So as an Asian-American and a frequent reader of online news, it was inevitable that I would hear massive amounts about Amy Chua’s highly controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (made more controversial by highly selective framing by the Wall Street Journal). So what is a cognitive scientists’ take on tiger-mothering?
Before I launch into this (spoiler alert) fairly positive post, I know that there are a lot of people who think Amy Chua is nuts and write her off as a tunnel-vision-nazi-mom. If you read the irate comments on the original WSJ story, it’s unsurprising that Chua has even received death threats in response to her parenting philosophy. However, it helps to know that the WSJ article basically has taken a lot of her writing out of context and put an extra-controversial title on it (“Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”). I found the actual book to be quite humorous and humble in many respects even though the mothering she describes does have its moments of crazy (but really, what parenting philosophy doesn’t?).
But regardless of popular opinion, what does cognitive science have to say about this uber-strict, non-complimenting, highly structured form of parenting? First, let’s get to the heart of this philosophy. It’s not that tiger mothers follow a set of arbitrarily prescribed behaviors, but these parenting decisions flow from some fundamental beliefs. Even the highly skewed WSJ excerpt illustrates that much. Here are some of the fundamental points:
- nothing is fun until you are good at it
- to become good at something you need to work at it
- parents know better than their children and children must believe this
There is a corollary to statements 1 and 2: when a child is not good at something, it is because he/she did not work at it. This extends to all domains — if your child is not good at violin, it is because he/she did not work at it. If your child is not good at math, it is because he/she did not work at it. It’s not because they aren’t a “music person” or a “math person.” To the tiger-mother philosophy, those phrases just don’t have any meaning.
Although cogsci doesn’t speak to the superficial behavioral consequence of depriving children of sleepovers and compliments, we do have data on these fundamental tenets.
1. International comparisons: Starting with some correlational data… it turns out that mothers in East Asian countries (such as Japan and Taiwan) where children excel in learning mathematics, often believe that math performance is mostly effort and only a little bit ability. Contrast this parenting mindset with the US (currently ranking 25th out of 41 industrialized countries) where mothers believe that effort and ability play equal roles in math performance (Stigler & Fernandez, 1995). This just shows that what the tiger mom says is data-driven — Asian moms do seem to hold this belief… and Asian nations happen to outperform the US in mathematics… however this does not necessarily say that the parenting is driving the performance.
2. To get evidence for causality, we must turn to Carol Dweck’s (psychologist at Stanford) experiments! She has shown that teaching students how the brain is like a muscle (the more you use, the stronger it gets) leads to more perseverance and ultimately better performance than learning other facts about the brain. Additionally, praising children for effort leads to similar benefits compared to praising them for their intelligence! These effects of the effort mindset (also called the “growth mind-set” in the figure below) have been document in a variety of domains including logic, mathematics, etc. As one of the fundamental beliefs in cogsci is that what you think impacts behavior (really the assumption behind psychology!), it’s unsurprising to note that this mindset has cascading effects on other thoughts, attitudes, and ultimately behaviors.
Now that we know that the effort mindset is healthy, the question is how do we communicate and instill this mindset in our children? Is the tiger mom’s methodology (actual practices) the way to go? Stay tuned…