Amy Chua is getting slapped around for her Wall Street Journal article on “Tiger Mom” parenting. Many parents responded to her piece by saying, essentially, “There’s more to life than achievement, there is happiness, freedom, autonomy, and unconditional love!”
Well, that’s true, but those critiques concede something that is open to debate: Where is the evidence that the children of Tiger Moms achieve anything more in their careers than children reared in other ways? Yes, extraordinarily high pressure to achieve, unlimited parental involvement, constricted social activities, endless college prep and countless hours of drill and kill learning sessions can generate good grades in high school, high SAT scores and admission to an elite university. But prove to me that the skills required to achieve those things are the same ones that make people successful professionals. In other words, setting aside whether Chua is right in her view that achievement is the ultimate goal of parenting, I don’t think it’s clear that her proposed parenting style is more likely to produce it than other more flexible approaches.
I went to college with some students who had been parented a la Chua, and there is no question that they all worked incredibly, admirably hard. There was also no question that none of them could find a social skill with two hands and flashlight. That defect alone ruled out dozens of career paths for them, and would go on to hamper their career progress and income growth after college. They also suffered from an inability to collaborate because they had to be number 1 at everything (to paraphrase Chua’s own standards). I remember particularly the Tiger Mom offspring on our softball team who booed our own players for making great plays (they were making him look bad as an individual by showing him up, he felt). No one on that team would have recommended him for a job in any team-oriented work environment, which is a large portion of all work environments.
The U.S. is not Confucian China: Advancement in adult careers depends very little on standardized tests and rote memorization (even in the civil service, various lawsuits have largely wiped out testing regimes). As life goes along, those making selections for career opportunities usually have many people who can look good on paper in front of them, so they make choices based on other things. I can’t tell you how many undergraduate and graduate students I have seen in my career who had thrived up to a point because of hard work, endless memorization exercises and good test-taking skills but then simply flamed out because they could not produce a creative piece of scholarly work or engage in collaborative learning. And I have seen comparable numbers of hardworking kids who flunked out because of ongoing depression that came from ridiculous expectations or social isolation. In short, if you want your child to grow up into a high achieving adult, following Chua’s advice might well impede rather than facilitate your success.
p.s. I chose consciously to focus in this post on the Tiger Mom style of parenting rather than stereotype racial groups as Chua did. There are Tiger Moms in all cultures and there are many Chinese-American moms who parent in more sensible ways.