Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tiger Mom Priorities

David Brooks wrote an op-ed criticizing Amy Chua's hypercritical, education-status oriented child-rearing strategy (see her WSJ piece here). Chua clearly presents an unsympathetic portrait: no play dates, 3 hour mandated violin practice, etc. I think if kids want to practice for 3 hours, great. If, like me, you hated practicing instruments, it just teaches you to hate it even more. By clearly going too far on an otherwise good idea, it makes fun fodder for commenters.

Brooks' main point is that preventing kids from sleep-overs and other childhood games deprived them of essential, nay, dominant skills in managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group. These are the really important skills learned in childhood.

Clearly, these are essential skills, but the problem with prioritizing this kind of competence is you can't really monitor them, and what you can't monitor, you can't instruct, drill, or correct, other than simple things like teaching your kids to say please and thank you, and to see 'getting mad' as basically an internal failure. So, while letting your kid play with other kids is essential, I don't see it as a more important parenting strategy because kids will naturally work these skills without prompting. Math, reading, and writing, are not natural activities, and there's a brief window in childhood where one can put these concepts into their brain efficiently. As they were discovered a mere 5 millenia ago, our monkey brains need external stimuli from outsiders old enough to know they are actually important to force us to focus on these skills. On the other hand, our brains were made to master speech and social networks, so that doesn't need so much guidance.

As the Serenity prayer notes, the issue of what is important yet unmanageable, and what is important and manageable, is a very important distinction. It is far more important your kids have common sense than know calculus, but while you do you best every day in teaching common sense, it isn't really something to address directly. You can and should, however, make them learn their math tables.


Mercury said...

Reading Brooks you could be forgiven for concluding that Snookie of Jersey Shore will be the one who ends up in the top tier of the cognitive power-elite given her obviously superior abilities in the area of female sleepover dynamics.

And the guys at MIT who think groups are capable of higher collective intelligence than individuals need to take a field trip to Washington D.C.

Paul Theron said...

I liked this so much, I lectured my kids about it on the way to school! The bigger one (12 yrs) agreed that it would be "useful to know that thing don't always work out the same way that they did last time".

Ian said...

Its amazing how much commentary can be spawned by one, extremely biased, data point.

So this woman raised sucessful daughters and I'm sure she did. She also happens to be a professor of Law at Yale, upper middle class, etc, etc. Its no doubt that in between all her abusive acts she had many important things to teach her kids about success.

But wheres the control experiment? Why dont we take a look at some less economically successful mothers who also impose complete control onto their children. Taking a complete stereotypical view, why doesnt anyone look at the mother's of southern beauty pageant kids (it even controls for the cultural variable). You take a look at some of the things those parents on those reality tv shows do and its no doubt those little girls are going to grow up and be completely messed up, and probably not fantastically successful (not that they wont find reasonable amounts of success in life).

Putting my one stereotypical example aside, where's the controlled data on parenting techniques?

Mercury said...

If you want to control for socio-economic status you could do worse than using Chua's own parents/grandparents and other Chinese or Asian-Americans of previous generations - who were generally much poorer but had a similar work ethic. By and large they produced a lot of children like Ms. Chua. A similar story can be told about the history of American Jews.

At some point it's pretty hard not to connect those dots...

Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Rothman said...

Amy Chua's WSJ piece was a very smart marketing device: exaggerate like crazy, create buzz, and increase demand for her book. In the week after it appeared, I caught parts of several interviews with her, and in each snippet she walked back lots of the extreme picture she painted in the WSJ; after the big splash, looking kinder and gentler and more human no doubt helped sell more books.

David Brooks took her bait and made yet another entry in his continuous campaign to deemphasize top-tier academic achievement. Of course it's important for kids to be socialized and learn to interact with others (no one, not even Amy Chua, suggests it's not). But to claim that 'mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement' is to demonstrate a deep propensity for glibness. It might pay for Mr. Brooks to wonder why, e.g., Google asks job applicants for their SAT scores.

parviziyi said...

The valuable thing about Amy Chua's piece for me is that it does in fact explain why Asian-American children are outperforming other Americans in book-learning subjects: The children's home environment is putting more effective pressure on them to focus on the books. Before I read her piece, I was foggy about that, and she convinced me of the truth of it (but not of the merits of emulating it).