The Tiger Mother is (half) Right

I’ve been thinking about Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for almost a year now. I’ve been holding off on posting about it, but the latest review (in NYRB August 18, 2011) finally got me typing. Her book is a personal story about how she raised her two daughters using a very strict style of parenting that she associates with China and other Asian cultures. It’s radically different from what most American parents do, and the huge response to the book is probably because everyone is wondering “Is this why China is kicking our butt?” and “Is this why Asian students get into the best colleges?” And, “Should I be doing this with my child?” Mostly, we really don’t want to be doing this with our children. You’ve probably already heard about how she forced her daughters to learn piano and violin, and made them practice for hours until they could play each piece perfectly (even when they were crying and miserable). Another shocking story from the book is that when her daughter made her a mother’s day card that wasn’t very good, she gave it back, acted insulted, and insisted that she make a better one. 

I can’t count how many times this past year that people have asked me, “won’t this style of parenting squash all creativity out of children?”

I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.

It’s also well-established that the “self esteem” movement has no research grounding. For a good critique of the U.S. tendency to give everyone awards, to lavishly praise even mediocre work, see Jean Twenge’s book Generation Me. It won’t damage your child’s emotional development if you give constructive criticism. And, there’s a right way to give praise: For the latest research, see Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset.

But: The tiger style of parenting is only half of what you need to raise a creative child. After all, the Chinese realize that they aren’t as creative as Westerners and they’re working hard to figure out how to become more creative. Yes, creativity requires hard work and long hours, and some amount of repetition and copying to master what has come before. But a child also needs time for open-ended play, exploration, activities without goals–because that’s when interesting new goals can suddenly emerge. My 8-year-old son spends hours inventing complex new games that bring together strange combinations of toys: last week, it was playing pieces from the Masterpiece board game, multicolored fuzzy craft balls, and disassembled Battle Striker spinning tops, all mounted on his Sit-n-Spin in a complicated race to the edge. He can’t put that on his college application, but these hours are just as important as the time he spends practicing piano or doing his homework. I believe in the value of creative play.

Another problem is that Chua’s style of parenting resulted in a lot of lonely hours, because she didn’t allow her girls to go on play dates or sleepovers. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last January, this means the girls missed valuable developmental opportunities to learn social, conversational, and collaborative skills. And in today’s world, most creative work is done in collaborative teams, not by solitary individuals (see my book Group Genius). Successful adults need to have many unstructured social interactions as children, to prepare them to participate in collaborative creativity.

So, like many controversies, both sides are half right. And really, American parents already know this. We’re not all praise-spewing pushovers who let our kids play videogames all day in a friend’s basement. And by the end of Amy Chua’s book, she realizes that she probably should have relaxed a bit as well. Creativity requires a complex blend of discipline and freedom, hard work and play, imitation and novelty. The Tiger Mother is half right, but the American style of parenting is half right too. To best realize a child’s creative potential, bring them together.

4 thoughts on “The Tiger Mother is (half) Right

  1. This is very done, Keith, and I think you’ve nailed it — that Chua is half right. Deliberate practice and 10,000 hours is really important, but not at the expense of pursuing INTRINSIC INTERESTS. If children aren’t allowed to follow their own curiosity, e.g. the Montessori self-directed learning, they end up getting forced into paths and careers where they are pursuing goals for purely extrinsic reasons, such as title or success. They are, therefore, more likely to have what Dweck calls “fixed mindsets,” and feel very afraid of failure, lest it disrupt their self-esteem or self-worth. So, while this distinction needs to be fleshed out, it seems directionally consistent with both Dweck’s findings and those from deliberate practice. We must be able to discover and explore following our interests, since lasting motivation and being willing to persevere through difficulty will require such passion and determination, then be able to go very, very deep on their OWN CHOICE (this is the critical distinction). I’ve found this to be the case with the creators I’ve studied, be they Pixar filmmakers, musicians like John Legend, or Frank Gehry, as well as the creativity, neuroscience, psych research I’ve seen. Would love your take on this.

    1. Peter, great to have you join this conversation! Absolutely, intrinsic motivation is the key to the success of all exceptional creators.

      I’ll see you in a few weeks, at the St. louis COCAbiz bizCAMP event!

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