Bryan Caplan  

Jewish versus Chinese Parenting

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A reader sent me this email reflecting on my critique of Amy Chua.  Reprinted anonymously with his permission:

Dear Dr. Caplan,

You speculate as to why Jews are, on average, successful, and as to whether or not parenting has anything to do with it. In my experience, there is a distinctive Jewish parenting style that seeks to motivate kids to achieve, but through a very different mechanism than the one used by Amy Chua. The mechanism to which I refer, of course, is guilt.

In my experience tutoring Jewish kids (and, earlier, being one), I have seen how Jewish kids tend to emotionally punish themselves for even minor failings at school. Their parents express only mild disappointment if the kids return with less than an A+, but those same parents have given such a large amount of positive reinforcement in the past that the kids feel an almost constant sense of guilt and obligation. My parents never once scolded me for getting an A- on a test...but I never got one. I made sure I didn't, because disappointing them was something I feared more than any punishment. Yes, it helped being born smart, but I had equally smart friends whose parents did not motivate them to apply themselves.

I believe that motivation by guilt - which requires that a parent be kind and attentive most of the time - is superior to motivation by punishment, since guilt - or, really, the feeling of obligation to work for others' benefit - gets internalized far more effectively than the fear of an angry mother slapping you. And in the long run, positive motivation beats negative motivation every time.
My reply:

Thanks for your comments.  But why not just say that Jews are genetically inclined to Neuroticism, so little punishment is required to motivate them?  This would fit with the fact that Jews (well, Jewish men) earn much more than you would expect, even controlling for IQ and education.  And if Jews would feel this way in virtually any family, in what sense is Jewish parenting the cause of their success?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Joel writes:

Motivation by guilt in no way requires the motivator to be kind or attentive. Nor should any reasonable person count it as "positive" motivation.

David P writes:

If guilt were a big factor, then wouldn't Catholics also be over-achievers on average?

Being Italian and Jewish I get a double whammy.

Willem writes:

Joel Mokyr is quoted in "Poverty and Prosperity" as claiming that he could not find a single noteworthy Jewish scientist or inventor before something like 1850. Now, of course, they are ubiquitous. His guess is that the secularization of the Jewish people is what liberated them from being subservient to the ideas of the ancients. I might add that Jews were a vulnerable people in most countries over 200 years ago and may have been preoccupied with other things.

Doesn't answer your question directly, but it does show that culture in some form has had at least a critical dampening effect in the past.

Salem writes:

But before 1850 there were far fewer scientists or inventors of any race or ethnicity. Also, most of the Jewish scientists and inventors since then were from a German-Jewish background, and so it's extremely unsurprising that this occurs at the same time as Germany starts making big economic progress.

smartalek writes:

"If guilt were a big factor, then wouldn't Catholics also be over-achievers on average?"

Forgive me if I'm taking way too seriously what might have been said only in jest, but...

I can think of three possible explanations off the top of my head, though calling the first an "explanation" might be cheating:

1: I strongly suspect that, if we checked, we'd find that Catholics are, in fact, over-represented, in at least certain professions (and there's some overlap with those fields in which Jews, at least in America, are over-represented). Specifically, I'm thinking of medicine, law (1/2 of the Justices on the SCotUS!), literature, and the performing arts -- I'm sure there are many other fields as well.
(I'm far more confident in suspecting that certain types of Catholics are over-represented among the highest achievers: I'm thinking of those who had the benefits of a Catholic-school education. That goes double if the school involved was Jesuit. I know the plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but with 20+ years' experience in teaching, and 7,000+ individual students, I don't think it's a stretch to say that this goes beyond "anecdotal" evidence: I have never yet met anyone with a Jesuit education who wasn't very, very intelligent -- and hardworking.)

2: It's mathematically impossible for Catholics to be over-represented in the US overall, to the same extent that Jews are (or anything remotely similar), because of their relative shares of the overall population.
Jews are now less than 2½% of the US population; Catholics are roughly 25%. If American Jews make up just 10% of the practitioners in certain fields, or represent only 10% of any particular level -- such as whatever constitutes a "top tier" in a field -- then, in order to be equally over-represented, Catholics would have to make up more than 100% of the field or level, respectively.

3: There's guilt and there's "guilt."
My understanding -- pls forgive my ignorance if I'm wrong -- is that the famous "Catholic guilt" is less about what you don't do (failure to live up to some standard), and more about what you do that's wrong.
Plus, I find that the areas of greatest concern among Catholics seem to be different: moral issues and behaviors (esp w/r/t matters sexual), more than goal-attainment and material / academic / career success (or failure).
Finally, I get the distinct impression that the Catholics' definition of "guilt" might hew closer to what the rest of the world might refer to as "shame."
That is, it's at least as much about who you are, and how you think and feel, as it is about what you do, or do not do, in terms of concrete action in the world.
Am I wrong in thinking that Catholic guilt is largely about "original sin," and how we are all fallen, regardless of what we actually do, or don't do, in and with our lives?

Scott Sumner writes:

A better title might be Jewish vs. Amy Chua parenting. None of the Chinese parents I know are anything like Amy Chua.

Vangel writes:

This debate illustrates the problem that we have when looking at social issues. No matter what argument is made one can create a narrative to dispute it. And no matter how much we pretend and say otherwise there is no possible way to obtain sufficient data to come up with any kind of empirical evidence that supports our conclusions and is statistically significant.

Chip Smith writes:

Bryan,

Your assumption is probably justified on the weight of behavior-genetic studies, but do we have direct data in both directions? I.e., Jewish adoptees in non-Jewish family environments, and non-Jewish adoptees in Jewish family environments? (I'm guessing that latter would be more robust.) And is the question anywhere addressed in extant twin studies?

Ted Craig writes:

Sophia and Lulu are Jewish, just like their father. Has Caplan even read the book?

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