A couple of years ago, during the uproar over Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Wall Street Journal asked if a regimen of no play dates, TV or computer games, combined with endless hours of music practice, could create happy kids? The answer, not surprisingly, is no, according to study published in the March 2013 Asian American Journal of Psychology.
The study, which followed 444 Chinese-American families for eight years, found that parents who fit the “Tiger Mom” profile had kids with lower grade point averages and educational achievement than children raised by more easygoing parents. They also had a lower sense of family obligation and were more likely to feel depressed or alienated. Furthermore, contrary to the stereotype, the study found that the majority of Chinese-American mothers do not even fit the tiger mom profile.
It is predictable that Chua’s form of parenting can lead to depression and alienation. After all, she sees no harm in calling children “fatty” or “trash,” even in front of friends, family and strangers (according to her piece in the Wall Street Journal), and believes that excoriating, punishing and shaming a child for “substandard” performance is an appropriate and effective way to achieve improvement. Yet many might be stunned by the evidence that it is associated with poorer academic achievement, rather than higher. However, when one looks at the characteristics prized by Chua, even the poorer academic achievement starts to make sense. For example, she says that Western moms are more likely to teach their children that learning is fun, whereas no Chinese mother would ever say such a thing: “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.”
If children embrace the idea that learning is not fun and just a lot of work, they may learn how to “play” the academic game (e.g., score well on tests) without developing the motivation to delve more deeply into concepts, think creatively and independently or how to ask critical questions. Consequently, they may learn how to get the right answers without understanding why, let alone how to apply their knowledge to unique or unexpected situations. Perhaps more troubling, however, is the possibility that the chronic stress and anxiety induced by Chua’s style of parenting could also be producing long-term physiological, cognitive and emotional damage through overexposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair memory and cognitive function and increase the risk of developing hypertension, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Furthermore, the idea that children never want to work is ludicrous. My 5-year-old son can work with his Legos for hours at a time, constructing creatures, vehicles, robots and buildings, precisely because it is fun. He experiments with different parts, like gears, axels, hinges and levers, to solve numerous architectural and mechanical problems. He may not be learning the piano or expository writing from this play, but he is certainly honing his mathematical, scientific and creative skills, as well as his manual dexterity. More importantly, he sees this play as a learning experience and proudly proclaims that he is being a scientist because he understands that he is using his senses, logic and experimentation to solve novel problems. He also loves school (at least so far). Rather than being a chore he grudgingly fulfills to avoid punishment or disapproval, he is excited by the learning and this motivates him to persevere with challenges and to take chances that broaden his learning.
The assumption that children never want to work and that every minute of their lives must be organized and controlled by an all-knowing parent is not just grossly exaggerated and cynical. It can also lead to familial and social dysfunction and become a self-fulfilling prophecy for children. How does one develop self-confidence, intrinsic motivation or independence when she is assumed up front to be a lazy shirker, constantly in need of monitoring and scrutiny, and never given the chance to make her own choices and her own mistakes?