Note: This will be the last in my 3-part series on tiger-parenting from the cogsci point of view. After this, most of my blogs will focus on regular old parenting (e.g., vaguely trying to keep the kid alive, fed, not-so-poopy, literate, semi-moral).
As the commentary about Amy Chua poured in from all over the blogosphere, one Time Magazine article asked the question that may have been on a substantive number of non-Chinese-style parents: As the American economy seems to be slipping under the shadow of China (helloooo big lender!), is the American parent slipping as well?
But first, what are the behaviors of this “American-style parenting” that a tiger mother despises? The much maligned behaviors really seem like permissive and self-esteem-boosting parenting. Allowing children to do things they want to do (e.g., playdates and going on Facebook or whatever popular social networking website) even if those activities may not actually help their academic, social, or life goals (or rather the goals the parent seems worthy). The paragon of this type of parenting behavior (that Chua and I both enjoy making fun of) is this: allowing a child to be in a school play as townperson #4. It’s the perfect example of an activity that takes up a lot of time and resources, is patently unproductive (from an AsianAm point of view, e.g., won’t help a child get into an ivy league school), but a child may desperately want to do (e.g., just being in the school play).
Personally, I find such allowance ridiculous from a pure efficiency standpoint. It just seems like a whole lotta wasted time… FOR ME. I would have to arrange pick ups from practices, shell out money for theater activities (like dumb chocolate/gift wrapping fund raisers) and worst of all, I’d probably have to attend this play! Just to see my kid say, “Anon!” as part of a crowd! But this is me writing as a selfish pregnant lady… not as a loving mother.
Well again, it might be more prudent to look deeply at the attitudes and beliefs that drive the behaviors of allowing children to go to sleepovers and being townsperson #4 than to examine the decisions that follow. It seems that part of the philosophy that drives such parenting are the following:
- it’s more important to be happy and have fun than to be good at something
- confidence/high self-efficacy leads to happiness
- independence is also a part of happiness (the freedom to pursue happiness as one sees fit)
Here, happiness is paramount to success… and when non-tiger (eagle?) mothers have their child’s best interest at heart, what they really mean is happiness. When a tiger mother has in mind is success… and in her mind, success will open the door for happiness and enjoyment! This is an important distinction. Both actually believe that happiness and success are important — but they believe in a different causal relationship between the two…
Happiness is social or emotional psychology… not cognitive. So I don’t have much to say on that. But I do have something to say about principle #3 — the role of independence in happiness. Decision making researchers have long been interested in the role of choice. Is more choice better?
Sheena Iyengar has done some counterintuitive research on the role of choice, particularly the role of too much choice (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). Her study on “too many jars of jam” illustrates this well: when shoppers at a fancy market are faced with 30 jam selections rather than 6, they’re less likely to buy jam at all!
But most relevant to the eagle mother who embraces the independence to choose as a deep part of her parenting philosophy is Iyengar’s study on Asian-American and white American children (in the SF area). Children from these two ethnic/cultural backgrounds were either told that their mother chose a particular anagram game for them or were given an opportunity to choose their own puzzle game. Her main finding is that Asian-American children were better at a puzzle task when told that their mother had specially chosen the game for them compared to a puzzle game that they chose themselves. However, white children exhibited better performance when they had chosen the game and were much worse when told their mother had chosen it for them. Not only that, but she also surreptitiously examined “intrinsic motivation” — later on, when the children all received time for free play, would they play the game? She found that same pattern (AA children prefer to play the game their mother chose for them; white children prefer to play the game that they personally chose).
This suggests that unfettered personal choice does not lead everyone to better performance… nor does personal choice always lead to later intrinsic liking of that game (a proxy for happiness perhaps?)… My spin on this finding is that when you have Asian American kids growing up in a household that has upheld the value that parents-know-best, you don’t necessarily come out with personal choice as your utmost and highest value. Additionally, eagle moms’ intuitions, that their kids really do prefer to make their own choices, are spot on! But that should be expected considering that in these households, parents consistently encourage kids to think for themselves and make right choices on their own.
Parenting almost seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy… if parents believes that one way is better than another, it really does become reality in their kid’s life — both in terms of successful performance and intrinsic motivation. Perhaps eagle mothers are right in allowing their child to be townsperson #4…
As for me, no way!