25 January 2011

Amy Chua and the stereotype ladder

The amount of ink spilled over this Amy Chua WSJ excerpt is threatening to break BP's recent record for noxious black liquids we wish would go away. The problem with all of this blogging and emailing and tweeting and editorializing about her is that it misses the point.

Before I get to my big reveal and tell you what that point is I want to list some assorted facts about the Chua family.
  • Amy Chua is a professor at Yale
  • Jed Rubenfield (her husband) is also a professor at Yale
  • The family has two Samoyeds named Coco and Pushkin
  • Chua's Wikipedia page has 1,500 words about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

If you haven't already, you ought to read Sophia Chua-Ruenfeld's open letter to all of us in the NY Post. I want to caution you against doing so if you have eaten recently though, the nausea brought on by an 18 year old referring to 'Tiger Mom' and 'Daddy' unironically may be too much to bear.

Lets talk about David Brooks instead of Amy Chua for a moment. He wrote a wonderful piece of social satire in the most recent New Yorker. Wait, that isn't satire, it's a book excerpt? Oh God, I think I just threw up in my mouth. Lest you waste your time or be overcome by a desire to injure yourself, here is the last paragraph, which is really all you need to read anyway:
After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.
Sorry for subjecting you to that, but I had to make a point: Brooks' post-epiphany Harold represents the antithessis of Sophia Chua-Ruenfeld.

Harold was granted above average moral intuition, perceptiveness, and a host of other "non rational" traits. Chua's manifesto explicitly denies her children these "cognitive revolution[s] of the past thirty years," and demands that they unrelentingly succeed in every field subject to quantitative measure. Yet Chua's children will certainly be able to have the "al-fresco lunches in Aspen or Jackson Hole between jaunts to China and the corporate board meeting" that Brooks celebrates as Harold's future (that's the reason every article mentions which prestigious colleges Sophia is considering). So why does it matter how they get to where they're going?

In what signifies either wicked cunning or vacuous egoism Chua lays out why we think it does:
We parents, including me, are all so anxious about whether we're doing the right thing. You can never know the results. It's this latent anxiety.
It's amazing to realize that A) Chua knows this and B) it is so stunningly simple. Which is why I am here to let you in on, what seems to be, an enormous secret: If you know who Amy Chua is, your parenting skills don't matter.

Here is how I know. When kids are 10 months old, their genes don't account for differences in cognitive ability (i.e. their environment does). However, by 2 years of age genes accounted for nearly 50% of the ability variation of children raised in homes of high socioeconomic status, while genes continued to account for negligible variation in mental ability variation of children in low-SES homes.

Even more simply: If you have sufficient socioeconomic status to be reading the WSJ and this blog, your parenting skills just aren't that important. Now, I'm not advocating that you stop talking to your kids and treat them as miniature CEOs who can handle their own business, but whether they play piano or go on a sleepover? That just doesn't matter to their ability. However, this same data shows that among low socioeconomic status (translation: poor) households the parents were all that mattered.

If you were wondering why the United States ranks seventeenth in reading, twenty-third in science, and thirty-first in math, I just told you. Here it is in infographic form:

So why is everyone apoplectic over Chua's parenting? Because we've been taught that parenting is key and our children will never succeed unless we do everything right. This is an illusion; however, it's an exceedingly useful one to the Wall Street Journal and everyone else who decides what we argue about. The WSJ doesn't care about maximizing the cognitive ability of kids in this country, they care about whether those kids can get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton (don't bother with Brown or Cornell) and become subscribers in the future. This is why they treat child rearing as a series of college application challenges instead of, you know, raising children. Don't fret though, the helicopter pilots over at XX Factor will defend their market share.

Nothing in this debate has anything to do with what is good for the kids emotionally or cognitively, it has everything to do with what is good for one thing: college applications. Chua made her kids play piano and violin because that's what stereotypical Asian kids at Harvard play (you should see my med school class…). Brooks' Harold did water-purification in Zambia because aid work is what stereotypical White people who go to Harvard do. The Chua's have two Samoyeds because upper class familys have rare and sophisticated dog breeds, not retreivers or German shepards (full disclosure: this is my dog). Harold met his wife in a Barnes and Noble because that's where White people in romantic comedies meet. These people aren't merely trying to make their kids fit the stereotypes, they are actively emulating the stereotypes. Welcome to America, please head to your local mall and figure out which identity you can afford.

This debate isn't about what your children want, or how to raise "good" kids, it's about which stereotype you should try to cram your child (and yourself) into in order to get them into Harvard or Princeton so that they can climb a rung or two on the stereotype ladder.

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