By now you’ve likely heard about Amy Chua, the Asian Yale professor who has written a brave “critique” of America’s parenting style with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua’s “Chinese Mother” approach, as she calls it, means that her daughters have no play dates or sleepovers, no TV or computer games, and no grades lower than an A. Chua asserts that the Western (American) way of parenting—where parents are afraid to upset their child or hurt their self-esteem with rules or discipline, and coddle their children while allowing them free expression—amounts to subpar achievements.
NYTimes columnist David Brooks doesn’t necessarily agree with the critics of Chua, who believe her parenting approach is too harsh, and that this “crazy” Chinese approach is one of the reasons why “Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.” In fact, he believes she’s doing something entirely different. An excerpt from his column is below.
After the story, let us know what you think about the book and Brooks’ column in the comments section!
I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.
This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.
Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?
These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.
So I’m not against the way Chua pushes her daughters. And I loved her book as a courageous and thought-provoking read. It’s also more supple than her critics let on. I just wish she wasn’t so soft and indulgent. I wish she recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library. And I hope her daughters grow up to write their own books, and maybe learn the skills to better anticipate how theirs will be received.