Amy Chua, love or hate her philosophy, did raise highly successful kids by any measure. The two daughters have won a countless number of music awards and have had opportunities that other adults only dream of (e.g., play at Carnegie Hall). The eldest is off to Harvard and the New York Post published her defense of her mom’s parenting/book. The younger daughter is a successful high school tennis player (even though she had to fight some epic battles with her mom to play said sport) who gets fantastic grades and also pipes up in defense of her mom.
So here I raise this question: is it the particular behaviors of Amy Chua that made her an overall successful parent? Do we all have to threaten to burn our child’s stuffed animals in order to get them to master difficult classical piano pieces? Do we have to tell them that handmade mother’s day cards without effort put into them suck? Must there be a strict no sleepover, no playdate philosophy reigning in all of our homes?
To answer this, I turn to pop economics. I know this is not really cognitive science but if you squint your eyes, I’m sure you won’t notice the difference. So Steven Levitt, economist from Chicago University, and Stephen Dubner, journalist extraordinaire, teamed up to write Freakonomics back in 2005 and it struck a lot of people as not quite like the economics they remembered from AP econ or college (where are the supply-demand curves?). Instead they entertained us with analyses of interesting data sets that provide accidental “experiments” in order to answer real-world questions such as “How do you raise a kid who loves to read?” (The difference between that and cog sci/behavioral economics is that we’ll create actual experiments in the lab but in exchange for control, we give up that closeness to the real world scenario…)
One of their chapters examines this question about raising readers. How important is the behavior of actually reading to your child? Or is it more important that a parent loves to read? Long story short (I highly recommend reading their Chapter 5, “What makes a perfect parent?”), they talk about how reading to your child actually has no effect (at least one that cannot be detected by current statistics!). But the correlation between actually loving to read and raising voracious readers is quite high!
Now remember, pop econ, these are accidental experiments — not real experiments — so they can’t really conclude causation. But I’d like to take a moment to speculate a little about why being a parent who loves to read is more influential than exhibiting the behavior of reading with your kid.
When someone loves reading, that value is expressed in many different small and minute ways. The kinds of behaviors that we don’t think about or even register as “behaviors”! The students in my lab know that I’m an intense reader of the NYT… not because I read it out loud to them but because conversations with me are sprinkled with references to the NYT! I’ll email interesting articles to them. They come in to my office and the NYT is on my computer screen. And I was so excited when research that I was involved with during my postdoc got covered by the NYT! And these are just the behaviors that I actually can remember… I’m sure there are a billion little things that I don’t think they notice… but they do.
A parent who loves reading will not only have books in the house but also might go to the library more frequently, talk about the content of books, make references to famous characters, quote writers and novelists. The child can see them read, see them talk about reading, value reading, having friends that read… and these behaviors add up. It may not be any one overt behavior that conveys this value and love of reading, but it may be the chorus of many subtle cues.
Coming back to the tiger mother, I’m pretty sure it is hard to fake the mentality that hard work really does lead to achievement. If, deep down, one believes that people are either bad at math or good at math, it may be hard to convey to your child that anyone can be good at math! Sure, we can probably control what we say to some extent (e.g., you might vow to never say, “Well, perhaps you’re just not a math person…”) but in minute and tiny ways, we end up conveying what we actually believe.
So more than memorizing the behaviors of Amy Chua, a true tiger mother (or father) has the mentality of high expectations and high levels of effort to boot. Those ideals can be instantiated in many forms of parenting. When you actually live with the tenacity to keep trying until expectations are met (and the complement attitude that doing anything less is laziness and ungratefulness), your children will get it too. Not through magical osmosis or genetic transmission… but perhaps through all those subtle real-time behaviors and moments where your kids are watching and you don’t even know it.