American-style parenting = raising losers?

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:

  1. it’s more important to be happy and have fun than to be good at something
  2. confidence/high self-efficacy leads to happiness
  3. 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!

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9 thoughts on “American-style parenting = raising losers?

  1. As a soon-to-be father whose child will be mixed Asian-Caucasian (of which the latter half comes from me, and the former from the soon-to-be mother), here’s my take on choice. There’s another reason for letting kids choose besides the idea that free choice leads to happiness, namely: (1) choosing is itself an important life skill, and (2) the best way to learn to do it is by doing it. (2) is more or less the same as tiger mom principle #2 mentioned in an earlier post: the way to get good at something is by practicing. Where I and the typical tiger mom differ seems to be in the degree of importance we attach to (1). Studies like the Iyengar one cited here are beside the point for this particular issue, because they investigate choice situations where the choice is deliberately designed to be inconsequential (i.e. there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad choice) and (perhaps this point will be controversial, but anyway) the choice is easy – no time pressure, no complex conflicting factors to be considered, etc.

    Here’s what I want to see: give children a choice task where the choices are important, and hard. Make sure that there are better and worse answers, so that you can judge performance, but make it hard or impossible for direct analysis to yield the right answers in the time allowed. Now, one might ask, if there is indeed a better choice but the task is designed precisely to make it impossible to actually KNOW which choice is better, then how are the children, the poor, suffering, abused-by-sadistic-psychologists children, supposed to make a choice?

    To which I answer: that’s life. If American-style parenting is going to show an advantage, this is where it will appear. Let’s see the data.

  2. Then of course there’s the related issue of creativity. Maybe this is a safer route to go if one wants to demonstrate advantages for American style education. If you suggest to an education sciences person that people in Asia seem to learn math better than they do here, so maybe we should think about copying what they do there, you are likely to hear something about how the Asian style of math ed fosters calculation skill but not creativity. Is there data to support this? No.

    But what would such data look like? A lot of studies on creativity (I’m pulling this out of a dark hole but I’m pretty sure I could back it up if I needed to) focus on “number of ideas generated” as the main dependent variable. Honestly, who cares about the number of ideas generated? What we need here are not lots of ideas but lots of GOOD ideas! So if you’re going to test how creative kids are under different parenting or instructional regimes, you need to distinguish between ideas and good ideas.

    This is where I think the American education ideology might break down a little and have something to learn from Asian style. Encouraging kids to be independent and think of new ideas? Yes, great! But letting them think that any idea is good as long as it’s yours and original? No, bad! Children need someone to get them in the habit of following up good ideas and throwing away bad ones.

    And then of course there’s the point that no idea is worth more than the amount of work you put into developing it. So, here’s the scorecard in my opinion: Independence: USA 1, Asia 0. Creativity: USA 1, Asia 0. Self-criticism: USA 0, Asia 1. Hard work: USA 0, Asia 1. Clearly the ideal thing to do is marry someone from the other side of the Pacific and confuse your offspring with your conflicting educational styles.

    • I have a relevant anecdote — though I am a bit unsure how it fits in exactly — that speaks to practice and creativity. In 1996, I was one of the people grading the answers for one Combinatorics problem at the International Math Olympiad in Mumbai. I graded that problem for half of all participating countries — six students per country — including the US and many smaller countries with far shorter (or non-existent) training programs for their students. What stuck me was the uniformity of the American solutions. There was little variation, and they were all correct. For a few other smaller countries, there was a lot of variation, zany and insightful angles on the problem. Not all of them were correct, often a small bit was left out that resulted in their losing one out of 7 points, but some were a lot more entertaining because of their unconventional and enchanting solutions. (This reminds me of the unschooled-in modern-math Ramanujan who enchanted Hardy with his strange and deep mathematics.)

      One may well ask: which students were more creative? If creativity be measured by elegant solutions that take you by surprise, some smaller countries fared better. But for the American team, if I am allowed this exaggeration, creativity was not needed any more than would have been needed for multiplying two large numbers on paper. The more practice you have, my hypothesis goes, the more things you see solutions to effortlessly and the less your solution needs to be creative (as measured along one of the dimensions of measuring creativity). Any research program that tries to tease apart differences in creativity between American methods of schooling/parenting (and I am no longer speaking about the statistically insignificant IMO-level competence) from that of Asian parenting, the notion of how much creativity is needed by each would also need to be measured. But that is not the whole story, either, because an unusual avenue for attacking some problem may open up other problems invisible before, and be quite useful for that reason.

    • cogscimom says:

      I am probably going to blog about creativity in the future but I think Abhijit’s anecdote fits nicely with international math pedagogy research. American classrooms tend to be more dogmatic than their Japanese counterparts. American classrooms often entail a teacher presenting solutions to problems and students practicing them while in Japanese classrooms, multiple solutions to one complex problem is presented by small groups of students then the teacher leads a discussion at the end regarding which solutions are most efficient, generalizable, etc. However, American and HK classrooms seem both dogmatic… it’s just that HK dogmatism seems to run along conceptual principles (e.g., this is the proof/principle… learn it) while American classrooms are procedurally dogmatic (e.g., this is just the rule/how to do this problem… learn it).

      I have no idea whether parenting has any relation to teaching however so David may be right that American parenting fosters creativity. However, I have the intuition that it might just be impossible to separate all the other elements of “AMERICA” that breed creativity from the influence of parenting. For instance, our business sector, universities and research programs, the American value of “speaking up for yourself” (which may very well be instilled by parents! but also teachers/bosses/etc) may all contribute to American innovation. But we’ll see… India is becoming better at venture capitalism… American research funding may start to dry up… perhaps these kind of events might help us unscientifically narrow down the role of parenting in creativity.

      • Anecdote regarding speaking up for yourself: an Asian person I know who works in a western company with many American colleagues has noted that Americans always speak with confidence, even when they don’t know what they’re talking about. I think the implication is that, by contrast, her Asian colleagues are self-effacing even when they *do* know what they’re talking about.

  3. treevalley says:

    hahah! brilliant conversation! i was hoping you could say more to research behind eagle principle #1 and 2. since i like vampire weekend i must be a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) and i may just provide the tiger mom with a counter-balance (although i have an affinity to a certain “horang”-mom in particular)…like valuing our child to have the freedom of choice and creativity. the other David brings up a good point that ideas (and even choices), however, should be good ideas (choices).

    there is a wisdom in honoring our parents and even their ideas/choices (trusting that they have their child’s best in mind and may have more perspective, especially in those early years). but an even wiser model is to trust our Father who has always come through in actually demonstrating He has our best in mind. i’m still learning to make good choices (making plenty of bad ones too) and am hoping that with a deeper relationship with our Father I will learn more about what is good…internalized to such a point that it would overflow in my life (and our family’s).

  4. julie p says:

    i had some very small theatrical roles in school plays growing up. (i believe i was chair #3 in a production of goldilocks and the three bears) and then there was the time i sang “it’s not easy being green” in front of the whole school dressed in a frog costume…

    (it’s kind of funny, but somehow my mom sent all 3 of us to some sort of drama-type programming. older siblings went to drama-esque camp and both did community theater, and i did some random acting workshop sometime in middle school. maybe that’s why i’m so melodramatic sometimes…)

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