The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis
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.