Bryan Caplan  

The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis

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One of my favorite economists urged me to cut this passage from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:
Before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions.

1. Do I enjoy it?
2. Does my child enjoy it?
3. Are there any long-run benefits?
In his view, my three questions were banal and useless.  I begged to differ.  Sure, this advice is just common sense.  But in parenting, common sense is not so common.  Case in point: "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua.  The heart of her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is Chua's decision to turn her two daughters into musical prodigies regardless of the cost - and with little reflection on the benefits. 

Let's start with question #1.  Chua should plainly answer no.  Despite a few happy memories, she repeatedly tells us that her quest caused her hours of misery day in, day out:
[E]verything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. 
Western parents "get to have a glass of white wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me."  She later adds that:
...Chinese parenting is incredibly lonely - at least if you're trying to do it in the West, where you're on your own.  You have to go up against an entire value system... and there's no one you can talk to honestly, not even people you like and deeply respect.
What about question #2?  Her older daughter is amazingly obedient, but the hours of practice and emotional abuse seem pretty unpleasant for her.  One day Chua discovers old tooth marks on the piano - and realizes that her daughter used to secretly gnaw on her instrument out of despair.  As for her younger daughter, there's no doubt about her suffering.  Here's a typical passage:
...Lulu and I fought like jungle beasts - Tiger versus Boar - and the more she resisted, the more I went on the offensive.
And here's Lulu's climactic blow-up in Moscow:
I don't want to be Chinese!  Why can't you get that through your head?  I hate the violin.  I HATE my life.  I HATE you, and I HATE this family!
Well, what about question #3?  Chua repeatedly appeals to long-run benefits:
As I often said to the girls, "My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future - not to make you like me."
But what has she actually got to show for her struggle to turn her kids into prodigies?  The older daughter certainly seems good enough to become a professional pianist.  But to be blunt, so what?  Even amazingly talented classical musicians have low earnings, high unemployment, and - if they tour - stressful, lonely personal lives.  Unless you love music from the bottom of your heart, a career in music is folly.  And since classical music is a declining industry, job prospects are only going to get worse.

The younger daughter could probably have made it as a professional musician, too.  But at the end of the book, her mother finally gives her the choice to quit.  The daughter decides to scale back her violin practice by about 90%.  From now on, she'll only get worse.  There's no future in the violin for her.  No wonder Chua confesses that, "For the first few weeks after Lulu's decision, I wandered around the house like a person who'd lost their mission, their reason for living."  If I'd lived through thousands of hours of drudgery and cruelty for nothing, I'd be despondent, too. 

But hasn't all the musical practice indelibly shaped Chua's children's characters?  Highly unlikely.  Behavioral genetics finds roughly zero effect of parents on personality.  And contrary to teachers' fantasies about changing their students' lives, learning is highly specific.  Practicing X makes you better at X - and little else.  Furthermore, the effects of environmental intervention erode over time - that's fade-out for you.  Chua seems to know this on some level: She favorably quotes a music teacher who says that, "Every day you don't practice is a day that you're getting worse." 

But all social science aside, Chua's own life history raises severe doubts about the character-shaping power of mastering an instrument.  Yes, she practiced piano as a child, but not to excellence.  And what became of her?  She became a Yale professor and best-selling author anyway!

In the most insightful passage in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, cost-benefit analysis finally makes an appearance:
Why torture yourself and your child?  What's the point?  If your child doesn't like something - hates it - what good is forcing her to do it? 
But Chua immediately represses her thought crime: "As a Chinese mother I could never give in to that way of thinking."  My response: You can and should give in, because this way of thinking is true.  Cost-benefit analysis is not a Western prejudice.  "Give up when the costs exceed the benefits" is one of the universally-valid maxims that allows millions of Chinese businesses to survive and thrive.  Why shouldn't Chinese mothers use it too? 

I strongly suspect that Chua's daughters will turn out just fine.  Indeed, they'll excel.  That's what the children of two Yale professors usually do, however their parents raise them.  I'm even willing to bet that Chua's daughters won't purge her when they grow up.  Still, a sad fact remains: All three women in the Chua family needlessly suffered for thousands of hours because the mom couldn't calmly ask and answer my three simple questions.


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COMMENTS (53 to date)
MikeM writes:

Your "a career in music is folly" link is broken, which is quite unfortunate since I am a former classical musician who decided to pursue a degree in econ instead, I would very much like to read that link.

Scott writes:

I would change it to "a career in classical music is folly" since a career in popular music certainly isn´t (provided you're good of course).

Willem writes:

And a post like this dear writer, is why I subscribe to your blog.

volatility bounded writes:

Caplan, "The older daughter certainly seems good enough to become a professional pianist. But to be blunt, so what? Even amazingly talented classical musicians have low earnings, high unemployment, and - if they tour - stressful, lonely personal lives. Unless you love music from the bottom of your heart, a career in music is folly. And since classical music is a declining industry, job prospects are only going to get worse."

Being highly skilled at a hobby, be it a musical instrument, a sport, a mainstream game like chess, or whatever, is almost essential to get into highly selective colleges. It also helps you get jobs and make small talk in elite law firms, consulting firms, and investment banks.

Caplan needs to think a couple steps beyond directly instrumental benefits from an activity. Caplan also needs to learn the basic point that Posner, Ricardo, Smith, etc teach which is that Economics is just a means to efficiently achieve an end, which may be good or ill. It is just a tool, with no morality. The idea he can persuade people to support immigration or free trade for non-selfish reasons or tenuous economic analysis is fatuous in the extreme.

lukas writes:
I would change it to "a career in classical music is folly" since a career in popular music certainly isn´t (provided you're good of course).

It is. Most people aren't good or fortunate enough to make a well-paying career out of it.

l4k writes:

What about her husband? His life must have been hell.

Ian Dunois writes:
Caplan needs to think a couple steps beyond directly instrumental benefits from an activity. Caplan also needs to learn the basic point that Posner, Ricardo, Smith, etc teach which is that Economics is just a means to efficiently achieve an end, which may be good or ill. It is just a tool, with no morality. The idea he can persuade people to support immigration or free trade for non-selfish reasons or tenuous economic analysis is fatuous in the extreme.

Volatiley Bounded, see the late Spanish Scholastics who used morals and ethics to come to many free market conclusions. What you are missing is that value is subjective. Individuals hold their own morality from religions or other institutions. There morality is then included within the choices they make which is reflected in economic studies. Btw, Adam Smith's first book was the Theory of Moral Sentiments not the Wealth of Nations and that he was a professor of moral philosophy. The economics has a large influence from moral philosophy.

Swimmy writes:
Being highly skilled at a hobby, be it a musical instrument, a sport, a mainstream game like chess, or whatever, is almost essential to get into highly selective colleges. It also helps you get jobs and make small talk in elite law firms, consulting firms, and investment banks.
However, none of that requires the thousands of hours Chua is forcing on her kids. You could cut their regimen to 1/4th or less and still get the same benefit.
Finch writes:

I'm mostly on board with you Bryan. But I have two questions:

First, what if the "activity" your child wants to quit is math? Or high school? Is it still okay to leave them to their genes? Lots of really smart kids want to quit school, and I don't mean drop out of Harvard to do a start-up.

Second, I'm guessing you're okay with your kids never being great at anything. My impression is genes can make people good, but everyone who's great had a parent (or coach or teacher) doing something crazy to them _and_ great genes. Think Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Mozart, etc. The cross of genes and ridiculous early age training is necessary for greatness, isn't it? Clearly this is a low probability event, so maybe it's not worth the heartache and society would be better off without greatness.

Gaspard writes:

The symbolic aspects largely outweigh cost-benefit even still, I think. She has less in common with the crazy tennis parent and more with a typical Veblen-style pursuit of conspicuous leisure and the "aesthetic dowry". Grant McCracken's concept of the 'Diderot Unity' seems apposite here regarding the way she is pursuing a very specific bundle of tropes long marketed by the education business.

What is also interesting is that parading your children in this way is at a reality-show level of vulgarity, which until recently would be beneath a prestigious professor.

Tracy W writes:

volatility bounded: Caplan also needs to learn the basic point that Posner, Ricardo, Smith, etc teach which is that Economics is just a means to efficiently achieve an end, which may be good or ill. It is just a tool, with no morality.

Well, more accurately, economics is a study of how people allocate resources to meet various ends. Economic theories can be used as a tool, but those theories are not just a tool.
And, once you start using economic theories as a tool, you must be having some sort of ends in mind. And those ends can be good or ill.

The idea he can persuade people to support immigration or free trade for non-selfish reasons or tenuous economic analysis is fatuous in the extreme.

Why is it fatuous at all? People do occasionally change their minds from time to time as the result of persuasion, (eg the adoption of the theory of evolution).

Floccina writes:
And contrary to teachers' fantasies about changing their students' lives, learning is highly specific. Practicing X makes you better at X - and little else.

This is one of my pet peeves. I tell people, for example, if you want your kid to be good at vocabulary would it not be better for them to study vocabulary rather than Latin. Or they say factoring quadratic equations teaches children how to think, but you can teach them how think while teaching them something useful.

It seems to me that we school to grade people, which is fine but because we do, we seldom attempt to think what are the most useful knowledge and skills that we can give to each kid that will help him to live a better happier life.

Grading people to figure out which should get more responsibility is useful but can we not grade them while teaching them more useful things?

Also:
I feel a string desire to push my kids but I mostly resist it. I think the desire comes from my own desire to improve my status. This would explain people pushing their children in classical music. They can brag my child won states in piano etc.

Floccina writes:

@Finch

My impression is genes can make people good, but everyone who's great had a parent (or coach or teacher) doing something crazy to them _and_ great genes. Think Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Mozart, etc. The cross of genes and ridiculous early age training is necessary for greatness, isn't it? Clearly this is a low probability event, so maybe it's not worth the heartache and society would be better off without greatness.

Think Wilt Chamberlain, Labron James, Dion Sanders, Lawrence Taylor etc. There is no indication that their parents pushed them or even that they worked particularly hard. There are many like that in music also.

Finch writes:

> I feel a string desire to push my kids but I
> mostly resist it. I think the desire comes from
> my own desire to improve my status.

Do you ever wish someone had pushed you as a kid?

I grew up in rural Canada. I was really good at math, coulda-been-great good. But I had little support and zero push. Maybe if I'd had the genes for hard driving at fourteen I could have done it on my own, but on the whole, I think I'd be happier if I'd had push. The hard work genes just kicked in too late in life for that path.

On the other hand, if I'd been arbitrarily pushed in something like violin, I'd be pretty upset about it. My feeling is that push is high-risk/high-reward. I'm curious as to whether Bryan thinks it can be high-reward. Is it ever possible for push to payoff? I'd agree that it usually doesn't.

Finch writes:

> There is no indication that their parents pushed
> them or even that they worked particularly hard.

Really? Surely their coaches pushed them hard. Have you ever met professional athletes, or even good college athletes? They work really hard.

In math, where I have a great deal more direct experience, as far as I can tell, prodigy is a myth. Sure there are large differences in people's brain endowments, but nobody gets to be great without massive work ethic.

Eric Rasmusen writes:

Great three rules, Bryan! I guess I'll have to buy your book after all.

Many people have the idea that if something's good for you, it has to be unpleasant. That's true of some things that are good for you, but not all. The economistical way of doing things is to put positive weigth on all three criteria. Since kids start out knowing zero, there are many activities that are educational and fun for them, and the parent might as well choose the ones that are fun for ht parent too (if he doesn't, he'll probably give up, too).

Something you might be good at exploring is the idea that suffering is virtuous. I think many mothers are terrified of failure and want to justify themselves by working really hard to help their children, regardless of whether they think that work will have any effect. They don't want someone to point to their worthless 30-year-old son and say, "His mother enjoyed herself plyaing piano duets with him instead of banging his fingers with a spoon when he missed a note!"

Chinese parent's child writes:

Chua's answer to #1 is actually yes. She implies that she would prefer to get a glass of white wine etc, but in reality, if she preferred that, she would have done it. Instead, she prefers what she does. She tells us she feels miserable because she wants us to respect her sacrifice, not because she is in fact miserable.

I already told you that you don't understand the life in a tiger-mom family. It's great. In fact, it's only sustainable among family members who like it and believe in it.

I was a part of it and I loved it and I plan to implement it in my own family - as did both of my siblings. As a child, I always felt sorry for the kids of permissive parents. I thought their parents didn't love them as much and that they would be janitors when they grow up. Now, that might not have been completely correct, but I believe in it and was proud of myself and my family. There is a considerable sense of enjoyment coming from the fact that you are doing things the tiger-way, even if you would have produced results regardless.

Regarding piano proficiency, I agree that it's not necessarily a great career, but I didn't have a sense Chua ever wanted it to be a career. It's a signaling thing. Her daughters might get better mates because of it, like I did. In that case, it will be totally worth it.

Tracy W writes:

Finch: First, what if the "activity" your child wants to quit is math? Or high school? Is it still okay to leave them to their genes?

How much can parents make their kids learn from taking maths, or learn from high school, if the kid doesn't want to be there?
My parents have a friend, a scientist, who left school at age 15, the first day he could for that time, and got a job at the post office to his father's delight. At age 16, he decided to go back to high school and qualify for university. His father was furious at him giving up a good steady job at the post office. But my parents' friend sold his motorbike and went back.

One of my mother's cousins was adopted out at birth (the blood relationship was through her father, which is why we didn't know about this), by a small-town NZ family who, similar to the scientists,

My impression is genes can make people good, but everyone who's great had a parent (or coach or teacher) doing something crazy to them _and_ great genes.

Coaches and teachers aren't necesarily parents.
Anyway, counter-examples that spring to mind - Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Magic Johnson, Lance Armstrong.

Tracy W writes:

Finch: But I had little support and zero push. Maybe if I'd had the genes for hard driving at fourteen I could have done it on my own, but on the whole, I think I'd be happier if I'd had push.

But could your parents have pushed you in a useful way? Is there a significant difference between say, your parents drilling you at home on maths, versus say having a top-notch maths teacher who set up an advanced-maths class drawing on the most mathematically-advanced kids in the local area so you were being surrounded by other kids who were doing very well at maths.

Surely their coaches pushed them hard.

But coaches are often not the same as parents. Coaches typically coach multiple students at a time, so a child being coached by a hard driving coach has quite a few peers who are also in this environment of being pushed hard. It's quite possible that a chunk of what the later-experts get in terms of hard work ethic comes from seeing their peers also working hard. A parent, with only one or two children, can't create the same peer group effect. (Judith Harris does give an intriguing ancedotal case of a father with 5 daughters who might have managed to form them into overachievers - his daughters did much better than their socio-economic class would lead you to expect, but that's only one case, and it was a father who happened to have quite a few children close in age).

Bryan Caplan writes:

@MikeM - Thanks for pointing out the broken link. Fixed it.

blink writes:

Chua treats her daughter's music the same was she treats her own career -- we get glimpses of her criss-crossing the country for speaking engagements as well as her devotion to writing and legal scholarship. Chua picked piano and violin because, at least in her circle, they are the most respected instruments. It is a status play for her daughters, her (extended) family, and herself.

From Bloom's work (Developing Talent in Young People) we know that experts almost always start young and quickly dedicate themselves to their chosen field -- early adolescence for music and sports, somewhat later for intellectual pursuits. What Chua gets right is that we often give up too easily when faced with difficult challenges. Perhaps perseverance/grit is an unteachable personality trait, or perhaps a teacher/coach/peer should be providing the motivation, but it is certainly important.

Arthur writes:

The key question is the third one. In econ-speak it is "are there any long term benefits", but in a traditional Western way of thought, it would be "what is your goal for your children and does this help them reach that goal".

That is why it is a false choice between Tiger Mom parenting and permissive parenting. At least until a generation ago, the Western form of parenting involved plenty of educational work and moral training for the child - to prepare him or her to be a good citizen, be at least self-supporting and hopefully more, themselves raise a family, and - a quality seldom mentioned today - in an overarching way, moral, in a Judeo-Christian, western sense. I am not here to defend religion, but I assure you that anyone of a certain age with proper Bostonian grandparents knows exactly the value system in question. Or you could read Digby Baltzell. Providence and a clear understanding that you are a link in a chain that stretches back centuries, and, if you don't mess up your part, you will have descendants and you had better think about them, were both parts of its ethos. You may say it had its own faults, certainly, but permissive parenting it was not. Neither would it have involved solely academics or excessive devotion to music practice if the child had no talent or wish. Indeed, being "well-rounded" was one of the highest accolades.

That may not be everyone else's goal for their children. But at least it was a goal. What is the goal of permissive parenting? What is Chua's goal? I'm still not really sure.

nicole writes:

Chua's answer to #1 is actually yes. She implies that she would prefer to get a glass of white wine etc, but in reality, if she preferred that, she would have done it. Instead, she prefers what she does. She tells us she feels miserable because she wants us to respect her sacrifice, not because she is in fact miserable.

Yes, I would say this is definitely true. It's ridiculous to think she doesn't like it when she's the driving force behind the whole thing. From everything I've read it sounds like pretty much the most important thing in her whole life.

I already told you that you don't understand the life in a tiger-mom family. It's great. In fact, it's only sustainable among family members who like it and believe in it.

Well, this is the problem, though. Chua's younger daughter definitely didn't like it, and her older daughter probably didn't either. You plan to do this to your own children without any indication that they would like it or choose it for themselves, though, just because you liked it when you were a kid.

Finch writes:

> But could your parents have pushed you in a
> useful way?

Maybe, maybe not. Everyone I met in math who became a star (Winning the Putnam, tenure at Stanford, that kind of thing. I don't personally know a Fields medal winner, but the people I know are young.) grew up in an environment where they worked many hours a day on math at a young age. And they had the right coaches, usually with the match made by parents who sent them to special schools with star teachers, although sometimes by luck. Parents can buy environment.

I regret having said "massive work ethic" in a previous post. I think I just meant "massive work". The work ethic is needed to have success in your career, for sure, but it's fine if it develops when you're 22, as long as someone drives you hard when you're young, so that you don't get so far behind you can't catch up.

Look, I really do mostly think Bryan is right here, and that extreme pushing is usually wasted on kids who are probably worse off for it. But I guess I don't believe in effortless stars. I've never seen that in person, or in biographies I've read or anything like that. I'm also not sure I buy into his value judgment of Amy Chua. Trying hard is fun.

Finch writes:

> You plan to do this to your own children without
> any indication that they would like it or choose
> it for themselves, though, just because you liked
> it when you were a kid.

The fact that she liked it as a kid is suggestive that her kids will also like it. She doesn't lack "any indication".

Matt Flipago writes:

It's true a career in music is often a horrible financial choice, but even if it wasn't, who would want to listen to someone who doesn't enjoy what they play? I also don't know why the parent can't find a hobby the child actually enjoy, or why it has to be the violin or the piano(the piano being possibly the most cold instrument played. Why is it that they don't teach their children something more impressive like jazz.
Jazz can signal the same dedication and intelligence, while also showing people that you have a creativity, often a very difficult skill to demonstrate, but valuable in many circumstances. And if they hate music, once they stop playing, it no longer is a good signal. Nor do people have to start from a young age to become great musicians. Although having a child interested and playing music at a young age is good, what they play isn't nearly as important.
Lastly, greatness can very often be found in individuals who weren't pushed, and those are people who tend to be very happy. They love what they do, and they inspire others because of it. Whether it's sports, the arts, intellectual achievement, or any other hobby, your child will often like one of them, and there's no reason why you can't foster the mastery of that subject instead.

ChrisH writes:
(Finch:)I'm guessing you're okay with your kids never being great at anything

Can't speak for Professor Caplan, but my kids are great at being my kids, and that makes me unbelievably happy. If that isn't good enough for them, they are welcome to become chess masters, rock stars, or janitors. I find that people tend to find the things they are good at, and practice them because they enjoy them.

As to anyone saying as an adult, I could have been a great X, if only my parents had pushed me... well, my concept of taking responsibility for my life precludes that. But even so, the chances are overwhelming that parents would force children in the direction of THE PARENT's dream, not the child's ultimate one.

Finch writes:

ChrisH quoted me:
> I'm guessing you're okay with your kids never
> being great at anything.

I really thought about adding to this that I pretty much think this about my own kids. Unless they show really outstanding aptitude, there's no way I'm subjecting them to the regime necessary to be great. I didn't want what I wrote to be misinterpreted as a swipe.

Bryan sounds like a really good dad to me.

ChrisH, usually people use "great" to mean something different than "happy". And when they hand out Olympic gold medals, they don't ask whether your parents made you go to swimming class against your will at age seven.

Floccina writes:
Have you ever met professional athletes, or even good college athletes? They work really hard.

Yes I have met some professional basketball players and mostly no they don't work so hard. Kareem always said that he did not even like basketball. Dion sanders refused to hit hard and avoided tackling anyone. Most will tell you that they worked harder than the also rans but in my experience it the almost made it who worked the hardest. Lawrence Taylor was one of the few great professional athletes to admit that he did not work hard.

Floccina writes:

I apologist for the multiple posts but I want to say that Finch and I are not so far app art work does help.

Jamie Pitts writes:

I would argue that cost-benefit analysis has long been a Western tradition. Other cultures are adopting this and many other aspects of our ways of thinking that go back to the ancient Greek states. However, even as they may adopt some of our best attributes (and we theirs), what most these cultures lack is a long-standing tradition of reason coupled with free will. While hard-working students with specific goals for achievement are impressive, this alone does not help one overcome all of the challenges of life, not to mention the achievement of greatness.

Chubbs writes:

One major factor here that seems to go unnoticed is simply raw, pure luck. Many of the above examples - those of professional athletes or musicians - are more about being in the right place at the right time in combination with natural talent. Think of the Beatles . . . mostly working class, no overbearing parents working or practicing them to death. All of them were talented, and did not start to play their instruments until adolescence. Luck (or fate if you prefer) brought those lads together, brought a master promoter to their door, and paired them with an incredible producer. Without all of these things almost inexplicably falling into place, we would have never known the Beatles. None of it was the product of early childhood prodigy or over-assertive parenting. The thousands of hours of practice that they used to develop and hone their skill was self driven and of their own volition.

CJColucci writes:

Practicing X makes you better at X - and little else.

Practicing X probably doesn't make you good at Y, but doesn't it make you good at practicing, which can help someone who wants to get good at Y get good at it?

Ken writes:

I think how harshly we judge Tiger-Mom rests on one simple question -- who decided what the kids would do? If her daughters wanted to play music, then long-marching them to a decent level of ability qualifies as a style of coaching, nothing more.

The more likely scenario has Tiger-Mom either manipulating ("I'm sure you could play the piano better than my neighbor's or rival's daughter") or outright forcing them to take up an instrument -- and such stereotypical choices to boot.

Tiger-Mom's story would have enlightened me more had one of her daughters taken up the zydeco, and the other "urban" dance.

Demaratus writes:

I learned to play the violin when I was a child, but only made it just below the skill level where you need to be to get into a decent conservatory. If I had been pushed harder to practice, though, and I don't think it would have taken much pushing by my parents, I may have been good enough to choose it as my career, and likely would have. So, having more of a Tiger as my Mom (and bless her, she's great anyway) would have made a great difference in my life.

But, of course, I'm the one that chose the violin as my instrument originally, so maybe that makes all the difference between me and Chua's kids. I remember that day, and I think it was I just like the tactile nature of that instrument, and the sound. Without that basice enjoyment of the activity, yeah, I could see practicing for hours being miserable.

As a quick aside: there's nothing wrong with the violin, though, so turn down the hate on it and classical music; some of us really do love it, not out of status but just for what it is (secondly, I think the death of high culture is starting to harm our civilization: for example, without it low culture lacks at the very least a source to reference besides itself, but that's another topic for another day).

Back on topic: in Chua's case, she should have had demonstrations of many different instruments made to her children, and let them pick one, if any. If one of them didn't like music, than she could have demo'ed other hobbies until she found one her kids enjoyed and showed some basic aptitude in. If here kids are bright, and it seems that they are, they would have found something they love eventually, and that love would have been the seed of something more.

Anything you're every going to be really good at, you have to love enough to persevere through the difficult bits. Mozart loved to play the violin and compose, and Magic Johnson loves basketball.

Finally, though, and I think there was a podcast on a related topic a while ago, I think today we're selling skilled generalists very short. There is a need for highly skilled professionals, sure, but there is also a need for well-rounded people who can play competently in many areas. This is partly so they can lead the technicians (the Army and Navy follows this patern, btw), but also because if the world were made up of nothing but specialists, how would one person every be able to understand anything about the world, besides their little bit of it? How would people make decisions about other areas of their lives besides their profession/job?

Prudent decision-making ability, which is essential for all those with political responsibility, and so in our regime all citizens (and even more cynically a large proportion, say 20-30%), requires a broader range of knowledge and wisdom than a narrow profession. It needs to be cultivated in addition to our wealth-providing division-of-labor nitch. I think there is a body of knowledge everyone who is tasked with political responsibility must have. Music is part of that knowlege, and so is our cultural heritage, which includes classical musical making, as well as math, literature, history, philosophy, science, etc. Popular culture needs to encouragement, but the rest of a well-rounded education may need some encouragement.

Fitting this back in with the topic, and concluding these long-winded but hastily-dashed-off comments, I think forcing your children to cultivate areas of knowledge they may not love is worthwhile. Chua may have gone too far, but I'm sympathetic to forcing some knowledge into your children while they're young enough to learn, but perhaps too young to be able to appreciate the utility of said knowledge until perhaps years later. If they're bright, they'll remember and be able to call on that experience later when they're performign an activity that may be quite different.

Back to my own personal exerience, while I may not play the violin much any more, I think striving for a level of skill in another area has provided context to what I work on now, and made me better at what I do.

Bottom line: Tiger Mother not necessarily bad. It depends on the specific situation!

TK writes:

Mr. Caplan,

Your answers to the first two questions are very short-sighted, which makes your essay facile and glib. Your framework of "enjoyment" seems to mean "having fun at every moment," which is exactly the fallacy that Prof. Chua points out in her book:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.

Prof. Chua will gain a lifetime of satisfaction that she raised her daughters well, and her daughters will again earn a lifetime of satisfaction arising from their success. Your examples of loneliness and fighting are transient obstacles that must be overcome for more meaningful enjoyment.

I happen to write a pretty well-read blog, and my position is that "Tiger Mothers" are in fact superior. If you are interested, you can read my post here.

Demaratus writes:

A follow-up to one of my digressions in the ramble above, in response to Bryan's tri-part calculus above:

When analyzing an economic situation, it would be wise to remember that free-markets operate within a larger political economy which, in order for this environment ammenable to said free markets to be maintained and even perhasp improved, must have other aims in addition to the efficient deployment of wealth and capital to fulfill human desires.

Educating the ignorant youth is one of these necessary aims of any who which to maintain a particular regime, and the standard of what that education should be is one that is different than the economic analysis that we usually deploy. For one thing, children are not adults, and thus are not and should not be considered free actors. What childern want to learn is not the same thing as what they should and must learn. Additionally, what will bring the most direct financial profit through a career, for example, is not the only metric that matters in judging an education. The maintenance of a just regime is another.

As Bastiat said, you must keep in mind the unseen as well as the seen, and the larger political economy and the impacts of decisions such as what education children should recieve on the larger political economy is something that must be always kept in mind in any analysis.

Can anyone recommend a good Austrian take on education and the larger political economy? What if a well-functioning market demands an education that will lead, in the matter of a few generations, to the destruction of the regime that allows the well-functioning market to exist? More simply, how can price signals factor in such a goal as the maintenance of a regime, or do it well?

Aristotle and Plato touched on some of this in their consideration of democratic regimes, but I'd like to read some more recent work (!) on this, specifically on education.

sourcreamus writes:

Gretzky used to reply to parents who asked him to tell their kids to practice harder, "No one ever told me to practice" He practiced hard because he loved playing hockey. If a coach or parent pushes a kid to achieve a goal the kid wants that is a great thing. But pushing a kid to practice to achieve a goal a parent wants is just pointless suffering, more likely to produce a Marinovich than a Marino.

Finch writes:

Walter Gretzky was a huge participant in his kid's development. Just because he was good at it and not a jerk doesn't mean it wasn't push. What if nobody was willing to buy Wayne's equipment or pay for a bunch of leagues or drive him to the rink at 5am on Saturday? Walter was pretty committed to a goal.

In any event, the existence of self-motivated people at a young age doesn't prove there's no possibility of parental motivation making up for the lack in the child. You can argue that success you didn't really want consistently through your life doesn't count, but I don't think most people care. It's conceivable that the genes for wanting to work really hard at age seven are different from the ones for wanting to work really hard at 22. Parents might be able to overcome the former, even if they can't do much about the latter.

John Smith writes:
This is one of my pet peeves. I tell people, for example, if you want your kid to be good at vocabulary would it not be better for them to study vocabulary rather than Latin. Or they say factoring quadratic equations teaches children how to think, but you can teach them how think while teaching them something useful.
Anecdotal evidence:

In the seventh grade, I took the SAT vocab and got a 440 (back in the age of 200 to 800). In the eleventh grade, I took the SAT vocab and got a 720. I refused to study (which caused my mother much consternation - I'm Asian). What was the difference in those 4 years? I had 4 years of Latin, and had read tons of books.

My friend had an English tutor. For several years, he studied vocabulary every week. His SAT vocab score was worse than mine.

Chinese parent's child writes:

"Chua's younger daughter definitely didn't like it..."

I disagree with this. She certainly didn't like it at that particular moment in Moscow that Bryan for some reason takes as her final insight into the issue. Today she says that she was simply a teenager, looking to rebel for no reason, and that she intends to raise her own children the "Chinese way". I find those statements at least as indicative of her experience as a child as the scene in the restaurant.

"You plan to do this to your own children without any indication that they would like it or choose it for themselves, though, just because you liked it when you were a kid."

To the contrary, I have a very good indication. Both me and my husband have tiger-parents and very much appreciate it. The same holds for our siblings. According to Bryan's own logic, our own children will very likely prefer to have tiger-parents and will grow up to be tiger-parents themselves. In fact, I am somewhat puzzled why Bryan feels compelled to argue on this topic - tiger-parents can't do anything about their own genetic propensity to parent that way, can they?

"Your framework of "enjoyment" seems to mean "having fun at every moment"..."

This is exactly the problem. According to Bryan, the best parent maximizes the total hedonic experience of his child. From which follows that the best parent puts his child on cocaine on the very first day, or perhaps even kills him, since a child killed early on might quite likely end up with a better hedonic bottom-line at the end of his life than a child who goes on to live till the old age.

ajb writes:

None of the social science Bryan likes to cite can distinguish between careers earning a good living as a dentist in outer flyover country vs. being a top mathematician, pianist, or even high earning executive with Ivy Degrees. He finds those social markers irrelevant so he assumes others should also. But some people -- like Amy Chua -- care, and care a lot.

We ALSO know that some of the things that social science shows can affect kids -- like peer groups -- are heavily determined by parental choice. Furthermore, some of us do not feel that tastes in food, music, or religious labeling (all of which show up as measurable effects) are trivial and irrelevant. I'm willing to assume parenting matters more AT THE MARGIN than anything the studies show. The studies are just too blunt for any of this.

And as Bryan notes, there are literally NO studies of Asian parenting.

So maybe I'll take the studies seriously when they look at parental differences from a pool of kids whose parents are all in the top 10% of the IQ distribution but where some are Asian, some not, and we have appropriate randomization, and where outcomes are calibrated to take into account important status markers as well as low probability extremely high payoff outcomes (both neg and pos).

Kevin writes:

I just wanted to chime in and say that this was a great post, Bryan.

baron writes:

First of all, excellent piece. I think the main tragedy of this Chinese mother piece is that the children had their paths chosen for them despite whatever their aptitudes were. However, as many commenters have pointed out there are just as many examples where talent and Tiger parents have produced some of the greatest talents of history (Mozart and Tiger Woods come to mind). Malcolm Gladwell's 10000 hour rule comes to mind, though I'm not sure there is any academic basis.

Another Tiger Mother is perhaps Ryu Goto's. However, he did become a world-class violinist and is studying physics at Harvard.

Regarding the "transfer of learning" point I think it's safe to say that there is no definitive answer on the effects of learning on general intelligence although highly domain-specific learning will not transfer (language is a great example) there are aspects such as working memory yet to be conclusively explored. As an economist I'm sure you can appreciate that there are many of the highly acclaimed economists that dropped out or lost interest in mathematics and physics. You may argue that current economists must have proficiency in mathematics but how many economists can become mathematicians in mid-career? Surely, there is some component in mathematics that is transferable (nature or nurture aside). While I agree that things like music and Latin may be over-rated as the almighty cornerstones of elite education, it's probably more an issue of diminishing returns beyond general mastery and perhaps that's the line crossed by many Tiger Mothers. Recent studies show that cardiovascular exercise will enhance your brain. However, it goes without saying that 3 hours every day on a treadmill will not make you a mathematician.

The main criticism with Chua's approach is that she took it to an extreme and that she probably could have relaxed her grip years ago and see her daughters bloom without such a large emotional sacrifice. As you rightly point out, she didn't produce world class musicians, so what are they now? The problem of taking the Tiger Mother's one-size-fits-all is that while you can give your children a great head start and choices, you eventually hit a brick wall when the child's individuality asserts itself and natural potential interferes.

John writes:

I really wonder if Chau actually hated the daily battle with her children? I believe her preconceived idea of what her children would become and how she would achieve it drove her to this method of child rearing. Now she wants to blame it on the Chinese. Would putting all the effort into having a well balanced loving family that would be considered mediocre academically or financially be a failure? Apparently so as it would be better to have a great pianist that hates you than a factory worker that loves you.

Scott writes:

I think people are turning this into false dichotomy. Either you are a Tiger Mom like Chua or you don't push your child at all. There are alot of degrees between those two extremes.

I never push my kids do things they don't enjoy. When they find they things they enjoy, I encourage it. Sometimes they get frustrated as with anything your learning. I push them through that. I keep them from giving up things they enjoy out frustration or poor choices kids make. But I never do it by abusing them. There is no need for what Chua did to her kids.

Jason Malloy writes:

So maybe I'll take the studies seriously when they look at parental differences from a pool of kids whose parents are all in the top 10% of the IQ distribution but where some are Asian, some not, and we have appropriate randomization, and where...

I disagree with this characterization of the evidence, but it illustrates the difference between culture and social science.

Liberalism constantly challenges conservatism on empirical grounds in order to justify social change and experimentation: for example conservatives should prove gay marriage will harm society. Sometimes existing social science is presented as contrary evidence to conservative policy.

But conservatives view tradition as stronger and more legitimate evidence than social science. The implicit belief is that culture has calibrated behavior towards functionality over time in ways that are too complex to pick apart with our rudimentary science methods.

Chua pushes her daughters in ways that even she may not be able to defend or explain because that's what her own parents did. And her intuition -- her conviction -- is that tradition knows more than she does.

Tracy W writes:

And as Bryan notes, there are literally NO studies of Asian parenting.

This struck me as a suspicious claim, so I did a search on Google scholar, and the first result was a literature review of studies of Asian parenting.

The results of the review are interpretable as apparently none of the studies control for genetic relationships, which is a shame, but typical for parenting studies. But they are there, still.

rpl writes:

Jason,

What kind of a track record does tradition have on being right about things? I can think of traditions in our culture, for example, those regarding race or Aristotelian mechanics, that we were right to overturn. Yet, before we did one could have defended them using exactly the same logic you've described. The existence of a tradition is one piece of evidence, but it is in no way "stronger and more legitimate" then going out and looking for yourself.

Floccina writes:

Could it be that East Asians work so hard because the talent range is narrower in Japan and China?

Please Explain writes:

You didn't explain why the economist wanted you to cut that passage. Why did one of your "favorite economists" want that passage cut?

SWH writes:

My daughter's 10 years at piano taught her what hard work will accomplish, and that she is capable of accomplishing much. That experience, I believe, will be the single most important ingredient in her future abilities and success. Children wont, at first, work hard without external motivation. But once they learn what they are capable of (investment), the resulting future self motivation is an incredible value.

Julie Kinnear writes:

I also think that forcing your children into doing something they don't like is a waste of time. Amy Chua's methods are totally wrong since they ignore the balance between parents' aspirations and the actual capacity of their children to do well. She can only offend those Chinese parents who don't subscribe to her theory.

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