Does Asian Parenting Cause Asian Success?
By Bryan Caplan
Scholars familiar with twin and adoption research will be sorely tempted to summarily dismiss Yale Law professor Amy Chua‘s recent defense of Chinese parenting. It’s hard to find a stauncher defender of what Judith Harris called “the nurture assumption.” Chua:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically
successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many
math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and
whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done
Chua then lists all the fun things she denied her kids, the thousands of hours of academic and musical drill, and her generous helpings of shame.
My initial reaction is exasperation. Yet another essay on parenting that doesn’t even contain the words “genes” or “heredity”? A vast literature finds that heredity is not merely part of the reason for family resemblance, but virtually the whole story. How can a professor at Yale act as if this consensus doesn’t even exist? Nevertheless, there are two big reasons why Chua’s piece deserves a closer look.
First, Asian parenting techniques seem so extreme, and Asian success seems so pronounced, that most people find it counterintuitive to deny causation.
Second, and more importantly, twin and adoption researchers have largely neglected Asian populations. The vast majority of twin and adoption studies focus on largely white samples in largely white countries. Bruce Sacerdote famously studied the effect of (largely white) American parenting on Korean adoptees, but to the best of my knowledge this social experiment has never been reversed.
When you put these two points together, the defender of the efficacy of Chinese parenting could easily say, “Aha! So you can’t disprove our intuition that the extremely strict discipline typical of Asian parents causes Asians’ adult success.” And taken literally, this defender of Chinese parenting is right. Existing twin and adoption evidence can’t “disprove” their claims. But the same holds for all empirical research. Even in a double-blind experiment, the nay-sayer can still stonewall, “Your results work for your sample. But my sample is slightly different, so who’s to say?” The reasonable approach isn’t to demand decisive disprove of your initial position, but to calmly weigh the available evidence. By this standard, Chua’s claims about Asian parenting fare poorly.
1. There are plenty of strict non-Asian parents. Chua warns us that, “[W]hen Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers,” but she also admits that:
I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean,
Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too.
Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born
in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise.
So Chinese-like parenting styles are already in the data after all. If strict parenting worked the wonders Chua claims, existing twin and adoption research should detect big effects. They don’t. Educational and financial success does run in families, but the reason is almost entirely heredity.
2. Why does the power of Asian parenting seem so intuitive to Asians and non-Asians alike? The reason, most probably, is that people make a big distinction between intelligence, where they admit that heredity plays a major role, and character, which they imagine is entirely environmental.
They’re very wrong to make this distinction. Not only do genes have a strong effect on character, but upbringing does not. By the time they grow up, adoptees’ work ethic and discipline moderately resemble their biological parents’ – and barely resemble their adoptes parents’ at all. See Loehlin’s chapter in Unequal Success for the best single summary of the evidence.
3. Even more importantly, twin and adoption research shows that heredity has a stronger overall effect on educational and financial success than existing measures of intelligence, character, and everything else predict. Identical twins have much more similar incomes than fraternal twins – far more than their extra IQ and personality similarity can explain. The lesson: Genes demonstrably affect success in more ways that we currently understand. It’s cheating to give parenting the residual.
4. Before we marvel at Asians’ success, it’s worth getting a handle on how successful they really are. They definitely earn more than whites, but only about 15% more. Yes, that pools all Asians together, including recent immigrants. But even if we double this figure to 30%, it’s a modest difference that genetically-influenced differences in IQ, personality, and the like can easily explain.
5. Chua doesn’t mention a minority that has been far more successful than Asians in general and the Chinese in particular: Jews. How would she explain Jews’ vast educational and financial success? Yes, Jewish parents have been known to stress education and nag their kids to become doctors and lawyers. But very few are strict enough to meet Chua’s standards. How do they pull it off? If you’ll buy a genetic explanation for the Jews, why not for the Chinese? And if Jewish parents were far stricter, wouldn’t we be quick to falsely attribute Jewish success to Jewish parenting?
The upshot is that the tough love that Chua heralds is not just pointless, but cruel. The defender of Chinese parenting might retort, “Well, at least it does no lasting damage.” But only massive future benefits could conceivably justify the truly sadistic things that Chua proudly admits she did for her children’s alleged benefit. Here’s how she once taught her daughter piano:
I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right
through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for
water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and
I lost my voice yelling…
To my mind, the mere memory of this experience is lasting damage of a heinous kind.