Tyler Cowen discusses his and Bryan Caplan’s reaction to that notorious book by Amy Chua, the Yale law professor who boasts of screaming at her children, calling them “garbage,” not letting them go to the bathroom when they were studying piano, etc. Caplan thinks Chua is deluded (in the sense of not being aware of research showing minimal effects of parenting on children’s intelligence and personality), foolish (in writing a book and making recommendations without trying to lean about the abundant research on child-rearing), and cruel. Cowen takes a middle view in that he doesn’t subscribe to Chua’s parenting strategies but he does think that his friends’ kids will do well (and partly because of his friends’ parenting styles, not just from their genes).
Do you view yourself as special?
I have a somewhat different take on the matter, an idea that’s been stewing in my mind for awhile, ever since I heard about the Wall Street Journal article that started this all. My story is that attitudes toward parenting are to some extent derived from attitudes about one’s own experiences as a child.
Consider Cowen, Caplan, and Chua. Without any personal knowledge of these people (well, I did meet Caplan once and gave him comments on his book, but I’d hardly call that “personal knowledge”), my impression is that Cowen and Caplan have (justifiably) high self-esteem, that they feel that they’ve risen to their current successes largely from their own efforts. They are appreciative of their middle-class backgrounds to the extent that these backgrounds gave them the foundation and opportunity to do what they love, and doing what they love has given them satisfaction and success. Also, their success is centered upon satisfaction. Individual faculty aside, George Mason University is not in the caliber of Harvard or even Yale (that’s not a putdown, it’s just the way it is), and Cowen and Caplan’s satisfaction in their careers has got to be coming more from their accomplishments and their intellectual influence than from having reached a certain rung on the ladder of success.
In contrast, my impression of Chua (again, I’ve not met her, nor have I read her book, so this is coming from what I’ve by others about her and her writings) is that she does not have such a high self-esteem, that despite all her accomplishments she does not feel that she is so brilliant inside. (From Steve Sailer, here’s a relevant quote from her book.) Rather than being brilliant, Chua comes from an accomplished family with a mother who pushed her, screamed at her, etc., so that look, here she is now, a rich Yale professor with a photogenic family. I’m not saying this is a fair self-assessment—my guess is that Chua actually is pretty impressive given all she’s done.
Now get back to parenting. If you come at it from Chua’s perspective, the story is clear. Take a girl who’s nothing special, give her the full “tiger parenting” treatment, and she’ll bag a brilliant and sexy husband and a Yale professorship. Think of it from Chua’s perspective: if she really had nothing going for her but the ability to focus (“I mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely sciencelike. . I did well at law school, by working psychotically hard. . . . . I also wasn’t naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it. . . . “), but she has achieved such great heights, then it must be the parenting. And, again, given Chua’s life as she perceives it, much of her happiness and success derives from her parents’ pushing her in directions that are not her natural inclination.
Again, consider the Yale/GMU comparison. Back when I taught at Berkeley and it was considered the #1 statistics department, a lot of my tenured colleagues seemed to have the attitude that their highest achievement in life was becoming a Berkeley statistics professor. Some of them spent decades doing mediocre work, but it didn’t seem to matter to them. After all, they were Tenured at Berkeley. Now, I’m not saying Chua is like that—in writing this book, she’s certainly not coasting on her academic reputation—but I do think it’s natural for someone in her position to define her success based on where she stands in the academic pecking order (and, for that matter, a best-selling popular book will help here too) rather than on her accomplishments for their own sake.
But Cowen’s or Caplan’s experiences lead naturally to an opposite conclusion, which I can state in two parts: (a) If you’re a special person and you pursue your dream (and also work hard), you can achieve success, even without needing any special family background beyond love and support; (b) the most important success is individualistic, coming up with ideas that have never been expressed before. Also, Cowen and Caplan evidently enjoy their jobs in large part because they enjoy their colleagues, which is much different than Chua’s remark that she doesn’t love the law and that, around her law school colleagues, her “brain turned to sludge.” As self-made men, in some sense, Cowen and Caplan naturally have less sympathy for the idea that parents can or should mold children, and given their career paths they have no particular affinity for a plan to send a child down a rigid road to a conventional success story.
In setting up this contrast, I’m not saying Cowen-Caplan good, Chua bad. I’m saying they have different self-images and different experiences, and in particular I think Chua’s attitudes make much more sense in the context of her life (of course) than they do in the abstract (or as general advice to the would-be tiger moms out there).
I talked to someone the other day who thought it was horrible all the mean things that Chua did to her kids. I was more equanimous, taking the position that, sure, I wouldn’t call my kids “garbage” and, sure, it’s a bit weird to not let your kid go to the bathroom, but considering all the child abuse out there, it’s really not so bad. Everyone has their own view on this sort of thing, but, personally, I’d rather be called garbage than be whacked.
Still, there was something . . . Even though I couldn’t bring myself to disapprove of Chua’s parenting style, I did find her persona a bit irritating. I finally decided that what bothered me was not what she did but her attitude about it. I suspect all parents yell at their kids, but is it really something to be proud of? We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and often there are good reasons (limited-resources, bounded-rationality, that sort of thing) to do these things—but it doesn’t mean we should brag about it! If I’m in a hurry and am carrying too many things and I toss a coffee cup on to the street, maybe that’s ok, but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say what a great guy I am that I’m littering. And so on. I would certainly not criticize someone in general terms for yelling at her kids but I don’t enjoy seeing it as a point of pride. Maybe it worked for Chua (or maybe not), but the flip side of being controversial is that you’re gonna piss some people off, and this pissed me off. Fair enough.
(From the opposite direction, I was annoyed at people who criticized Chua for encouraging her kids to play piano and violin, given the extremely low probability of success if you go into these fields professionally. My impression was that one reason Chua chose these instruments was specifically because of the low probability of success! The idea is that if you learn to play piano or violin, even if you become a celebrated prodigy, even then it’s not a good idea to do it professionally. But it can still be good for your brain. And from this perspective, if the kid hates the instrument, so much the better. Then she’ll definitely not be tempted to try to play it professionally. As Charles Rosen wrote, the only good reason to be a professional musician is if you love to play music all the time.)
What’s the statistical content here??
Umm, the “Why did he write this??” question comes up a lot on this blog, basically for all the entries that don’t enter the Statistics category. The short answer is that Chua’s book is much discussed so I’d like to add my view. But the fuller justification is that I think people are, all the time, arguing this or that without reflecting on how this derives from their personal perspectives. (Yeah, yeah, I know that I’m violating my own rule here in not giving my own personal story. But that’s because this blog is about science, it’s not about me. In this as in other topics, I believe that bringing in my own story would just muddy the waters.)
P.S. My spell checker is flagging the words Cowen, Chua, putdown, and children’s. I understand the first two, and I guess I can accept that “putdown” should be “put down,” but “children’s”? That’s pretty basic English, no?
P.P.S. Caplan responds (to the parenting stuff, not the spell-checker query).