Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Politics of Parenting

The first rule of parenting: don't tell other folks how to parent.
The second rule of parenting: ignore the first rule.

Much of a ruckus has been made by Amy Chua's new book,* which basically argues (I have not read the book but have read the reviews) that one should dominate the lives of one's kids so that they focus on achievement rather than TV, friends and so forth.  Of course, now the claim is that the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal does not summarize the book  fairly.  Well, the tales that have been told are suggestive nonetheless.  And profoundly racist perhaps, since it generalizes to an entire ethnic group (Chinese moms) a set of behaviors that may not be as widely shared.  Plus non-Chinese moms can be domineering as well. 

What I love about this take on nature vs nurture (or neuter, since the Chua way is, in my mind, perhaps the anti-thesis of nurturing) debate is that Chua had two kids, and they ended up being different.  My mother had four kids (plus an imaginary fifth, Pablo, who died in a mysterious pressure-cooker accident, but that is a tale for another day) and ended up with widely divergent outcomes.  That is, my siblings finished at the top of the class by combining smarts with hard work.  I didn't.  Why? Hard work was less interesting than the seventeenth viewing of Marcia getting bonked on the nose with a football or Gilligan and the Harlem Globetrotters.**  And now my life sucks.  I wish I had Amy Chua as my mother.  Ok, only if the resulting autobiography trashing her would make millions.  Otherwise, not so much. 

What does this debate show?  Anecdotes are great for misinformation.  If we actually consult the science of parenting, we might find some, ahem, facts and tendencies.  For instance, Chua's kids might do well in school because they have two highly educated parents--two Yale law profs.  That is, nature (genetic inheritance) and environment (not so much the lack of stuffed animals but the presence of books) might matter more than the loving tyranny Chua apparently practiced.

Re Television: "no evidence that TV is in and of itself harmful for children—it depends on what they watch and how much they watch. I can certainly understand placing limits."  Besides, if the kids don't watch television, then how will they understand the pop cultural references profs use in their classes?

Does authoritarian parenting "work"?
We studied more than 20,000 high school students from all ethnic backgrounds from nine different U.S. schools. Kids raised in authoritarian households got grades comparable to kids from what we called authoritative households, where you had strictness accompanied by warmth and encouragement of self-direction. Authoritative parents also had children who had friends, were more self-assured, and were psychologically healthy. That was pretty much the case across ethnic groups.
The Scientific American piece then asks the key question:

I think one has to ask, "Excellence in what?" Clearly what this author is describing will contribute to excellent grades. I don't think it's rocket science to expect that if you stress doing really well in school, don't allow children to do anything but schoolwork, and drill them for hours at a time. The question for parents to decide is whether that is the only thing that's important.
Where I come down is that it's a myth that one has to sacrifice other qualities in a child to promote academic success. There's a lot of science that shows it's important to have kids play, to have unstructured play time, and that every moment doesn't have to be spent in productive activity.
I learned as much about everything from watching TV, going to summer camp, hanging out and such as I did in formal classes.  School learning is important, but it develops only one part of our brain.  And we need to do more than that if we want to be tasty Zombie treats and subjects of Zombie parenting.

* Her previous book, on the dark side of the spread of "free market democracy" (I guess we should instead support authoritarian socialism?) was also not so much based on systematic analyses, which found the opposite--that less government involvement in economies is better for mitigating ethnic strife.

** I actually never saw this movie.  Or, it caused so many brain cells to die that I don't remember it.  Do not watch.


Bill Ayres said...

Interestingly, I heard an NPR interview with Chua about the book. Prior to the interview, I had read the excerpt of the book published in the Wall Street Journal, under the article title "Chinese Moms Are Superior."

In the interview, she pretty much repudiated everything she said in the article. She was essentially saying that the excerpt of the book that the WSJ piece came from was a description of a particular kind of parenting - one which she had wrestled with and ultimately largely repudiated by the end of the book.

What I'm surprised nobody has pointed out here is that, regardless of what Chua actually thinks or what conclusions her entire book reaches, this is a BRILLIANT book marketing campaign. She's rich now, and has demonstrated in a different context what Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and so many others have shown: you can make a ton of money by saying really far-out things that are bound to offend people.

Fairfax said...

I've often thought one of the healthiest things my parents ever did is they allowed me to skip school from time to time for things like family trips, or even to go watch the NCAA tournament with them.

This shocked some of my friends, and some of their parents... but why should it have? None of my teachers cared. I was a good student, what difference did missing 1 or 2 days of school over the course of a long school year make? Traveling and participating in big cultural events is a learning experience, too.

School is not EVERYTHING, work is not EVERYTHING, sometimes - not frequently, but when there's a good excuse - we all need to take a break and indulge. This is important to having a healthy, balanced life, and I'm glad my parents taught me this lesson.