Bryan Caplan  

Caplan vs. Chua Debate in the Guardian

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Tiger Mother Amy Chua and I have this week's Saturday Conversation in The Guardian.  Highlights:

BC: Most of my book is based on a summary of 40 years of adoption and twin studies - the usual result is parents just don't have much effect on their kids. In your book you have lots of great stories about how you influenced your kids, and I believe you did for a while, but what the adoption and twin evidence says is that the feeling that parents are changing their kids is based on an illusion. There is a big short-run effect, but the long-run effect is very different.

AC: My daughter Sophia would half-agree with you: somebody asked her if she would still be the same student had I not had high expectations, and she said yes. But she also said she would never have developed her love of music if it wasn't for me. My husband was given a choice by his mother when he was about six - do you want to start playing the violin or do you want to play with your friends? He chose his friends, of course. He still came out great, but he regrets that he doesn't read music. I feel a responsibility that doesn't seem to operate with you - I need to prepare my daughters for the world so they can have the opportunities.

BC: I'm very involved with my kids and we enjoy doing things together. We have a lot of common interests so I don't have to drag them to do things - we play games, we read comics. If you and your daughters enjoy music together, that is fantastic, but there is a lot in your book that makes it sound like there was a lot of suffering and anger that outweighed the happiness.


caplanchua2.jpg

And:

BC: It seems your daughter beat you at your own game. It wasn't like you changed your mind about it.

AC: Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done. I tried to find the balance between the strict, traditional Chinese way I was raised, which I think can be too harsh, and what I see as a tendency in the west to be too permissive and indulgent. If I could do it all again, I would, with some adjustments.

BC: Assuming that Lulu doesn't go back to the violin, why would you put her through all those years of arguing?

AC: Lulu actually did come back to the violin, on her own terms. She did not want me involved, she wanted to choose her own music, not play for two hours but play for 20 minutes every few days. Now she does it out of fun and love.

The most surprising thing to come out of our dialog is Amy's repeated claim that her critics are taking her way too seriously:

AC: My book is a bit of a spoof. I don't write about all the fun we had. I would be confident that we have just as much fun in my family as yours. In fact, because I'm strict and my kids don't spend as much time at other people's houses we have more family time to do things.

BC: You had a schedule in the book - one that I remember had "one hour of fun family time", and that was optional.

AC: That was a joke...
I can believe that there's a slight element of hyperbole in Amy's memoir.  But having read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother twice, this seems like mild comic relief in an otherwise relentless narrative.  To be honest, I was tempted to channel Joe Pesci: "How is your book funny?  Funny how?  Funny like you didn't make your daughters practice three hours a day, and scream at them when they resisted?  Funny like threatening to burn all your little girl's stuffed animals is funny?  What kind of funny?  Tell me how it's funny."

P.S. I'm trying to be funny.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Andrew writes:

For me, a defining moment in the book is when Amy Chua and her husband are having a fight about the pressure she puts on the kids, and she comes out with something like "And what about Coco [the family dog]? Don't you have any hopes and aspirations for what Coco will achieve?!?" Her husband just gapes in astonishment, realizing the ridiculousness of the situation, and just laughs, bringing the fight to a close. Chua writes something like "I still don't know what was so funny."

There's some element of ironic self-mockery in that anecdote and ambiguity about really, just how self-aware is she, which applies to the whole book. I think the book is funnier than you seem to think, but the book is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so, in a way that allows Chua to provoke and then back away from the most outrageous things.

Jason Malloy writes:

"My husband was given a choice by his mother when he was about six – do you want to start playing the violin or do you want to play with your friends? He chose his friends, of course. He still came out great, but he regrets that he doesn't read music. I feel a responsibility that doesn't seem to operate with you – I need to prepare my daughters for the world so they can have the opportunities."

Since both possible scenarios here involve a missed opportunity, a superficial kind of regret is probably inevitable given either choice. And it's reasonable to assume that the decision her husband actually made (interacting with friends) was the one that provided him with the most total life satisfaction.

The "Caplan does not feel responsible" stuff appears to be begging the question; the factual long-term efficacy of parenting is the premise under debate.

AC writes:

The Pesci line is perfect -- I didn't even know what to say after the "spoof" line. She's laughing all the way to the bank.

BucketofFried writes:

@Jason Malloy
Agree. Chua missed the opportunity cost associated with her husband learning to read music: less time with his friends.

On what basis do most people gauge their childhoods? Is it experiences they had? Or, is it the technical skills they learned? I venture it's the former.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Setting aside Bryan's point for a moment that the most effect that woman had on her children was to make them miserable I think it begs the question: "What world is she preparing them for?" Perhaps she was trying to prepare them for a Confusian world where the greatest achievement is to memorize a lot of random factoids, recite them at a test and submit unquestioningly to hierarchical authority. The likes of Amy Chua want to create a world I for one want no part of.

PrometheeFeu writes:

"In fact, because I'm strict and my kids don't spend as much time at other people's houses we have more family time to do things."

I am sure those kids must have loved family time. "Hey kids it's family time! What would you rather we do today? I could call you garbage because you didn't get an A. I could yell at you because you only want to play piano for 2 hours instead of 3. I could threaten to burn your cherished stuffed animals. Remember not to cry when I torture you psychologically because that would be weakness and I will make fun of you for it." I know some kids with parents like that. The kids live in eternal fear of the parents. It is just heart-breaking. God it's hard to stay within the limits of the comment policy when speaking of people like that.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan, you couldn't find a sitter before the debate?

Shane writes:

I haven't read either book yet.

But I get Amy Chau's concern 'to find the balance between the strict, traditional Chinese way I was raised, which I think can be too harsh, and what I see as a tendency in the west to be too permissive and indulgent.' I guess my take would lean more towards the 'indulgent' approach than her approach. We spent a lot of time as children playing by ourselves or playing and reading alone. With no supervision. Got a few bumps and bruises, played with fire a bit and had tonnes of fun, between learning the more academic stuff! But my parents were pretty strict about controlling our time watching TV and stuff like that.

A healthy mix, I hope.

Pandaemoni writes:

Maybe Chua is a strict parent because she's genetically pre-disposed to strict parenting, which may explain why her daughters are leaning that way as well. If parenting has little effect on outcomes, then what tiny effect could reasoned debate with strangers ever have on parenting styles? If we're not malleable as children, then surely we're not as adults either. One wonders why anyone ever bothers to try to have an impact on anyone else's way of thinking.

Scott Wentland writes:

Great picture!

Tom West writes:

First off, I have to admit I read AC's book as fiction leavened with fact. She wanted to push back against the Western model, and you're not going to do that with a calm, reserved, reasonable argument. Do you think we'd have even heard of this book (let alone be talking about it) if it hadn't been entirely over-the-top?

However, I suspect the whole "A+ or bust" paradigm is based on coming from a background where there isn't much of a middle class, in which case, if you aren't part of the 1% who are truly on top, you're part of the peasantry and your life is fairly disposable.

In such a situation, if your child has the "right stuff", then pushing hard will give them the change to succeed, while if they don't, then they were doomed from birth anyway.

The Western strategy is one based on wealth. Why push a child hard and risk destroying them if they can't don't have what it takes when the vast majority will find a reasonable home in the middle class, push or no. Making them miserable just to increase there standing a percent or two makes no sense.

I do find it ironic that AC's strategy makes a lot more sense (and Bryan's less so) in the sort of society that Bryan would seem to advocate where the wage differential between the teeming poor around the world and the average middle-of-the-road American is erased.

Hume writes:

Off topic: anyone know when Michael Huemer's book on political philosophy is to be published?

Ted writes:

I'm confused about a few of Chua's points.

But she also said she would never have developed her love of music if it wasn't for me.

How does Chua know her daughter wouldn't have developed a love of music? Nobody in my family ever pushed me to play music. Yet, today, I play piano, guitar, and drums. My mother tells me my dad used to play in a band before they married and then just stopped playing (he walked out on my mother when I was just 6 years old, he never played to me as a kid, and I didn't know he was in a band until I was nearly 16 - so he didn't influence me indirectly either), so maybe my interest is genetic. Maybe Chua's daughter would have loved music anyway. She has no way of knowing that. What's funny is she doesn't realize there are tons of musical people who didn't come from musical families or who weren't forced to play as children.

My husband was given a choice by his mother when he was about six - do you want to start playing the violin or do you want to play with your friends? He chose his friends, of course. He still came out great, but he regrets that he doesn't read music.

If her husband really regrets not being able to read and play music so much, why not teach himself on his spare time? He's had plenty of time all these years. Reading music is trivially easy to learn and it doesn't take a tremendous amount of time or talent to become decent at a musical instrument. The fact he hasn't immersed himself in music suggests he doesn't regret his decision that much.

I feel a responsibility that doesn't seem to operate with you - I need to prepare my daughters for the world so they can have the opportunities.

I don't think having your kid be a great pianist or violinist prepares them for anything in the future, except maybe a college application. The career high of most "professional" pianists and violinists are as music teachers. There is nothing wrong with that job, but it's not such an amazing career that I think a parent needs to prepare their child from birth for it. Very few people become concert performers and even fewer become entertainment icons. Why put your kids through suffering to prepare them for a career as a music teacher?

My book is a bit of a spoof. I don't write about all the fun we had. I would be confident that we have just as much fun in my family as yours. In fact, because I'm strict and my kids don't spend as much time at other people's houses we have more family time to do things.

What leads her to believe "more family time" implies "more fun?" I love my mom and sisters, but there are many times I'd want to just get the hell away from them (a house of 4 girls, 1 boy was at times enough to drive me insane growing up). If I might appeal to the idea of revealed preferences. If she has to restrict her children from playing at other people's homes, isn't is fair to conclude that having "more family time" is the less satisfying option from her children's perspective?

Also, I did get there was some irony in her book. But she seems to suggest there is more in there than anybody picked up on (I've seen this in several interviews), but her writing style doesn't exactly lead one to read the book in an absurdist or ironic tone. If her book was actually filled with ironic, almost teasing, instances than it's her fault her critics didn't figure that out because she didn't write her book that way.

James writes:

An Anecdote and a question.

The Anecdote.

My older sister is dyslexic and my mother pushed her very hard to learn to read and write. It was sometimes quite grueling; I suspect Chua would have approved.
My younger brother is dyslexic; my father was more involved with my brother's education than my mother. He did not push my brother hard (or at all) to learn to read and write; he believed in letting him develop in his own way.
My sister has two degrees, one in medicine, and my brother who is just 18 has a literacy level well below the average for his age: he can read and write but with a lot of difficulty and never for pleasure.
I would be tempted to conclude that my mother was right and my father was wrong.

The question.

Can parents/society effectively force children to learn skills?

If so then while there may not be much point in trying to fine tune personality traits it may still be very worthwhile pushing children to learn certain fundamental skills that will be useful later on in life.

Matt FLipago writes:

"My husband was given a choice by his mother when he was about six - do you want to start playing the violin or do you want to play with your friends? He chose his friends, of course. He still came out great, but he regrets that he doesn't read music."

What is interesting is she said read music. Had the mother told her husband to practice a half an hour as a kid, or even an hour, and he continued his whole life, he would have been more than satisfactory musician to make him happy. There is absolutely no reason to make a child play music for 3 hours if they hate music. NONE.

Sol writes:

Ted hits the nail on the head! Maybe it's different in the classical world, but speaking as someone who has read a fair amount on the life stories of traditional and jazz musicians, I can't think of a single great performer who was forced to learn music by his or her parents. Mostly it would be the other way around, where a child's love of listening to music led to them begging their parents for an instrument...

Jan writes:

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darjen writes:
AC: That was a joke...

Very telling. Kind of makes me wonder about the rest of her book. The sad thing is that millions of people who read her book will be taking it all seriously. Poor kids.

caveat bettor writes:

I agree with Bryan that parenting is limited in influencing outcomes, as well as rife with unintended consequences. But does it matter that our kids are bad in math compared with the Pacific Rim, or will all of them get to play in the NBA? Chua is speaking like a puppet of the Confucian work ethic and legacy of the civil service examination system in China. I still think that this helps when auditioning for sports, or even artistic opportunities. I think the main weakness to Chua's approach is that she seems to completely ignore nurturing team players for the sake of individualistic achievement. There is a reasons why Wesley Yang's Paper Tigers rings true to Asian-americans, as well as people like me who hire and teach them. There is not as much there there as Chua would have us believe, especially as her approach probably works much better for females, while Yang counters with the male perspective and struggle.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Tell me how it's funny."

I think that says more about your sense of humor than it does about Amy Chua's bestselling one.

I gave a detailed analysis of Chua's literary techniques for comic memoir writing here:

http://www.vdare.com/sailer/110131_tiger_mother.htm

Eric Hammer writes:

"AC: My book is a bit of a spoof. I don't write about all the fun we had. I would be confident that we have just as much fun in my family as yours. In fact, because I'm strict and my kids don't spend as much time at other people's houses we have more family time to do things."

That is a pretty common argument tactic, claiming to be joking when someone criticizes the argument, and standing behind it when people agree. I don't recall her ever pointing out that some of the stories were exaggerations when she gives fluff piece interviews. One also wonders if she blames herself for any perceived flaws in her children, or writes them off as "Well, I can't fix everything." I suspect she is the type to take credit for all the positives she sees, but never accept that by the same logic she is responsible for the negatives.

Brendan Connelly writes:

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Colin Camerer writes:

Am totally Team Bryan on this one. Chua would probably not have written (or got a big advance for) her book if her daughters had crapped out from pressure; so there is a big upward selection effect in this kind of "memoir". Bryan is also totally right about the science-- parenting effects are not large. Chua appears to know nothing about this at all, so it is easy for her to advance the thesis that there is a good working model the lazy white slacker parents don't know about. The big modern news is that peer effects are surprisingly big, so it may be that a major function of parenting is preparation for picking & learning from friends. And on humor-- the 'gee, didn't you realize my book was comedy?' is just PR backpedaling. If you have to explain to someone that you were telling a joke, you were *not* telling a joke well, or not really telling a joke at all. (see Coulter, Ann).

Tom West's comment was also quite brilliant, I thought. Suppose you have a gladiator-like competition in society in which you either survive and live a grand life, or struggle desperately. Then Tiger Momming *is* the right kind of parenting: You just want to maximize your child's chance of getting over the threshold to the good life. But it's a maladaptation for societies with middle class opportunities.

Brandon Minster writes:
"I'm trying to be funny."

And succeeding. I laughed.

Tirta Susilo writes:

Bryan -- I would have thought the behavioral genetics evidence pertains only to "normal" parenting by middle/upper-class parents in first-world countries. As you said it yourself in your Cato talk, the findings don't apply to children raised by wolves or abandoned in Haiti.

It seems to me that Chua's parenting style is sufficiently extreme so as to make a long-run impact on her daughters possible. Wouldn't you agree?

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