“Tiger Moms” Promote Academic and Career Success? Prove it.

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 other ways.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

34 thoughts on ““Tiger Moms” Promote Academic and Career Success? Prove it.”

  1. Please- the column was written as provocatively as possible to generate controversy to promote sales of her book on the topic. Mission accomplished.

  2. SP: I share your suspicion, and almost didn't post as a result, but the wave has started anyway so I went ahead.

  3. Seems to me the parenting style described would be perfect for being admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Wharton, which is essential for getting a job at an I Bank or consulting company, if you're so inclined. The thing is, unless you've learned the fine art of schmoozing, you'll always be the poor schmuck working 80-100 hour weeks, and never the Managing Director or Senior VP who gets to go home at night and gets weekends off. You'll be handsomely compensated for those hours, no doubt, but you won't reach the top just on pure brainpower or willingness to work long hours. The last two are necessary to reach the top in any sort of business (and most companies don't require degrees from one of the Big Five, which includes Stanford), but not sufficient; schmoozability and the ability to work in teams are equally important.

    I'll let those who are familiar with the academic life comment on requirements in that environment.

  4. @Keith Humphreys

    Is there a happy medium between Chua-style fanaticism and the "Western" fanaticism around self-esteem? I know a lot of people who were parented a la Chua and today, as adults, are depressed, black with anger, can't think, can't get along, don't know how to live, but I also know a lot of people who were told all their young lives that they were special special special, and today as adults have big problems because no one agrees.

    Also, do rote memorization, drills, and so on preclude creative thinking? Do more laissez-faire practices promote it?


  5. pearlnecklace: here's what I think works:

    (a) Love your kids unconditionally. Never ever confuse this love with anything that remotely resembles accomplishment, possessions, etc. This means not just not giving your kids the idea that love depends on or is such things, but also resolving that any attempt by your kids to suggest that if you really loved them, you'd give them X will be met with blank incomprehension and no X. If done correctly, this will help your kids sort out the difference between thinking they matter to you, and should matter to themselves, and thinking that they are special in terms of some achievement. The two are utterly and completely different.

    (b) Kids thrive on standards, so long as those standards make sense. Figure out what to insist on — e.g., that your kids should do their best, should not be mean or cruel or deceitful, etc. — and insist on it. Do not insist on things "just because". Authority matters, and should not be brought into disrepute.

    (c) Respect your kids. Let them question you. If they convince you that you are wrong, change your mind. What ought to matter is doing the right thing, not prevailing for its own sake.

    (d) When you've satisfied the above, let your kids decide for themselves what they want to do, and let them make their own mistakes, within reason. 'Within reason' means: you stop them from making mistakes if those mistakes are likely to lead to serious injury, a criminal record, etc. It does not mean: preventing them from making mistakes, period. Kids who never make mistakes never learn to avoid them, and kids whose every moment is programmed have a harder time with autonomy.

  6. SP and Keith: Yes, Amy Chua herself has claimed that she didn't write the headline, the WSJ did (that I believe) and that the editors picked the most provocative parts of the book to excerpt, giving her limited latitude to object (that I'm more dubious about). Apparently, the narrative arc of her actual book is that after her younger daughter rebels, she reconsiders her extreme parenting style – so the book is partly about realizing that the Tiger Mom way is not necessarily the best. Whether or not the bombshell article was a deliberate marketing strategy, it's awfully convenient for Chua that after all this controversy, her book is now ranked #4 on the Amazon best-seller list!

    One problem with considering how much benefit Tiger Moms provide is that character traits like work ethic and intelligence are at least partly heritable. It's possible that even if Tiger Moms do raise more successful children, they could be passing on hard working and intelligent genes (and it takes a certain amount of hard work / obsession to do Tiger Mom parenting, though intelligence may not enter into it…) rather than influencing their children with their child-rearing techniques.

  7. @Don K — that's a nice way to capture the kind of phenonemon to which I am referring. Small amendment is that one has to *graduate* from those schools, not just be admitted to them. There are a number of kids around here who sole goal in life (and their parents' goal) is "to get into Stanford". And the moment they get in, the wheels come off.

    @Andrew — you point out something to which all parents are vulnerable. A friend of mine says "everyone believes in the influence of parenting until they have their second child". On the best seller thing, I will be surprised if it lasts. The odd thing about "Mommy Wars" books (e.g., Catlain Flanagan's) is that they generate a million news articles and cable TV show debates, but they actually tend to sell poorly as books, maybe because all the content fits in a single magazine article and the rest is padding.

    @Pearl necklace — Of course there is a happy medium. High expectations of success combined with warmth and support usually maximizes children's success.

  8. @Pearl Necklace & Hilzoy: My mother always said "everything in moderation", which sounded great but was so hard to live by. Years later when I took Nutrition 101, I realized that everything could be in moderation, if there is also balance and variety.

  9. What hilzoy says! And it is nice to hear from her, by the way.

    My experience has been this: If you have reasonable but high expectations, your children will meet them. At the same time, if you have no expectations your children will meet those, too. Of course, my freshman sociology teacher taught me that you cannot generalize from your own, necessarily limited, experience! Whatever you do, you cannot let your children quit something for which they have made a commitment until they have met their obligations. Failure to even hear whining and excuses is a bonus. As for letting them make their own mistakes, that is difficult, but as she says you should do that, within reason. And that's about all there is to it.

    @Don K: Academics will probably tolerate a higher AQ (a–hole quotient) than many other lines of work, but the fact that smart people (of a sort) are a dime a dozen in academia eventually forecloses the options of the high-AQ personality, too. People just finally get tired of their bullshit. That said, I have noticed that the surest route to success in academia is to be the spouse of a coveted academic star. It also doesn't hurt to come from a lineage that includes the odd Nobel Prize winner or two and academic achievers/administrators at the highest levels. But you still (usually) have to perform once you get a foot in the door.

  10. Of all the things that upset me about Chua (and there are quite a lot), I think the biggest is the implicit assumption that only the BEST grades and the biggest achievements will bring you happiness. This might, however, be presumptuous of me, because it seems that happiness doesn't even matter. I would love to see a psychological profile of these kids; I have to imagine they are severely depressed and have no self-confidence. I feel horribly for her children.

  11. There's an interesting interview in the London Sunday Times with new English cricket star Alastair Cook. (If you've not been paying attention, Cook scored a hugely impressive 766 runs against Australis in 5 test matches: 9 innings at an average of 85, batting for 36 hours. A Test-class batsman would normally be happy with an average of 40. Cook claims that an early education as a chorister at St. Paul's cathedral school in London taught him the values of concentration, practice and accuracy. He played cricket entirely voluntarily in his summer holidays with a village club at Maldon.

    One difference here is that top-class choral singing is worth doing in itself, and Cook had a talent for it. It wasn't a question of being pressured to be top in everything.

  12. "not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama"

    Glad she doesn't have twins, then you've have screwed up parental relationships as well as screwed up sibling relationships. Even so, it makes you wonder what happens when Tiger Families collide.

    Anyway, Yglesias' comment seemed to be the best response:

    "On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”"

  13. Makes the day for some of us when you show up, hilzoy. I'd add one thing to your comment about kids who never make mistakes. In my experience, not only are they less skilled as adults at avoiding mistakes, they also are often completely at a loss after they do make a mistake. The art of gracefully recovering their bearings, ameliorating the consequences or even just apologizing to someone their mistake has affected are entirely foreign to them.

  14. Maybe someone can help me; I am trying to remember the name of a Nobel laureate in physics who said that other kids' parents would ask, "What did you learn in school today?" In contrast, his mother would ask, "What questions did you ask in school today?"

    Talk about a difference in focus that makes a difference in other things that matter!

  15. Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied: "My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, 'What did you learn today?' But my mother used to say, 'Izzy, did you ask a good question today?' That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist."


    Judaism is a religion of questions.

  16. Please note as you go through articles on the web just how many career professionals with governments are second generation foreigners. These are the people that keep the government glued together while the rest of the people are doing their nuts over penny ante crap.

    The immigrants pay their way fully.

  17. Best description of this nonsense

    The tactics used to enforce this discipline were somewhat drastic, including insults, threats, starvation, and putting the children out in the cold – most the of things pimps use to control their stables, short of forcible rape anyway – or perhaps I exaggerate – but how hard is it to torture a seven year old into submission, anyway. This style of parenting makes just as severe demands on the parent as on the child – hours and hours of attention to every aspect of their child's life. All worth it says, Chua, because when they succeeded they got praise and "love" – pimps know that trick too.

  18. Is it unethical for me to comment on a book I have no intention of reading?

    Also, is it vitriolic if I note the questions all this raises about her spouse? And don't children have any privacy rights? This can't be good for them either.

  19. Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. (Plato)

  20. Looking at the Chua children's achievements, I would tend to dismiss them to some extent as coming from the mother's motivation rather than their own, and from hard work rather than talent. Maybe that's not quite fair. My very bright step-son tends to slack off at school, but he got 100% in two of his honors high school subjects (all his grades were A+'s or A's.) He's just really, really smart! Looking at him versus a Tiger Mom cub for a spot at a really good school, I think he'd be a better choice. He's well-adjusted, has tons of interests and tons of friends, gets along with everyone, etc. Are high scores obtained by hard slog forced on a kid by the mom really meaningful? I don't think they say all that much about the child.

  21. I suspect that just as there is no one best way to manage, so it is with parenting styles. What I found interesting about the article was the idea that a certain degree of joy came with the obtaining of high level performance. The conquering of the piano piece was an interesting illustration. I have seen this in sports, as well as in music and academics. I have also seen these obsessions tip over the edge to burnout.

    I do know that if I was a better bridge player or piano player, I would enjoy those activities much more. I also know that my stunted progress in those hobbies is directly related to a failure to apply myself sufficiently. So I think there is something to the approach, despite the obvious concerns.

  22. @Margaret.

    Maybe that’s not quite fair.

    It's not. You don't know that. And anyway, any achievement worth talking about is the product of hard work and talent.

    My very bright step-son tends to slack off at school, but he got 100% in two of his honors high school subjects (all his grades were A+’s or A’s.)

    If I were a college admissions person, why would I want someone who doesn't work hard? Again, hard work + talent. One without the other gets you nothing interesting.

  23. Jazzerciser, I'm not saying her kids are dumb. They're probably just not as smart as their grades suggest if they have to work that hard to get A's, so they're going to hit a limit eventually. I'd rather take a diamond in the rough and work with it than a highly polished cubic zirconium that can't be improved any more. If two kids are getting the same grades, one easily and one having to slog, it's the one who finds the work too easy that needs more challenge.

  24. @Margaret

    That they work that hard doesn't mean they have to work that hard to get the grades they do. It could just be overkill. Getting good grades in high school isn't that cognitively demanding, and the performance ceiling of high school courses isn't high enough to differentiate between people who are merely bright (+2 SD) and those like your stepson who are genuinely gifted (+3.5 SD? +4?). Chua's daughters could be +2-SD and hard-working, or +4-SD and hard-working, we don't know; an "A" compresses too much ability space. (A +6 working really, really hard would get … an A!)

    Suppose we raised the performance ceiling and Chua's +2-SD (let's assume) kids worked as hard as they could and made B's, and your +4-SD stepson underperformed given his abilities and also made B's. Which would you choose if you were a college admissions officer? (Assume you know the difference in inputs despite the same output. Grading is a lossy compression and someone just staring at a transcript can't know the difference!) I'd probably go with your son given the potential upside, but the lack of demonstrated work ethic wouldn't be heartening. If he doesn't slog, how can I know that he can? Potential is nothing without its fulfillment, and fulfillment takes work.

  25. So I've been hearing a lot about this tiger mom, and I finally decided to voice my opinion.

    So to begin with, I am a freshman in high school with a 3.8 GPA, which I have worked hard for. I am Indian, so my parents DO have expectations for me. However, my parents have learned that if they try and force me in to doing things, it wont work. My mom and dad used to be like Tiger Mom(and Dad), and I was always frustrated with them and never achieved the grades they (or I) wanted. I was actually in depression. Ever since last year, they have laid off, but have supported me and my goals. For a 15 year old, I have fairly extensive knowledge with computers, which other kids in my grade don't possess. I achieved all this with love and support, and not by the Tiger Mom parenting style. My parents saw my potential, and brought it out, not by forcing me, but by giving me a chance to see it for myself. I was given tools such as my own computer, money for buying resources, and more. I am learning web design and I have decent knowledge in HTML, CSS, and some Java, and I am diving in to PHP and Javascript, all by my own will.

    My sister, who is a college grad with a Masters in business, chose her own path. My parents could have forced her to go in to software (which they were about to do), but they decided to let her do what she wants. Now, she is a grown up adult who is living her life in a good way. I can see that if my parents had pushed her in to software, she would have resented them. I am happy for my sister because she is making good money, and she ENJOYS her life.

    Now, I believe that in parenting there needs to be an understanding and trust between a parent and child. High expectations should be set for a child, but it should not be enforced the way that Chua does it. It should be enforced with love, support, and a little bit of push. By having a relationship based off trust, you will be able to expect to see good things from your child without forcing them to do so.

    If you want your kids to go to a top school, then that's great. You may have to be like Chua. But I believe that letting kids exploit their own potential allows them to be more creative and be happy. I don't want to be the next Bill Gates, but I do want to have a good job. I know I can do this because my parents taught me not to give up, and whenever something doesn't go the way I want it, not to give up.

    To sum it all up, Chua needs to understand that we live in a new age. Parenting with love and kindness CAN produce kids that will be successful and HAPPY. Forcing kids to sit in front of a piano for 4 hours a day and calling them fat is only setting up barriers between the child and parent that will cause problems later in their lives.

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