Time: From Whiz Kids to Tiger Moms

If you haven’t gotten enough of the ‘Tiger Mom’ meme, this week’s cover story in Time magazine is on The Truth About Tiger Moms:

Though Chua was born and raised in the U.S., her invocation of what she describes as traditional “Chinese parenting” has hit hard at a national sore spot: our fears about losing ground to China and other rising powers and about adequately preparing our children to survive in the global economy.

I have to agree that there is definitely an overall underlying concern in America today by our generation that our future will not be better than what our parents experienced. America is an optimistic young country, and since World War II, has seen generation after generation achieve more and more until now.

The cover story also goes on to reinforce some past cognitive academic research supporting Amy Chua’s parenting techniques – high expectations (not lavishing praise for fear of low self-esteem) as well as practice & drilling. Stanford University professor of  psychology Carol Dweck noted that kids praised for being intelligent rather than for working hard were more cautious in taking on more challenging tasks. And professor of psychology Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia noted: “It’s virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extensive practice.”

Personally, if  I were a parent, I would take the best of both worlds – of Eastern and Western philosophies – making sure that my child worked and studied hard to the best of his abilities, explore his or her creativity and passions, to be the best version of himself or herself that they could be. I think the Wall Street Journal’s book excerpt title of ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior‘ was intentionally sensational, much like when it published their article many years ago on Cupertino, California high schools  – The New White Flight – In Silicon Valley, two high schools with outstanding academic reputations are losing white students as Asian students move in. Why? You can hear more about Amy Chua’s thoughts on the controversy and a more nuanced overview of her memoir from her radio interview last week on San Francisco Bay Area’s public radio station KQED and its show, Forum – here or this PBS video segment here.

This cover story also reminded me of another Time cover story – ‘Those Asian-American Whiz Kids’ – which came out in the late 1980s when I was in high school – and I was pretty proud to be one of them. I mean, if you are going to be portrayed as a racial stereotype, you could do a whole lot worse than be portrayed as being smart and hard working (think about the other racial stereotypes in America). To its credit, the cover story does address the negative aspects of the Model Minority stereotype, as it goes on to describe some of the factors leading to Asian Americans academic success, somewhat similar to Chua’s arguments:

Successful Asian-American students commonly credit the influence of parents who are determined that their children take full advantage of what the American educational system has to offer … “It’s a matter of dedication, family support and discipline.” “Asian parents spend much more time with their children than American parents do, and it helps.

From my observation and past conversation discussing this topic with teachers and others, I think Asian American parental involvement in general is a lot higher than your average American family. I remember my father being involved in helping out in picking some of my high school class electives (though in retrospect, although well intentioned, I do not think that he actually made the optimal choices). At my father’s eulogy, I remember my brother’s Latin teacher (much to my surprise that she had attended) coming up to me and telling me how she did remember how much my father cared about my brother’s education as well as mine.

I’ve always thought that Americans in general tend to attribute success to innate ability based on genetics while Asian culture definitely puts more emphasis on hard work. Practice makes perfect (and some would argue, 10,000 hours of practice makes perfection as Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers would note). Last week, the Wall Street Journal had a fascinating story on Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter , discussing the effects of raising children in poor families versus rich families (As family wealth increases, the choices of adults play a much smaller role in determining the mental ability of their children.) My favorite movie on the subject of nurture versus nature is Trading Places :).

I never took an Asian American Studies course while in college, but blogging for 8Asians for the past four years has often seemed like a self-taught extended Ph.D. thesis in this area and I’m pretty sure that Asian American academic success and the Model Minority myth will endure for quite a while – probably as long people wonder why Why Asian Girls Go For White Guys (our most popular blog post ever). Over 60% of Asian Americans were born outside of the United States. Until a super majority of Asian Americans have been born and raised in the United States and assimilated and revert more towards the American “mean,” I think these types of stories, perceptions and controversies such as Chua’s and Model Minority stereotype will linger for quite a while.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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