awareness of its limitations so we don’t get sucked into the rat race of rewards and reinforcement.

    I certainly hope “tiger parenting” doesn’t catch on among the intellectually gifted elite. As described by Chua and further glamorized / pilloried by the mainstream media, “tiger parenting” mixes good and bad parenting practices into a muddled “parenting style” that doesn’t deserve emulating. Effective parenting can involve pushing without punishing, and can encourage a much more diverse set of goals than trophies on a college app / resume / CV. There’s enough research that we can use for guidance rather than relying on the anecdotal impressions of a single individual (or the outsized caricature that “tiger parenting” has now become).

  10. jld

    Sometimes “soft” nurturing works wonders.

  11. Idlewilde

    I have noticed, in other forums on Amy Chua, that her detractors say “This will raise robots” to which her supporters say ”At least they’ll be smart robots.” (This is almost a direct quote, I kid you not.) Why is there this idea that only a robot can be raised?
    This article offers the view that there can be creative children who are not tiger parented. There are not just two extremes-the tiger parent and the television parent.

  12. AG

    My tiger father worked for me, but not for my sister. How does it work? I had no desire to go to elite college. But my tiger father beated shit out of me one day during my last year of high school. Fearing of physical pain, I got in. Well, it really benefited my later career.

    But on other hand, raising children with high self-esteem or entitlement is also important in term of value transference.

    At end, it is like athlete training. Just encourage is not enough. A coach’s displine is equally important.

  13. John Emerson

    I’m surprised at the almost unanimous condemnation of Chua, even here. I don’t think that her views would be regarded as especially strange within Chinese culture, where parental authority is much greater and where education is obsessively pursued.

    In other words, what we have here is a real cultural difference, but multiculturalism isn’t about that. It seems to be mostly about consumer items (food clothes music dances etc.) plus opposition to the crude forms of race-baiting.

  14. John: Chua’s views are not all that well received in the Chinese-American culture. You may be interested in this analysis by an English and Asian-American studies professor, which contains multiple links on the response within the Asian American community. It also points out that Chua’s parenting practices diverge meaningfully from Chinese parenting practices. I myself discuss some of these issues as well.

    Yes, there are cultural differences among Chinese, Chinese-American, and non-Chinese-American (and many other cultures’) parenting methods, but Chua’s views are those of just one individual and should not be taken as representative or authoritative. The above links point out some of their inconsistencies and the problems they produce.

  15. John Emerson

    It doesn’t surprise me that Chua’s piece is poorly regarded by many or most Chinese-Americans, since, on the one hand, it encourages a mostly-negative stereotype among Americans, and on the other hand, presents a Chinese pattern (one Chinese pattern) which is basically inimical to American patterns. In other words, this is a case of substantive cultural difference not easily manageable by multiculturalism. Furthermore, some Chinese-Americans may have bad memories of their own parents’ similar parenting practices.

    Chua’s parenting isn’t the only Chinese pattern and it may even be innovative and original, but it’s not unique to her and it’s far more intelligible and more normal within Chinese culture than it is within American culture. The traditional Chinese family and many contemporary Chinese families were and are far more authoritarian and hierarchal than American families. That’s one of the things that you have to come to grips with when studying China. To me one thing you have to do in such a study is at least consider the good and bad points of the Chinese pattern, rather than simply look at at from an American point of view and denounce it.

    The traditional Chinese ideal of parent-child relationships was extraordinarily parent centered: http://www.yogichen.org/cw/cw43/bk144.html During the last century (but not before that) patterns have changed, but the old patterns linger and I saw some strong signs of that when I was in Taiwan in 1981.

    Note what Chua’s Mother said to her, objecting to her parenting:

    “Why are you turning on me now?” I shot back. This is how you raised me.

    “You can’t do what Daddy and I did,” my mother replied. “Things are different now. Lulu’s not you—and she’s not Sophia. She has a different personality, and you can’t force her.

    In other words, Chua’s mothering IS a Chinese pattern, but according to her own mother, it’s not appropriate to the present day in the US.

    This reminds me of the educational argument between rote learning and “teaching how to think” , learning by exploration, etc. There’s no actual difficult in saying, for example, that you want a little of both — a little rote, a little exploration — and that some of the best American grad students are Asians who first learned by rote but have also learned to explore in the looser American system.

    I do not advocate Chua’s methods, but I’m really astonished at the unanimity of the rejection.

    (P.S. Substitute “Jewish” in some of these arguments and see how it works.)

  16. pconroy

    I haven’t read the book, but I admire Amy Chua mostly, though I think she seems somewhat obsessive.

    I agree, success is not smarts alone, but a great degree of work and some guidance. The unsaid fact – and here I’m speaking from personal knowledge – is that many intellectually gifted individuals can coast by without much study or effort during Elementary and High School, but they will flounder by College or Grad School, when the work load and discipline increases.

    My step-daughter was like this, intellectually gifted but wanted to be an air hostess or model. I re-focused her efforts on study, and coached her in Math, English and Science, so that she got accepted to Columbia, then won a scholarship to do a combined MS/Phd in North Western. However, once she moved to Chicago, she fell back on lax ways and indiscipline, and ended up dropping out of the program.

    Sometimes a good kick in the pants – metaphorically of course – is the best medicine.

  17. John Emerson

    There are actually two things, discipline and conventional ambition. I know plenty of studious people who dropped out of school at one level or another because because they didn’t like the program they were in or that were available to them. I am one of those people, in fact. Razib mentioned people above who go for the status (proxy) rather than having any curiosity about the substance of their study, and it does look as though Cua aims her children toward proxy success.

    Someone mentioned on one discussion thread that, while they did well in music as they were supposed to, they did not disappoint their own tiger mom by actually wanting to become a musician — music was being used as a way of developing discipline and was not supposed to be a career. That’s actually a common experience in classical music education, the promising musician who decides to go to med school instead.

  18. as they say, “let a thousand flowers bloom!” 🙂

  19. AG

    as they say, “let a thousand flowers bloom!”


  20. John: Thanks for elaborating and clarifying your thoughts on the relationship between Chinese, Chinese-American, and American parenting. I suspect you may be right that Chua’s methods would be better accepted in China, Taiwan, etc., although I believe I’ve seen rejection of it in Chinese forums as well. I’ll have to see if I can dig up some of those links.

    While I agree that rote and exploratory learning both have their value, I don’t think that analogy is quite so appropriate to apply here, since the parenting styles Chua describes contain multiple components which produce different outcomes. Much of the media coverage and the resulting discussion has created a false dichotomy between Chinese and American parenting, or between “tiger-parenting” and “not-tiger-parenting.” Rather than trying to decide between or even to strike a balance between two collections of parenting practices, it makes more sense to evaluate and choose among the individual components.

    Striving toward high expectations and believing that success comes from hard work are both well supported in the research literature for their positive impact on achievement and learning. Those values are strongly held in East Asian cultures, but the research I’m citing has been done in the U.S. We don’t need to choose between cultural norms in advocating those values and parenting practices.

    Similarly, the coercion and usurping of autonomy that Chua advocates are problematic in any culture, in that eventually the kids will have to learn how to make good decisions for themselves. Even in a society that changes very slowly, people still need to learn to adapt to new situations. Likewise, while shame and punishment may be more common in Chinese cultures, they are at best short-term motivators, ultimately undermining intrinsic motivation and inhibiting people from facing new challenges. Avoiding failure is problematic in all cultures because feedback (from failure as well as success) is crucial for learning.

    (Side comment: I’m not sure if you may have been referring to my “personal disclosure” in your comment above about not pursuing music professionally, but given the similarities, I wanted to point out that I was not raised by a tiger mom.)

  21. Getting back to the core issue of pursuing the proxy rather than the substance, I think this is a fundamental problem everywhere—in all cultures, in our educational and economic systems, and in the way we respond to rewards. We always need to have a proxy when evaluating some underlying phenomenon, because that phenomenon can manifest itself in multiple ways (which is the whole reason why we value it). Consequently, we always need to remember that our proxy is just a proxy, utilizing multiple measures to help compensate for the imperfections of any single measure and reminding ourselves to focus on the phenomenon that we actually care about. That’s true whenever we’re tempted to think of grades, salary, tenure, and prizes as meaningful measures of self-worth and goals in themselves, rather than momentary approximations of accomplishment and stepping-stones toward a greater goal.

    I also believe this applies to discipline. Practicing or studying X hours a day because someone else says you should (and will punish and disapprove of you if you don’t) is only a proxy for real discipline. Real discipline is having an ambition, setting goals to fulfill it, and realizing it through thoughtful, dedicated work with constant re-evaluation to make sure one is on the right course. We shouldn’t mistake the former for the latter.

  22. Mark P

    “he average American who is not intellectually gifted and does not have naturally intellectually gifted children ”

    As a reader of a blog about gene flow and the complexity of many traits, do you really believe “natural” intellectual gifts are the major difference defining achievement? The correlation with parental income and social class is so much more pronounced than that of genetic differences. Check out the data before you draw conclusions like that.

  23. The correlation with parental income and social class is so much more pronounced than that of genetic differences.

    citation? point to me to the data oh-omniscient-one.

  24. Matt B.

    So everybody here seems to think that Amy Chua’s written an instruction book, whereas it’s actually a memoire of how she changed her parenting style away from the “tiger mom”. Watch the Colbert Report interview.

  25. pconroy

    John et al,

    BTW, I should also probably point out – by way of completeness – that my step-daughter by getting into Columbia, ended up dating a PhD in Math.

    After she dropped out of the Ms/PhD program in Genetics in North Western, she came back to New York and reunited with this Math Whiz – a 6′ 6″ German/Irish guy – who graduated the top of his class. Fast forward 4 years and he now manages his own Hedge Fund, makes a near 7-figure salary and they are married living in a loft in SoHo.

    So she may have used her high IQ and looks very effectively 😉


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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