Friday, February 11, 2011

Some Thoughts on Tiger Mothers

Being an educator in Asia, I feel a certain obligation to weigh in on the whole "tiger mother" thing. (If you need a crash course in Amy Chua's "tiger mother" approach to parenting, here's an editorial she wrote summarizing her book, and an analysis-plus-counterpoint from the NYT.)

Unlike a lot of Chua's detractors, I've had plenty of opportunities to observe the tiger mother in the wild. In fact, seeing as I've spent my entire (young) teaching career either in Asia or working with Asian students, I've probably dealt with more tiger mothers than I have with any other type of parent.

That said, I won't spend much time on the standard objections to Chua's parenting approach: that it makes learning (or even life in general) a joyless competition, that it stifles creativity, that it's emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive, that it stunts children's social skills. These points are valid, and fit neatly with my observations, but they've been repeated often enough that I don't need to dwell on them here--as terrifying as it is to see the US edging closer and closer to the tiger-mother's heaven (that is, a world where everything depends on high-stakes tests with an emphasis on test-taking skills and memorization).

Instead, I'd like to focus on an argument that recently appeared in Slate: namely, that tiger parenting does not exploit America's competitive advantages in harder-to-measure areas of education like creativity, problem solving, self-motivation, and innovation. In doing so, I'll place emotional and psychological questions aside for the moment and evaluate tiger mothering as a strategy for success in different contexts.

The principle of competitive advantage is an idea in economics: simply put, it suggests that countries should focus on producing the things they're best suited to produce, then should trade for everything else. People often use sports analogies to explain it: a track-and-field coach would never consider a 300-pound freshman a failure because he can't keep up with the sprinters--instead, he'd focus on developing the student's discus skills, thus making use of his "competitive advantage" in size and strength and sidestepping his "competitive disadvantage" in quickness and speed. It would be stupid to try to turn the kid into a sprinter.

This, argues Ray Fisman in the aforementioned Slate article, is exactly what the tiger mother phenomenon--and the current high-stakes standardized-testing movement--threatens to do to US education. If the US has a competitive advantage in producing creative, problem-solving, socially skilled innovators, why should we revamp our system to out-compete the Chinese in producing precision-minded (but relatively uncreative) technicians? Notice that this argument doesn't privilege one type of worker over the other--both are necessary pieces of the global economy.

The Slate article focuses on large-scale economic effects, but the idea of "competitive advantage" also applies to individual cases--and, just as it does on the level of national economies, it also argues for different strategies in different situations on a personal level, as well.

Nana and I are always telling students that, in preparing for college, they should be themselves, but be the best versions of themselves that they can be. In other words, students should find a handful of things they enjoy and are good at, then should strive to become as good at those things as they can. The stereotypical tiger mother approach ignores this sensible advice: the goal is to out-compete other children (and their mothers) in the same fields (math, science, music, tests, award-collecting). The thing is, there are kids out there who are simply super-geniuses in those fields, and thanks to stereotypical tiger-mother parenting, there is also a legion of second-rate sub-geniuses in those fields. Trust me, I know people who work in college admissions, and Asian students who are pretty good at math and music and not much else are so common that they've become a cautionary tale against admitting students simply on the basis of high test scores.

The real strategy for Asian students in English-language schools should be the exact opposite: they should sell out for language and communication skills, since they're in a unique position to finish high school fluent or near-fluent in two or three languages. Nana and I often work hard to convince students here who are interested and skilled in the humanities to go for it. College freshmen who can do original research in English, Japanese, and Korean or Chinese? They'll rule the world!

But by the tiger mother paradigm, those students are failures: they should have spent more time studying for the SAT, or practicing the piano. That, for me, is the real tragedy of tiger mothering--that despite all the abuse and misery, for many students, it's simply poor strategy. Too often, tiger mothers try to turn linemen into quarterbacks, instead of just letting them be the best linemen they can be.

(Note: Nana says she's going to weigh in with her own set of objections to tiger mothering soon.)

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