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What the Tiger Mother Left Out

A cognitive scientist friend of mine made a good point the other day about Amy Chua’s assertion that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” It is, he said (and I should have seen right away) not true. Lots of things are fun before you’re good at them. Potching around with a guitar or a tennis racquet or a book of Sudoku are good examples. Masturbation, which Susie Bright thinks Chua has messed up for her kids, is another. In fact, a great many things are fun for you when you aren’t good at them. What they never are, though, is fun for other people.

The Tiger Mom’s critique of American parenting is all about public life—about what kids do with, for and at the behest of other people. Chua hates our way of giving every kid a trophy, or, as she mockingly puts it, believing that “even losers are special in their own special way.” This now bugs everybody about American life, including Americans. Why, as this French mother puts it, can’t a B-minus be accompanied by the kind of notes she got from teachers in her homeland: “Could be better” ? Why does the teacher write “good going!” instead, helping to teach kids that they should celebrate themselves just for being themselves?

Actually, that question has a good answer. It’s easy to razz on a practice ripped from its historical context, yet the fact is that this culture arose here and now for understandable reasons peculiar to the recent American past. Within living memory, people who weren’t male, white, able-bodied heterosexuals in this society found themselves hobbled in life. Eager to put that hierarchical close-mindedness behind us, much of middle-class America has now tilted way over in the direction of feel-goodism. Give everybody a gold star, let the blind guy go hunting. It has gotten out of hand, but it was an honorable impulse. (Among its fruits, by the way, was 1965’s reform of immigration law, without which there’d be a lot fewer Chinese mothers living in North America today.)

Still, we’re all getting clear that the special-’cause-you’re-you game has gotten out of hand. Last year, in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international assessment of education performance, American 15-year-olds failed to place in the top ranks for any subject or academic trait, with one exception: self-confidence.

Not merely silly, such self-regard may actually interfere with learning: In next month’s issue of the journal Learning and Instruction, Ming Ming Chiu and Robert M. Klassen, two scholars who examined the OECD data for links between math scores and cultural characteristics in 34 nations, found an interesting correlation: Kids who were too confident of their math abilities got lower scores than those who were humbler.

OK, so we’re all with Chua in agreeing that it’s bad to tell kids they did a great job unless they, um, actually did a great job. Hence she refused to accept a birthday card that her daughter Sophia had scribbled out without a thought. (And in her as-told-to defense of her mom in the New York Post, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld showed there was no harm done: “It took me 30 seconds; I didn’t even sharpen the pencil. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.”)

But Chua has confused self-celebration, which is the corruption of public standards, with self-acceptance, which is respect for one’s own needs and desires, and autonomy. That’s what Bright’s onanistic point made clear to me.

When you’re, um, mastering your domain, you aren’t in the world of tests and standards and public approval. You’re just doing something to please yourself, because you want to, and because you can. You don’t (I think and hope) expect a trophy, gold star, medal or public recognition. You aren’t seeking the admiration of the world by testing yourself against some standard. You are, in fact, doing the opposite: You’re giving yourself a gift not because you deserve it, or worked for it, but simply because you want to. You feel entitled to your moment simply because you’re you. And so it is with playing guitar badly, or collecting miniature ceramic shoes, or writing an epic poem about your cat. It doesn’t matter if you suck at all these things, because when you do them, you have no responsibility to do well.

Self-celebration is bad because it corrupts an important part of public life: It says people’s shared sense of reality should be distorted in the name of good feeling. But self-acceptance is different. It says you exist apart from the evaluations and opinions of others. If you don’t have this feeling then you’re only as good as the next test.

All misfortune, said Pascal, comes from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. Chua’s critics suggest that her philosophy would lead to miserable people, restless in that quiet room, because there is no grading curve there, no way to prove themselves against others.

Who knows if that’s the case in her life? (Hers sounds like a perfectly nice family, and, as I said in my last Tiger Mother post, I strongly suspect that how parents enforce their systems matters more than the content of their beliefs). But that does seem to be what the book advocates, and it strikes me as a philosophy of sadness—the creed of bright, accomplished, hard-working people chasing after a gift they can never catch.

Chiu, M., & Klassen, R. (2010). Relations of mathematics self-concept and its calibration with mathematics achievement: Cultural differences among fifteen-year-olds in 34 countries Learning and Instruction, 20 (1), 2-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2008.11.002


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