Etherless Learning

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Beyond Tigers, Dragons, and Sheep in Parenting Practices

Posted by Ming Ling on January 16, 2011

Why give any more publicity to the Wall Street Journal excerpt (“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”) from Amy Chua’s new book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)? So many have already decried the cultural stereotyping, the arbitrary definition of success, and the psychological damage wrought by their own “tiger moms.” Others have deplored the WSJ’s editing as a brazen marketing ploy calculated to create controversy and sell books. But what I haven’t seen discussed as much in the ensuing media frenzy is a critique of the complete obfuscation of good and bad parenting advice all mixed together and the hubris of an individual drowning out good research.

(As a matter of personal disclosure, I myself haven’t experienced anything in my own upbringing that was nearly as restrictive as what Chua describes, although I recognize the values and have seen friends and classmates suffer the consequences of their parents’ methods. I was a classically trained Asian-American: as a child, I played two musical instruments, entered multiple academic competitions, and took extra classes in math and science. I was no prodigy—to my parents’ relief, since I never frightened them with a burning desire to turn my extracurricular activities into full-time pursuits—rather, their strategies paid off when I attended a prestigious school and graduated with a science degree. There I saw plenty of fellow Asian-Americans with a wide range of achievements and experiences, both stricter and freer as well as happier and unhappier. All this is mere context; I’m not writing this to prove any points about my parents’ practices, either to justify or vilify them, but to demonstrate my familiarity with the cultural values, practices, and results.)

I have no desire to fight one anecdote with another anecdote. My experiences, whether as a child or as a parent, aren’t a particularly compelling example or counterexample for any side of the argument. Nor is my goal to review Chua’s book (since I refuse to reward the marketing tactics that have caused such damage), but to restore to the discourse some key issues that have gotten lost in the discussion. I want to bring to the forefront the research that already exists on teaching and parenting, and use that to filter out the good from the bad in the sludge that has flooded the terrain.

Others have already summarized relevant cross-cultural research examining the same phenomenon Chua seeks to explain through her own experience. On the bright side, a recent article by Kathy Seal (“Asian-American Parenting and Academic Success”) notes the value of parental involvement and cultural attitudes in promoting success, particularly beliefs about the value of effort rather than ability[1]. On the dark side, embedded within many heartbreaking personal stories in this discussion is a summary of research and statistics on the consequences of harsh parenting and on Asian-Pacific Islander American (APA) suicides by psychiatrist Suzan Song:

There are multiple studies that report that despite high levels of academic achievement, Asian American students report poor psychological adjustment (Choi et al, 2006; Greene et al 2006; Rhee et al 2003; Rumbault, 1994; Yeh, 2003). The high level of parental interest in grades solely can create depression and anxiety for youth (Pang, 1991). And perception of parental disinterest in emotional well-being is significantly associated with depression (Greenberger 1996; Stuart et al 1999). There are more studies but I’ll stop here, but it’s shown that harsh parental discipline is related to depression of Chinese-Am teens (Kim & Gee, 2000).

And there are multiple stats around suicide in Asian Americans: These stats are available here:

  • Asian Am women 15-24yrs old had the highest suicide rates among any ethnicity (Dept of Health and Human Services)
  • California Institute of Tech 2009: 3 Asian suicides
  • According to New America Media, from 1996 to 2006, of the 21 students who committed suicide at Cornell, 13 were APA. This 61.9 percentage is significantly higher than the overall percent of APA students, which is 14.
  • From 1964 to 2000, the average number of MIT undergraduate student suicides was nearly three times that of many as the national campus average, with 21.2 students out of every 100,000 committing suicide in comparison to 7.5, with 11.7 as the national overall average.

Dr. Song also describes the mental health issues facing Asian-American adolescents in more depth in a guest blog post.

Going beyond comparisons between cultures, I especially want to highlight general principles that apply across cultures about what helps or hinders development. Some have suggested the need for a “less extreme” approach or a middle ground between Eastern and Western philosophies rather than championing either one over the other, yet both still lend credence to a false dichotomy. In rejecting Chua’s detrimental practices, we need not retreat from the supportive practices she has confounded with them; research can help us differentiate between the two.

Beliefs about Success and Failure

The clearest positive value in the parenting philosophy advocated in Chua’s essay is the belief that success comes through effort. Built on top of this belief are the key practices of encouraging perseverance, developing good work habits, and providing multiple opportunities to learn and practice one’s skills. Both are well supported in the research literature: attributing success to behaviors within one’s control rather than intrinsic traits such as intelligence or talent promotes perseverance that enables future success[2], and developing expertise requires hours of deliberate practice[3].

However, the key factor underlying the advantage shown by children who attributed success to effort rather than ability was that they then attributed their subsequent failures to inadequate effort, so that they were more willing to invest more effort and try again[4]. In treating failure as a cause for shame, Chua’s methods actually undermine the positive effects she was otherwise promoting. Even further, learners need errors as a source of crucial feedback to help them correct their knowledge[5]. None of this even addresses the emotional dangers associated with making parental affection contingent upon success[6].

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Yes, success builds confidence and self-efficacy, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued pursuit of future success[7]. But success doesn’t always guarantee enjoyment (especially if the processes employed to achieve that success incur resentment or dread), and pursuits that do not produce immediate, obvious success can still be worth enjoying. Helping children to appreciate the entire process, failures and all, promotes a more long-term view of progress than conditioning enjoyment on success. Likewise, Chua’s philosophy about motivation (that “the solution to substandard performance is to excoriate, punish and shame the child”) demonizes failure and favors immediate results at the expense of enduring growth. In reality, reliance on rewards and punishments as external motivators ultimately undermines motivation[8][9].

Goals and Expectations

Setting ambitious goals and maintaining high expectations are a necessary starting point for helping children develop their potential. Where Chua errs is in believing that the only good goals are those that receive tangible rewards and prestige. Mistaking the measurable for the worthwhile is a fundamental problem in assessment[10]; ill-defined objectives such as social skills and creativity lose in the competition for time and attention in a test- (or reward-) heavy culture. Ironically, Chua’s choices may actually be encouraging the “everyone gets a prize” mentality that she disparages, by inflating the value of those pursuits which earn prizes.

Further, focusing narrowly on highly-structured “drill and skill” aspects of any domain risks promoting routine expertise rather than adaptive expertise[11]. Responding to new challenges demands cognitive flexibility; constructing novel solutions in open-ended environments facilitates its development, while mechanistic repetition hinders it[12]. Similarly, solving insight problems is more effective after taking a mental “incubation” break to represent the problem differently, instead of fixating on rote reproduction of past strategies[13].

Finally, by “overrid[ing] all of their children’s own desires and preferences”, parents rob them of their autonomy and capacity for self-regulation. Helping them make better decisions, create plans and subgoals, self-assess, and adapt to feedback gives them the tools to eventually learn on their own[14][15].


More broadly, my main point here is to demonstrate that Chua’s parenting philosophy is both good and bad, not because of some conceptual multiplism claiming that all opinions are valid, but because parts are good and parts are bad—as demonstrated by research and enumerated above. Children succeed in spite of the cruel punishment, fear of failure, and usurping of autonomy, not because of it. Their success comes instead from the high expectations, the belief in diligence, and yes, even the long hours of practice. But all of those desirable values and processes can be instituted through other methods which don’t risk the painful psychological scars, which don’t come at the cost of neglecting other fundamental skills, and which ultimately are even more effective.

Amidst the deluge of commentary that Chua’s essay has unleashed, I hope the general public won’t lose sight of what research has long had to say about the same issues that one author has explored in a personal memoir. One silver lining of this media storm is more honest dialogue about Asian-American parenting and its outcomes. Rather than celebrate or pillory any particular person or experience, that dialogue must rise above the level of the individual in order for us to truly learn.


[1] Stevenson, H.W., & Stigler, J.W. (1992). The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York NY: Simon & Schuster.
[2] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[3] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[4] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[5] Metcalfe, J., & Kornell, N. (2007). Principles of cognitive science in education: The effects of generation, errors, and feedback, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 225-229.
[6][ Harter, S., Marold, D.B., Whitesell, N.R., & Cobbs, G. (1996). A model of the effects of perceived parent and peer support on adolescent false self behavior. Child Development, 67(2), 360-374.
[7] Wigfield, A., Eccles, J.S., Schiefele, U., Roeser, R.W., & Kean, P.D. (2006). Development of achievement motivation. In W. Damon & R.M. Lerner (Series Eds.) & N. Eisenberg (Volume Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional and Personality Development (6th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 933–1002). New York: Wiley.
[8] Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
[9] Lepper, M. R., & Hodell, M. (1989). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. In C. Ames & R. E. Ames (Eds.), Research on Motivation in Education (Vol. 3, pp. 73-105). New York: Academic Press.
[10] Pellegrino, J.W., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
[11] Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H.W. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child Development and Education in Japan: A Series of Books in Psychology (pp. 262-272). New York NY: W.H. Freeman.
[12] Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[13] Sternberg, R.J., & Davidson, J.E. (1995). The Nature of Insight. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
[14] Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. D. (2006). Promoting self-regulation in science education: Metacognition as part of a broader perspective on learning. Research in Science Education, 36(1-2), 111-139.
[15] Although my intention here is to base my arguments on research, I think this insight from one of my music teachers captures this idea beautifully: She told me that her job as a teacher was to teach me so that I could eventually teach myself. 

2 Responses to “Beyond Tigers, Dragons, and Sheep in Parenting Practices”

  1. Ming Ling said

    P.S. – Visit another cognitive scientist’s response to Chua’s essay for a more focused examination of the fun of improving, the shallowness of rote learning, and the dangers of rewards and punishments.

  2. Ming Ling said

    P.P.S. – This NYT op-ed by David Brooks reinforces one of my points: that Chua fails to appreciate the importance of a broader and more subtle set of skills than the narrow selection she drills in her children. He focuses on the complexities of social and interpersonal development, and thankfully he acknowledges research in highlighting this. But depriving children of crucial learning opportunities which they themselves desire is crippling, not “coddling.”

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