Sunday, January 16, 2011

That Tiger Mother

Wow, it isn't hard to get attention as a parent. Engage in an extreme parenting style and hold it up as an underlying reason why the US will lose ground to China into the future.

I'm talking of course about Amy Chua -- a Yale law professor -- whose book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was ranked No.4 on the Amazon bestseller list. I bought the book for two reasons. First, if such a book is on the bestseller list then I want Parentonomics to be able to leverage off the "Customers who bought this item also bought ..." Amazon list. Second, I was pretty sure that the characterisations of Chua going around were distorted. I just didn't believe that the WSJ piece reflected what was in the book and, having now read it, I was right.

Let's begin with that shorter piece. It basically had a bold claim that Chinese mothers (very broadly construed -- and not confined even to Asia) were superior to Western mothers. There is no evidence for this presented and, instead, there is an allusion to stereotypes of superior performance of children at school and in some artistic endeavours. But while that might be a hook that gets the press interested, it isn't really what is interesting about the piece or the book. This is instead a case in point about extreme or perhaps obsessive parenting. We have seen all colours of that recently in terms of books. Most of the ones that seemed to have had a recent attention have been against strong parental involvement. There is, of course, Free-Range Kids that argues that we should have less fear and give our kids more independence. Free-Range Kids wasn't an extreme view but a reaction to extremes. But others have been different. There was one book -- whose name I have forgotten -- that basically said parents shouldn't put any effort into parenting at all!

The article plays Chua at the other extreme from these recent trends. It tries to soften the 'extreme' by alluding to a cultural parenting style. But in neither the article nor the book does that ring true. However, in contrast to the article, Chua's book is a different take on this parenting style. The article makes it seem that she did it her way, it was successful and all other parents who don't follow don't really love their children. That would make her an excellent candidate for Wife Swap.

But the book is different. Here are the first sentences:
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. It's also about Mozart and Mendelssohn, the piano and the violin, and how we made it to Carnegie Hall.
This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year old.
So this is not a book about success. Instead it is a book about a strategy towards parenting and, in many respect, its failure. I felt a kinship to Chua in that. This blog and Parentonomics are often characterised as advocating some form of extreme economic rationalism applied to parenting where, more often than not, it is a story about the failure of such notions. That said, Chua is not quite as clear about those failures nor does she diagnose them with the starkness that I try to do here. But if you look you can see them and learn from them.

Chua isn't a parent who shys away from effort. Frankly, you can't help but be amazed (even if you are appauled) by the sheer volume of energy she is putting into her children. It seemed unbelievable but I've learned that people outside, doing things differently, are a poor judge of what others are capable of. Chua is not taking some easy way out but she is also not regarding this as something that is purely her own deal. A judgment against parents doing things differently runs through the book even if it is tortured by mixed success.

To deal with this, let's separate out two issues as only an economist might do: (1) appropriate goals for your children and what they mean and (2) how far you are willing to go to attain those goals.

Chua is clear about the goals for her children. They are to get straight A's, become virtuoso in an appropriate area (in this case piano and violin) and they are to put in high effort into everything they do. The latter part is exemplified by Chua's rejection of birthday cards made by her kids for her. (And in reading that part, while she was harsh, it was also pretty clear that the effort put in had been weak and her kids had known that they could do and should do better). 

Those goals, on the face of them, are pretty uncontroversial. Substitute virtuoso in music for excellence in sports or mathematics and you pretty much have covered some universal parental aspirations. They are not unique to Chinese parents nor unique to Chua. Of course, there are other character goals we have. As I wrote about some time ago, we value 'independence' as core to our parenting goals. But the point is that having clear goals actually can make the job of parenting easier.

What is true, however, is that having goals also means you have faced and decided on what you are trading off. For Chua, it is pretty clear that she was trading off against play, sleep-overs and other 'leisure' activities children might engage in. Her attitude is that those things are unimportant relative to preparing for the future but there is no evidence to support that. Instead, the book is about the goals she set and how they were achieved. In that respect, if you read it as a story rather than as advocacy, it is an interesting journey.

In many respects, of course, the real issue is how far you are willing to go to achieve goals you might set. Chua is willing to go to the hilt on these goals. She is committed to them; even as the costs of achieving them grow higher and higher. Moreover, given the fact that these choices -- particularly with regard to music -- were made and committed to when Chua's children were so young, it becomes clear to the reader that this entire strategy was high risk. Indeed, in pursuing those goals, she may have had sacrificed them -- although it would generate too many spoilers to go into detail on that here.

How far is Chua willing to go? Well, she wanted her kids to be child prodigies. That means you don't have much time and must start early. It also means that you have to devote enormous effort and time in an unrelenting fashion. Chua did that and, in part because she had good material to work with, she kept going. Up to 6 hours a day of practice. Constant pressure. And only hints that her children were become self-motivated.

I can tell you right now that when faced with similar choices, this is not one that we made. When Child No.1 was three, she sat at a piano and some moron told us, "she is quite interested. You should get her lessons." So, of course, we did. Her teacher was reluctant for someone so young but our daughter paid attention and made progress so she took her on. Did I mention she was three?

Well, that lasted about two months before she lost interest. Getting her to practice was difficult. So we decided to drop it. Of course that was not before we had, in our enthusiasm, procured a piano. Our goal was to start again later. Chua would not have given up so easily.

By the way, we did start again when our daughter was six and our son started when he was five. We found a wonderful teacher, Paula Mantay, who had the goal that success was to enjoy playing. She was very hard and demanding. We liked it and the kids started to do well. After a couple of years, it just became harder and harder to get Child No.1 to practice. Then, we were at a friend's house. Their daughter, who was the same age as ours, played for us. She was much much better. Something flipped for Child No.1. She didn't want to play anymore. It turned out that her goal was to become a virtuoso and that seeing another peer playing was clear evidence. We stuck out a little longer but relented. Ms Mantay was devastated but what can you do? It is with a hint of irony that I do have to mention that the other child was Chinese-American. Our son continues playing today but we have no aspirations for him beyond enjoyment. For Child No.3, she displayed enthusiasm for lessons but when she resisted practice, we stopped them. These things are going to have to be self-motivated or bust for us.

I think that this is the reason Chua's story resonates. It is a path not travelled and we are not 100% sure that is the right choice. Every parent faces these choices. Most would dearly like for their children to excel. But in the end, most parents don't push the issue. Indeed, think of the equilibrium if we all did! Could Chua have continued to push if everyone else was doing the same? There can only be so many children who are the best. It is like musical chairs. In the end, someone misses out no matter how much you all try.

So what lessons can we take from all this. First of all, parents have to face up to the fact that if they want their children to excel that is going to take a lot. You are going to have to identify an activity. Hope your kid has the requisite skills to develop excellence there. And then put in the practice. It is interesting that only a short while ago Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers adorned the bestseller list. There is one thing I remember from that. To be the best you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. It is not entirely clear that if kids don't start early enough they will get there. Chua embraces that as do I am sure many others. For us, it is something we will support if a child wants to go there but we are not going to insist on it.

Second, half measures are probably a waste of time. One thing that many parents can identify with is Chua's belief that something worth doing is worth doing well. We have engaged in various activities and pushed them but not in a fully committed manner. We are much more likely to encourage activities that develop creativity than hone skills. But, with the caveat about whether your child is enjoying the activity or not, I'm not sure it is worth darting around continually exposing them to new things. But I guess it is hard to conceive of how an interest can start without exposure so this area is a parenting mess.

Third, children of Yale faculty do well. Chua's kids are a case in point. Barry Nalebuff's daughter, Rachel wrote My Little Red Book before graduating high school. Ian Ayres kids co-authored a statistical paper with him. And Ray Fair and Sharon Oster's daughter, Emily, was subject of a ground-breaking psychological study as a toddler and went on to be an economic star. There is something in the air in New Haven.

Fourth, I realised that there is a difference between far-sightedness and patience. In economics, we conflate these. A person who has a high discount factor (weighs the future heavily) is also someone who will be happy to incur costs now and wait for the benefits (a definition of patience). But Chua is, at once, both far-sighted (she only cares about her children's future) and impatient (she wants that future to arrive too quickly). Much to my surprise, it turns out you can be that way.

Finally, parenting books are at their most useful when they present stories. Parents find stories an effective way of learning about choices and Chua's is a good one for that. That said, it is not a well-written book. It rambles, digresses, spends too little time pondering her husband, Jed's role in all this. It is inconsistent. Chua rails at American parents' use of 'bribery' and then does so herself without really acknowledging it. As I read the book, I had to construct my own narrative of what it means. Chua wasn't going to help. It was at once too descriptive and too ranty for that. That is a shame. I suspect it could have been more.

In the end, I was left wondering about Chua's children's happiness and will be interested should, in twenty years time, either of them turn to pen their own reflections on their childhood. But I was also wondering what happened to Chua with the normal stuff of parenting. Did she have trouble getting her kids to put on shoes quickly or to brush their teeth? Did the fact that so much was expected of them in the abnormal stuff make it plain sailing for the day-to-day stuff? Or did that same fact mean that they had a free-ride then and everything was done for them? Either way, what will this mean for their ability to act as independent adults in the future. From the book, it seems that that looks good. I wonder if other kids with this form of parenting come out so secure.

[Update: Amy Chua's colleague and economist, Ian Ayres, comments on the economics of tiger parenting - as a commitment device to learn to weigh the future.]