Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Debate Over Tiger Mothers: What Isn't Being Said in the Media About Chua's Book

I had been doing my best to avoid the debate recently started by Amy Chua's controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, on account that spending time addressing selfish, self-serving and abusive mothers seems, well, a waste of time. That, and the first taste I got made me mad, so I generally try to avoid unnecessary frustration. But after reading an article in Time magazine that attempted to partially defend Chua's approach while evoking some parenting advice severely out of context, I couldn't sit quiet any longer.

For those who have been out of the loop, Chua's book is a personal memoir in which the author promotes her extreme parenting style while making claims about the superiority of Chinese parenting styles over American parenting styles. But to say it's a debate over parenting styles is to put it mildly. The book is akin to a parenting guide written for aspiring evil stepmothers everywhere, filled with stories of blatant child abuse and a whole lot of poor parenting practices.

In the book, Chua makes no qualms about calling her older child "garbage" after the girl behaved disrespectfully. She talks about forcing her 7-year-old daughter Lulu to practice the piano for hours on end, "right through dinner into the night," without breaks for water or even to use the bathroom, until Lulu learned to play the piece. When upset with her daughter's progress, she is said to have threatened to burn her daughter's stuffed animals: "if the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM." She refused her girls any play dates, sleepovers, television, computer games, or even school plays. And when little Lulu drew a card for her mother's birthday, Chua threw the card back in her daughter's face, exclaiming "I don't want this," and adding that she expected to receive a drawing that Lulu had put some thought and effort into. "I deserve better than this," Chua barked, "So I reject this." She also describes battles with her children in which "'all out nuclear warfare' doesn't quite capture it," in which arguments escalated to screaming competitions and glass smashing fights, all started because her daughter couldn't stand any more violin practice. Suffice it to say, Amy Chua won't be winning any mother-of-the-year awards anytime soon.

The book has sparked plenty of outrage and debate. Meredith Vieisa even called Chua "a monster" to her face when she appeared on the Today show. Chua isn't a monster, just a self-centered, misguided mother who happens to engage in abusive tactics with her children. And like many abusive parents, her harshness is inter-generational: Her own childhood is filled with stories of being slapped with chopsticks or having her father tell her, "Never, ever disgrace me like that again," after she received second place at an awards assembly. However, the tactics she talks about are not to be taken lightly, either. (For example, we're about to publish a book 4-years in the making on various forms of child maltreatment, which outlines a wealth of research from different studies showing that the type of verbal abuse and high-anxiety environments Chua talks about can be just as harmful to kids as more conventional forms of child abuse.) So many of the tactics she appears to advocate is akin to the promotion of child abuse.

Time magazine pointed out (perhaps correctly) that part of the anxiety the book has stirred up may be about our secret fears that China and other rising powers are overtaking us. Students in Shanghai recently took the PISA test for student assessment, the first time Chinese students had been included since PISA began its rankings in 2000. They blew everyone else out of the water, taking a decisive first place in all three categories of the test. This comes as American test scores continue their slow and steady descent towards remedial school. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in the article: "With a stroke of her razor-sharp pen, Chua has set a whole nation of parents to wondering: Are we the losers she's talking about?" (*1, p. 37)

The article goes on to pull many facts and quotes out of context in an effort to defend Chua's philosophy:

"Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don't develop what psychologists call 'mastery experiences,'" she writes, quoting Psychology Today editor Hara Estroff Marano.

Yes, but there is a big difference between over protection or not allowing children to solve their own problems and the type of abusive practices Chua promotes.

"Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they've learned that they're capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals."

Once again, a well-earned sense of mastery has little to do with being forced to play the violin for hours on end. That's not a child's mastery, but an appeasement to their master.

Citing studies by Carol Dweck, which we're well familiar with: "The kids who were praised for their hard work...were eager to take on the demanding new exercise."

Chua did not praise her kids for hard work, she verbally abused them, calling them trash and telling them they weren't good enough.

Perhaps Paul's boldest statement follows a couple loose and misquoted examples about the science on memory drills, when she exclaims, "Cognitive neuroscience, in other words, confirms the wisdom of what the tiger mother knew all along."

No, actually, it doesn't. In fact, research on both neuroscience and child brain development blatantly refutes just about everyone of Chua's principles. Set aside for a moment the verbal abuse and domestic violence, her style commits several cardinal sins that are well documented to harm children:

1) The promotion of perfectionism
2) A rigid, stressful, high-anxiety environment
3) Developmentally inappropriate practices with severe detriments in free play time.

Perfectionism holds children up to unrealistic and/or developmentally inappropriate demands in order to please parents, who are generally more concerned with their own interests than the child's. In doing so, perfectionist parents also tend to teach their children, either directly or indirectly, that parental love is conditional on a self-worth that is measured by how they perform, and could be lost at any moment if the child doesn't measure up. This fits Chua's parenting style like a glove. So is this healthy? Let's turn to some quotes from Hara Estroff Marano that aren't taken out of context:

"And if ever there was a blueprint for breeding psychological distress, that's it. Perfectionism seeps into the psyche and creates a pervasive personality style. It keeps people from engaging in challenging experiences; they don't get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities. Perfectionism reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge; if you're always focused on your own performance and on defending yourself, you can't focus on learning a task...perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation--exactly what's not adaptive in the global marketplace." (*(*2, p. 82)

She goes on to add:

"Pushing for perfection clashes with children's developmental needs."

"Criticism implying that affection or approval is conditional on good performance is lethal."

"In the grand scheme of things, perfectionism is an intrusive form of parenting that attempts to control the psychological world of the child."

"The push for perfectionism comes at a high cost to children."

That hardly sounds like an endorsement of Chua's philosophy. So what about the hours of violin practice and boring drills with no free play time? Does neuroscience indeed back up Chua's philosophy here, vindicating the tiger mother's ruthlessness as Paul alleges? Once again, the answer is no.

A primary problem with Chua's style, and that of overly demanding regimens like it, is that they limit the type of spontaneous, creative free play time that is crucial to a child's social, emotional, and intellectual development. A healthy allotment of free play time has a direct link to child mental health, and has been shown to lower children's anxiety levels. Play releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein critical for neuronal growth. A lack of play has been shown to cause underdevelopment in crucial problem solving skills. As renowned neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp observes, "play is the major mechanism whereby higher regions of the brain get socialized." (*3)

Chua's philosophy also promotes a high-stress, high-anxiety environment.
This bathes a child's mind in cortisol, the stress hormone, which has been shown to actually kill off neurons and shrink areas of the child's developing brain. (*4)

Children are capable of enduring quite a bit, but just because you can push a child to accomplish something doesn't mean you should. What Chua and others like her fail to take notice of is that this highly demanding environment takes its toll. China may have great test scores, but they also have youth suicide rates that are more than four times that of the U.S. Recent research shows that 25% of Chinese University students have suicidal thoughts, compared to 6% in the United States. Sadly, it's all-too-common to see Chinese youth kill themselves when they get a B on a test or endure some other seemingly minor academic setback. They would rather take their own life than face the wrath of their parent's disappointment. (*5) This push for achievement at all costs exacts such a heavy toll that many break, withdrawing into the fantasy of video games 24/7, a major epidemic in Chinese society. (*5) A Chinese father, talking about the enormous pressures on his daughter, admits: "It's too much. Something has to change." (*6) And for all this work, a primary problem China faces in its economy is a lack of innovation and creativity: hardly surprising given what we know about child development in such rigid environments.

A Deeper Question About What We Really Want For Our Children
As frustrating as this debate is, I'm more deeply disturbed by the insinuation that such neurotically aggressive parenting is necessary in order to keep up with the world economy. There's a scene in Jurassic Park where Malcom points out that scientists "were so obsessed with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think whether or not you should." I'm reminded of that point here. We feel compelled towards the idea that we must get on top at all costs, never stopping to question whether this game we are playing is really in the best interest of our children or humanity at large.

Capitalism is a recent social experiment in human history; a fact lost on most people simply because it's the only system everyone alive today has ever known. Yet capitalism in its current form is also a failed social experiment, though most people don't realize it yet. (You will in anywhere from 20-100 years, depending on how the cards fall.) Capitalism has brought us wonderful gadgets and gizmos. Many principles of capitalism are noble and good. But the type of consumer-capitalism and cut-throat, get ahead at all costs marketplace we've been promoting is also as unsustainable as the housing bubble, and those who pretend that world GDP can grow indefinitely are the same idiots who said housing prices would go up and never come down.

We live on a small earth with limited resources, and this push for constant economic exploitation is akin to the nuclear arms race: a lunatic’s exercise in self-destruction. If the whole world lived as we do in the United States, we would need 10 to 11 earths just to produce it all. We don't have 10 earths, and we're well on our way towards utterly destroying the one we have. The same China that brags of superior test scores, all part of its plan to climb to the top of this capitalist machine, also has air so polluted that its children are suffering major health problems and even early death, all in the name of this pursuit for economic superiority. (*7) We don't need more tiger moms to fuel this self-destructive machine. We need to step back and think about what we really want for our children: an anxiety-filled childhood devoid of fun; all in preparation for a lifetime of unfulfilled, anxiety-filled enslavement to the economic marketplace, so that we can keep this machine that is destroying our planet going? At what point do we step back and ask ourselves what type of world we want for our children, and at what cost? Even Chua admits that her parents "didn't think about children's happiness. They thought about preparing us for the future."

Parents should push their children to excel, they should set the bars high in whatever they do, and they should sometimes push their kids into areas that may be uncomfortable so that they can learn to conquer adversity. Many U.S. parents are far too overprotective, a style which can also be as unhealthy for children in the long run as Chua's. But that's a far cry from verbal abuse and replacing the wondrous exploration of childhood with violin practice for hours on end.

The sadder fact in all of this is that through a focus on unbridled competition, we've reached a point where an iconic U.S. magazine is pondering the question about whether we need to adopt verbally-abusive, overly demanding, age inappropriate approaches to parenting in order to keep up with the Chinese. If that type of cruel, rigid, robotic upbringing is what it takes to keep up with China, count me out.

1. Annie Murphy Paul, "The roar of the tiger mom." Time Magazine, January 31, 2011, pp. 39-40

2. Hara Estroff Marano, "The making of a perfectionist." Psychology Today, April 2008, pp. 80-86

3. Melinda Wenner, "The serious need for play," Scientific American Mind, Feb./March 2009, Vol. 20(21 ):23-29; Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, "Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth.' Oxford Univ. Press, 2006

4. B. McEwen & H.Schmeck, 'The Hostage Brain.' New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1994

5. Taylor Clark, "Plight of the Little Emporers," Psychology Today, Vol. 42(4): 86-91, August 2008

6. Bill Powell, "Tiger daughter." Time Magazine, Jan. 31, 2011, p. 41

7. Dan Fagin, "China's children of smoke." Scientific American, Vol. 299(2): 72-79, August 2008

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