Different attitudes about parenting, possibly deriving from different attitudes about self

Tyler Cowen discusses his and Bryan Caplan’s reaction to that notorious book by Amy Chua, the Yale law professor who boasts of screaming at her children, calling them “garbage,” not letting them go to the bathroom when they were studying piano, etc. Caplan thinks Chua is deluded (in the sense of not being aware of research showing minimal effects of parenting on children’s intelligence and personality), foolish (in writing a book and making recommendations without trying to lean about the abundant research on child-rearing), and cruel. Cowen takes a middle view in that he doesn’t subscribe to Chua’s parenting strategies but he does think that his friends’ kids will do well (and partly because of his friends’ parenting styles, not just from their genes).

Do you view yourself as special?

I have a somewhat different take on the matter, an idea that’s been stewing in my mind for awhile, ever since I heard about the Wall Street Journal article that started this all. My story is that attitudes toward parenting are to some extent derived from attitudes about one’s own experiences as a child.

Consider Cowen, Caplan, and Chua. Without any personal knowledge of these people (well, I did meet Caplan once and gave him comments on his book, but I’d hardly call that “personal knowledge”), my impression is that Cowen and Caplan have (justifiably) high self-esteem, that they feel that they’ve risen to their current successes largely from their own efforts. They are appreciative of their middle-class backgrounds to the extent that these backgrounds gave them the foundation and opportunity to do what they love, and doing what they love has given them satisfaction and success. Also, their success is centered upon satisfaction. Individual faculty aside, George Mason University is not in the caliber of Harvard or even Yale (that’s not a putdown, it’s just the way it is), and Cowen and Caplan’s satisfaction in their careers has got to be coming more from their accomplishments and their intellectual influence than from having reached a certain rung on the ladder of success.

In contrast, my impression of Chua (again, I’ve not met her, nor have I read her book, so this is coming from what I’ve by others about her and her writings) is that she does not have such a high self-esteem, that despite all her accomplishments she does not feel that she is so brilliant inside. (From Steve Sailer, here’s a relevant quote from her book.) Rather than being brilliant, Chua comes from an accomplished family with a mother who pushed her, screamed at her, etc., so that look, here she is now, a rich Yale professor with a photogenic family. I’m not saying this is a fair self-assessment—my guess is that Chua actually is pretty impressive given all she’s done.

Now get back to parenting. If you come at it from Chua’s perspective, the story is clear. Take a girl who’s nothing special, give her the full “tiger parenting” treatment, and she’ll bag a brilliant and sexy husband and a Yale professorship. Think of it from Chua’s perspective: if she really had nothing going for her but the ability to focus (“I mechanically switched to economics because it seemed vaguely sciencelike. . I did well at law school, by working psychotically hard. . . . . I also wasn’t naturally skeptical and questioning; I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it. . . . “), but she has achieved such great heights, then it must be the parenting. And, again, given Chua’s life as she perceives it, much of her happiness and success derives from her parents’ pushing her in directions that are not her natural inclination.

Again, consider the Yale/GMU comparison. Back when I taught at Berkeley and it was considered the #1 statistics department, a lot of my tenured colleagues seemed to have the attitude that their highest achievement in life was becoming a Berkeley statistics professor. Some of them spent decades doing mediocre work, but it didn’t seem to matter to them. After all, they were Tenured at Berkeley. Now, I’m not saying Chua is like that—in writing this book, she’s certainly not coasting on her academic reputation—but I do think it’s natural for someone in her position to define her success based on where she stands in the academic pecking order (and, for that matter, a best-selling popular book will help here too) rather than on her accomplishments for their own sake.

But Cowen’s or Caplan’s experiences lead naturally to an opposite conclusion, which I can state in two parts: (a) If you’re a special person and you pursue your dream (and also work hard), you can achieve success, even without needing any special family background beyond love and support; (b) the most important success is individualistic, coming up with ideas that have never been expressed before. Also, Cowen and Caplan evidently enjoy their jobs in large part because they enjoy their colleagues, which is much different than Chua’s remark that she doesn’t love the law and that, around her law school colleagues, her “brain turned to sludge.” As self-made men, in some sense, Cowen and Caplan naturally have less sympathy for the idea that parents can or should mold children, and given their career paths they have no particular affinity for a plan to send a child down a rigid road to a conventional success story.

In setting up this contrast, I’m not saying Cowen-Caplan good, Chua bad. I’m saying they have different self-images and different experiences, and in particular I think Chua’s attitudes make much more sense in the context of her life (of course) than they do in the abstract (or as general advice to the would-be tiger moms out there).


I talked to someone the other day who thought it was horrible all the mean things that Chua did to her kids. I was more equanimous, taking the position that, sure, I wouldn’t call my kids “garbage” and, sure, it’s a bit weird to not let your kid go to the bathroom, but considering all the child abuse out there, it’s really not so bad. Everyone has their own view on this sort of thing, but, personally, I’d rather be called garbage than be whacked.

Still, there was something . . . Even though I couldn’t bring myself to disapprove of Chua’s parenting style, I did find her persona a bit irritating. I finally decided that what bothered me was not what she did but her attitude about it. I suspect all parents yell at their kids, but is it really something to be proud of? We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and often there are good reasons (limited-resources, bounded-rationality, that sort of thing) to do these things—but it doesn’t mean we should brag about it! If I’m in a hurry and am carrying too many things and I toss a coffee cup on to the street, maybe that’s ok, but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say what a great guy I am that I’m littering. And so on. I would certainly not criticize someone in general terms for yelling at her kids but I don’t enjoy seeing it as a point of pride. Maybe it worked for Chua (or maybe not), but the flip side of being controversial is that you’re gonna piss some people off, and this pissed me off. Fair enough.

(From the opposite direction, I was annoyed at people who criticized Chua for encouraging her kids to play piano and violin, given the extremely low probability of success if you go into these fields professionally. My impression was that one reason Chua chose these instruments was specifically because of the low probability of success! The idea is that if you learn to play piano or violin, even if you become a celebrated prodigy, even then it’s not a good idea to do it professionally. But it can still be good for your brain. And from this perspective, if the kid hates the instrument, so much the better. Then she’ll definitely not be tempted to try to play it professionally. As Charles Rosen wrote, the only good reason to be a professional musician is if you love to play music all the time.)

What’s the statistical content here??

Umm, the “Why did he write this??” question comes up a lot on this blog, basically for all the entries that don’t enter the Statistics category. The short answer is that Chua’s book is much discussed so I’d like to add my view. But the fuller justification is that I think people are, all the time, arguing this or that without reflecting on how this derives from their personal perspectives. (Yeah, yeah, I know that I’m violating my own rule here in not giving my own personal story. But that’s because this blog is about science, it’s not about me. In this as in other topics, I believe that bringing in my own story would just muddy the waters.)

P.S. My spell checker is flagging the words Cowen, Chua, putdown, and children’s. I understand the first two, and I guess I can accept that “putdown” should be “put down,” but “children’s”? That’s pretty basic English, no?

P.P.S. Caplan responds (to the parenting stuff, not the spell-checker query).

25 thoughts on “Different attitudes about parenting, possibly deriving from different attitudes about self

  1. I enjoyed this post – I agree with your analysis!

    (BTW I am now emerging from the frenzy of beginning of term – let's get lunch soon, I owe you that copy of BREEDING and also some comments on the stuff you sent me…)

  2. Probably not possible to represent the world to ourselves other than in terms of ourselves and past.

    Peirce thought it was very important for an author to divulge their background to their readers – i.e. that last Peirce reference I gave in Butchler's book (is their easy way to search comments on this blog?)

    But if "the most important success is individualistic, coming up with ideas that have never been expressed before" few could rule out Peirce as one of the most successful – even though he lived on the streets of New York for some time and almost starved to death when a student found him once.

    He also wrote from a failed persepective in his later career – trying to figure out why.

    Also, in some Asian martial arts systems, very abusive training is considered most effective and therefore loving and kind.


  3. I would suspect there is cultural component to your comparison Prof. Gelman. There has been some interesting work by Ruth Chao on the "training" aspect of East Asian parenting styles.

  4. Your observations about self-esteem and life satisfaction fit with some of the literature on cultural differences in life satisfaction. Self-esteem and friendship satisfaction are stronger predictors of overall life satisfaction in individualistic societies than in collectivistic societies. Financial success is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction in poorer countries (source). Chua is an American, but she makes a big deal about her parenting style being Chinese. If she is carrying forward the cultural values her family brought over from poor, collectivistic China, it might make sense that she'd look to achievement rather than self-esteem or peer relationships as a source of satisfaction.

  5. I guess it's plausible that there's a four-way relation between unstable self-esteem, not enjoying your work, deriving your sense of worth from your position in a pecking order, and being skeptical that work is fun for _anybody_ (and hence being sympathetic to tiger parenting). So I'm fine with your analysis of Chua's perspective and she probably would be too. I am much more skeptical of the caricature of Cowen/Caplan that you get by negating all four of those attributes, as I don't think the negations are correlated in any particular way. In particular I think this is a baroque way of predicting Caplan's position; he has a crotchet about parenting not mattering, which seems related to a genetic-determinist worldview that derives from his doctrinaire libertarianism. None of this has to do with whether he wishes he were at Harvard.

  6. This seems about right to me. People are more or less self-directed or other-directed, and "other-directed" successful people are likely to be skeptical of the idea that their kids will just naturally drift towards success.

    I also suspect that most people really have no idea why they succeed or fail. Someone who attains unusual success may look at unusual elements of their experience and naturally attribute their unusual success to their unusual experience. Such a person will tend to underplay those with similar experiences who failed to attain success, as well as those who are successful despite not having similar experiences.

  7. One core concept of evolution is that excessive similarity in a group is dangerous. Even if the environment doesn't shift to disadvantage a fully adopted trait, the "exploration" of the genetic space is much more effective when starting from a diverse set of genomes.

    Thus even if we could identify, statistically, a superior parenting technique it's not necessarily beneficial that everybody take it up. For any given child, either a loving or an aggressive parenting style could end up helping more. Some children wither under authority, some children get lost without it. And consider the second order effect: some children mimic their parents when its their turn, others swear "I won't be like them".

    One interesting way to view this story is through the lens of memetics. Chua is an advocate for a particular parenting style because she feels it worked for her. By raising her children, and spreading this gospel, she hopes more parents will teach this way, believing it'll improve the world. Others feel the opposite, and try to discourage this practice. In the long term it'll trend up and down, but in general it's probably a bad idea that everybody or nobody use this technique. We're all best served by observing all these anecdotes, and trying to make our own determination of the proper path. And by seeing where it succeeds and where it fails, we may be able to better tailor our parenting to the the specific instances of our own children.

  8. Dr. Gelman,
    Perhaps you don't see this behavior as abusive, a position I agree with. Clearly you did not experience any abuse, given your position on emotional abuse, which you expressed as:
    "but considering all the child abuse out there, it's really not so bad. Everyone has their own view on this sort of thing, but, personally, I'd rather be called garbage than be whacked."

    As someone who experienced primarily emotional and limited physical abuse, I would be cautious about trivializing emotional abuse as something preferable to physical abuse. Both leave deep scars and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. I believe you are intelligent enough to be more cautious when "stepping outside of one's school", no response is necessary.

  9. I'm not familiar with the literature on the effect of parenting on children (or the lack thereof). Maybe it's really really persuasive, and if I knew about it I would be completely convinced. But as it is, I'm not convinced at all. I think my parents had a fair amount of influence on me — not as much as my friends did, by a long shot, but not a small amount either.

    All of my friends with kids think it's important to be a good parent — most would say there is nothing more important to them — and I'm sure they'd be relieved to know if it doesn't matter much at all. Dump the kids with a sitter, let them skip their homework, let them eat cake for dinner, let them stay inside and play video games all day…if it doesn't matter, it would sure make their lives easier. But I don't think they'd really believe that parental influence isn't important, even if that's what the studies say. Andrew, I think you think you have a big influence on your kids, don't you?

  10. Amy Chua wrote that book as a reflection of her parenting experience. I think it is an excellent book.

    Many people may disagree with her parenting style and some details, but her general idea is good. everybody deserves living up to his/her full potential. As a parent, you just help the kids realize their potentials.

    Although Amy Chua may portrait herself as a common people who achieved high success through hard work. However, judging by some of her interviews in Youtube, Amy Chua looked extremely intelligent.

    Some people are upset and offended by her book maybe because of her disparaging comments to US parents and to people who are less intelligent and/or educated. There are a lot of such comments in the book.

  11. I think you should at least read the book before psychoanalyzing Amy Chua. It's good, and the tone is quite different from the WSJ article. It's clear that she purposely exaggerates her meanness/obsessiveness for comic effect, and the book describes how she eventually retreats from the strict parenting style. At the same time, she makes some good points in defense of "Chinese parenting."

  12. I certainly think there is a culture apsect as Lurking Developmentalist pointed out.

    For instance, I know in the Jewish culture a story was told that you hold your kid in one arm while "beating" him with the other.
    That is to say, you love your kid, but at the same time you don't spoil them.

    Similarly, Russell Peters depicted Asian parents for being strict.

    I think it's something called tough love, it is also something I received from my parents. You beat your kids not because you don't love them, but because you love them more, I'm sure one day, your child will appreciate it!!

  13. Lurking, Sanjay:

    I agree with you (and with Chua!) that the cultural dimension is important, and I'm sure there have been many studies of spoiled American kids vs. the strict upbringing we associate with immigrant children.


    You may be right. Cowen and Caplan (and for that matter, Chua) can feel free to correct me in the comments. In any case, I'm sure you're right that political ideology is part of the story but it also makes sense to me that self-esteem etc. is a big factor too in determining how people think about these things.


    I agree about the diversity of parenting styles, which is one reason I was not so bothered by what Chua does, even if it's not the way I would do it.

    Long time, Statc:

    I have indeed heard that some children grow up appreciating that their parents beat them. I personally would prefer to be called garbage than be whacked. On the other hand, it's true that I was never called garbage, so maybe I'm idealizing it. The grass is always greener etc.


    Thanks for the link.


    I have no idea. But it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that parents will have little impact on the child's adult personality profile, IQ, etc., but still have big effects on many other aspects of a child's life.

    Xyu, Anonymous, Steve:

    That makes sense to me that Chua is exaggerating for effect. Nonetheless, what I have to go on is her writings. In that sense, you could say that I'm discussing "the Chua character" rather than Chua herself. The Chua character seems to value her career based on its status rather than on her accomplishments, the Chua character does not seem to have a lot of self-esteem, etc., which fits the Chua character's ideas of child rearing. This is in contrast to the Cowen and Caplan characters, who seem to be starting from much different perspectives.

  14. Dear Prof. Gelman,

    I completely agree with your analysis (except for the bit about the impact of emotional abuse). I think people change their value system to value whatever they are capable of.

    In economics, entirely too many professors derive their self esteem from the number of A-publications and not their quality or their impact while a few Feynman type economists don't care about laurels or scores but derive satisfaction from themselves and their peers having learned something from their papers. This is because the first group don't have these high impact papers while the second group do.

    Also, there are entirely too many people whose highest achievement is getting an undergraduate(or any other) degree from a top school so these lot must value labels for the sake of their self esteem and they must promote that label for the rest of their lives. Whereas the self made innovators who may or may not have gone to a top school naturally have a disdain for labels and care more for actual output as a measure of quality and a source of satisfaction.

  15. Since I'm not clear on the literature, I'm not sure what is meant by the assertion that parents have little effect on their children's personality. If your parents get you to be polite to strangers, to look them in the eye when you shake hands, to say "nice" and "please", and to always offer to help clean up after dinner, have they affected your personality, or only the way others perceive your personality? I certainly think parents can train their children to do these things.

  16. Professor,
    I agree with your assessment that Ms. Chua's persona seems to lack the quiet, calm sense of reassurance and capability that would likely be present in someone who conceives of herself as brilliant and fully engaged in interesting activities.

    In one of her interviews she refers to the book not as a "how to" guide, but rather as a memoir. Taking this statement at face value, since she is not an entertainer, a politician, or (until now) a public personality, why indeed should anyone be persuaded to read her "memoir?" As such, this tome would seem a bit delusory, except to the extent that it may represent an effort, born of habit, to try to prove to whoever will listen that she is, indeed, capable and certainly not 'garbage'. Of course she's made the grade, so to speak, but maybe it just doesn't feel like it to her.

  17. Phil:

    I'm no expert on the literature either, but my guess is that the twin studies etc. show little effect of parents on childrens' personality, as defined based on scores from personality profile questionnaires.

  18. "Taking this statement at face value, since she is not an entertainer, a politician, or (until now) a public personality, why indeed should anyone be persuaded to read her "memoir?""

    Well, lots of people _have_ been persuaded to read her memoir! She's done an amazing job of turning herself into The Mom You Love to Hate. I imagine she's in discussions right now over who will play her in the movie.

    One thing to keep in mind is that tenured Yale Law School professors seem to have a lot of time on their hands relative to their energy and IQ levels. Thus, her husband, another Yale Law prof, wrote a detective novel that has sold a million copies. Another colleague, Stephen Carter, has written a whole string of detective novels. Maybe Amy just wanted to top the rest of the faculty by making herself the star of her own bestseller.

  19. Andrew, if you think that addresses my issue, then you're giving me too much credit for knowing what is on personality profile questionnaires.

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