In her recent Wall Street Journal essay, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Yale law professor and mother-of-two Amy Chua provides a recipe for the kind of parenting that produces “successful” children of the math-whiz and music-prodigy variety. Her depiction of the strict and domineering Chinese mother (Chua’s own children were never allowed to have play dates, choose their own extracurricular activities, watch TV, or get any grade less than an A) is deliberately provocative and unapologetic. It has elicited strong reactions from its largely Western audience – some applause, but mostly shock and outrage.
As a psychologist and scientist specializing in achievement (and as a mother of two myself), I must admit that some of what Ms. Chua is saying is perfectly true and worth taking to heart – particularly when she writes about the importance of emphasizing effort and persistence as keys to success, rather than innate ability.
Both in the laboratory and the classroom, I’ve seen people with very high IQs (children and adults) give up on a new task the moment it became difficult, and I’ve seen people of seemingly lesser ability fight their way through to the end and master the material. When you study achievement, one of the first things you learn is that innate ability (to the extent that there is such a thing) has surprisingly little to do with success, while effort and persistence have everything to do with it.
Unfortunately, American students (and their parents) tend be big believers in innate ability – as if some people are just born capable of long division. These kids aren’t reaching their full potential because they give up on themselves way too soon.
Asian students aren’t making the same mistake, because they are explicitly taught to blame their poor performances (and credit their successes) on the effort they put in to them. It makes sense that Asians would excel in subjects like math, science, and musicianship, which require determination and long hours to master. Teaching Western kids to hang in there, and helping them to understand what it really takes to succeed, would go a long way toward closing that achievement gap.
I also happen to agree with Ms. Chua that we have a bit of a problem these days when it comes to emphasizing self-esteem protection over honest feedback. I know firsthand that it’s not easy to tell your child that he screwed up, knowing it will cause him anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment. But when we protect feelings at the expense of the truth, when we say “you tried your best” when in fact they did nothing of the sort, we rob them of a sense of personal control over their own achievements. Nothing is more de-motivating than feeling powerless to improve.
Calling your child “garbage,” or “fatty” (two examples given by Ms Chua), on the other hand, is really not a great idea – nor is it even remotely necessary. Guilt and shame can be motivating, but they can also be highly disruptive to the learning process. The most motivating and effective feedback focuses not on what your child is, but what he does, and what he can do differently in the future.
Where I part ways completely with Ms. Chua (and here the science is clearly on my side) is in her insistence that enjoyment, interest, and freedom of choice are somehow incompatible with hard work, persistence, and success. She writes:
“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
This is factually false, on all counts. Again and again, research has shown that when children feel they have choices, it creates intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something for it’s own sake. With choice, they enjoy what they are doing more. They are more creative, process information more deeply, persist longer and achieve more. Intrinsic motivation is in fact awesome in its power to get and keep us going. Your kids will work hard of their own free will, and even have fun doing it, when you don’t completely override their preferences.
In the end, we would be wise to take what is beneficial about the “Chinese mother” approach – the dogged emphasis on effort, the encouragement to not give up too soon, the willingness to be critical when necessary – without the aspects that have given Western readers of Ms. Chua’s essay so much pause: the total absence of autonomy and choice, the lack of play, and the borderline-abusive insults. There is very little evidence that these provide children any benefit, and clear evidence that they can undermine not only intrinsic motivation, but self-confidence and well-being.
Parents really don’t need to choose between having motivated, hard-working children, and happy, autonomous children who have lots of fun. Combine the best of what Ms. Chua’s “Chinese” and “Western” mothers do, and you can help your children to be successful in every sense of the word.