Observations about Chinese (Chinese-American?) mothers

I agree with many of Bryan Caplan's views on parenting, and Yana can attest that I have never attempted a "dragon mother" style.  Yet I think that Bryan is overreaching a bit in rejecting virtually all of Amy Chua's claims.  The simpler view — which most Americans intuitively grasp — is that some Asian parenting styles do make kids more productive, and better at school, although it is less clear they make the kids happier.  It remains the case that most people overrate how much parenting matters in a broader variety of contexts, and in that regard Bryan's work is hardly refuted.  Still, I see real evidence for a parenting effect from many (not all) Asian-American and Asian families.

1. James Flynn argues, using evidence from tests, that Chinese families boosted their children's IQs by intensive parental techniques.  Based on some very specific research, he claims the parenting was causal and the IQ boost followed.  I hardly consider this the final word, but it's more to the point that the adoption studies and the like, which don't try to measure this effect directly and don't have measures of strict Asian parenting.

2. It is obvious that some Asian parenting techniques make the children much more likely to succeed as classical musicians.  It's a big marginal effect upon whatever genetic influence there might be (and in this case the genetic influence might well be zero or very small; Chinese hardly seem genetically superior in music.)  The only question is how much longer this list can become.  What else can the parents make their kids better at, even relative to IQ?  Future engineering success?  If violin is a slam dunk, I don't see why engineering is a big stretch.

3. I suspect that Bryan and his wife do, correctly, apply the notion of "high expectations" to their children and to the benefit of those kids. 

4. Bryan, like Judith Harris, argues that the influence of parents is typically mediated through peers and peer effects.  But we should not confuse the partial and general equilibrium mechanisms here.  For any single parent, the peers may well carry the chain of influence to their child and a lot of the parenting style applied to that individual kid will appear irrelevant.  But for the culture as a whole, the peers can serve this function only because of the general influence of culture and parenting on all of the peers as a whole.  In other words, peer quality is endogenous and a single family is free-riding upon the parenting efforts of others.  That's a better model than just looking at the partial equilibrium coefficient on the parent effect and concluding that parenting doesn't matter.  This is a mistake commonly made by Harris fans.

5. As an aside, I wonder how much there is a common Chinese parenting or mothering style.  Chua, of course, is from the Philippines.  It is estimated that about 20 percent of the children are China are "abandoned" by their parents — mothers too – typically as the parents move to the cities to take better jobs.  When Chua writes, to what extent is she referring to Chinese immigrant parenting styles, uniquely suited to new situations, and derived from Chinese culture but distinct nonetheless.

6. There is a significant literature on Chinese immigrant parenting styles, based on lots of empirical evidence, but I don't see anyone giving it much of a close look.  Here is a simple and well-known piece, not about Asians per se, arguing that "authoritative parenting" leads to superior performance in school.  There is also evidence that the effects accumulate rather than disappear over time.  There is a lot of research here, often quite disaggregated in its questions, and it goes well beyond the twin studies and it does not by any means always yield the same answers.

7. I expect great things from Scott Sumner's children.


More blogging about Amy Chua. Wonderful. We needed more of this.

Wake up white man!

I am not so sure if Asian parenting style really makes better classical musicians. Those kids can do well with techniques, but not musicality.
Also sprach Analyst

I think Bourdieu's studies of authoritarian parents and student performance are also crucial here. Should we be surprised that children raised in bourgeois authoritarianism respond well to institutionalized bourgeois authoritarianism?

One thing people seem to forget is that Chua's husband is not Chinese. Her children may be getting the Chinese-mother treatment, but not the Chinese-father treatment.

"It remains the case that most people overrate how much parenting matters in a broader variety of contexts" I suspect this also applies to education -- or more to the point, in both cases the risk for both parents and teachers is that they have much more opportunity to do harm than good. I've never bought the argument that other animals' behaviors are instinctive while man's is learned. I think a good amount of, at least the larger and longer living, mammal's behavior is more learned than innate from birth.

The question I would raise here is: Do modern humans make better parents than, say, other primates?

Underlying this question probably lies a more fundamental question: how do children learn? I know there should be a lot of theory on this, as well as plenty of empirical data relating to the theories.

Of course, this also begs the question of how one defines "good parenting". Is it merely what one might call command performance -- high test scores, physical fitness, musical training, etc., or do social skills, independence and a sense of personal worth matter more?

Nice article, thanks for the information.

In the Perma-Nudge World, the state is Amy Chua and we're all her miserable kids.

"Do modern humans make better parents than, say, other primates?"

Cheeta say nope!

Well, part of the reasons why they're more likely to succeed as classical musicians is because knowing a tonal language like Mandarin makes it more likely for children to have a perfect pitch.

Knowing information is only one part of being smart. Developing "executive" intelligence in the pre-frontal cortex, how to allocate time/resources, how to interact with people.....etc. is an often ignored kind of intelligence in the "high-achiever" crowds. When you have a mom acting as your "boss," you don't develop those capacities. Your kid becomes an intellectual Todd Morenovich.


"If you keep drooling over high achievers and at the same time say "all humans are equal", you may succeed in consciously fooling people but not in preventing deep rooted quasi-subconscious complexes."

*round of applause*

That's the parental dilemma in a very well expressed nutshell.

The point about Jewish people (or Ugandan-Indian immigrants to the UK, or Gujaratis for that matter) is also well made regarding self-selection and cultural capital.

Most importantly, to be an explicitly authoritarian-ambitious parent has always been a sign of lacking cultural capital. To wonder (fear?) whether it "works" or not is a sign of social anxiety. Which judging by the unprecedented blogging of this reality-tv level book, is more widespread than I thought.

The question about Amy Chua should not be how effective her methods are, but rather whether they constitute child abuse. You're debating the wrong issue ...

From my own observatins, children raised with authoritative parental styles freeze in their tracks when confronted with something they haven't seen before which requires creativity and which has no authority to turn to for advice.

At the same time, praising the kid for everything they do, including crapping in their pants, raises them to be young adults who expect A's in a college class with minimal effort on their part.

The Greeks seemed to have it right--except for their economy: aim for the middle way.

Learning the piano with discipline is child abuse? Come on... Caplan's rhetorical style is emotionally unintelligent, immature. So I don't trust his selections of the evidence. When he grows up I'll listen. In the meantime I'm not blaming his genes (or his parents). And in the extended meantime, on this issue, I'll listen to the women, because their college attainment is now consistently higher than their male counterparts. Is that monumental change heredity? Don't think sooooo....

Kids in USA, what excuse do you have of wasting time, wasting opportunities, wasting resources, and not exerting your best in things you do? What excuse do you have of under-performance?

You don't have to feel guilty about having access to clean drinking water and instant hot water. Just make sure you at least try to realize your potential. No one is asking you to become a legend, whether in music or engineering. But at least learn to locate Egypt on a map !

American society, with its obsession with labeling, "studs/jocks/losers/hotties/dorks" is responsible for a culture where skills and talents are under-valued and 'fitting-in' is all that matters. Things don't have to be mutually exclusive, wise parents ! Chua is an outlier, but so are you, on the other end.

Regarding point no 2: The classical music world is probably almost unique in its entrenched system of rewarding conservatism and weeding out risk takers.

Her children may be getting the Chinese-mother treatment, but not the Chinese-father treatment.

What, neglect interspersed with beatings?

I bet I could make my children study harder and talk back less if I made them wear shock collars. Would that make it right to do so?

There is now two adam's commenting on MR. I am definitely not the adam that commented above, so from now on I will be using ad*m.

Let's assume that in all this discussion, IQ has been corrected for - though could not find any studies doing that except the transcultural twin adoption studies that Jasson Malloy brought up above.

Then if you raise your own children in the American-Chinese style - which is wimpy compared to the mainland Chinese parenting style - they learn faster and go to a better college. Good.

That still leaves me wondering why this parenting style that was also used in mainland China during at least the last 60 years, and probably during the last centuries, is so worthy of emulation. After all, Chinese adults that were raised in this manner, in the 1960's perpetrated the largest mass murder in human history.

As for Amy Chua's kids, well, they definitely chose their parents wisely. Amy Chua’s paternal grandmother got rich opening factories in the Philippines. Her father, Leon Chua, Professor of Electrical Engineering at UC Berkeley, inventor of Chua’s Circuit and the concept of the memristor (Hewlett-Packard is currently gearing up for mass production of them, four decades after he dreamed them up) has received nine honorary doctorates. Her mother, a chemical engineering major, was valedictorian of her college class in Manila. The author herself holds an endowed chair at the nation’s most intellectually elite law school, Yale.

So does her husband, Jed Rubenfeld. (They met when they were on the Harvard Law Review.) In his spare time, Jed wrote a 2006 murder mystery novel, The Interpretation of Murder (in which Sigmund Freud plays detective), that has sold over a million copies. His father was a psychoanalyst and his mother published a biography of art critic Clement Greenberg.

You would expect less regression toward the mean in the offspring of family trees with these levels of IQ, energy, and Attention Surplus Disorder. (As Ms. Chua notes, "As a purely mathematical fact, people who sleep less, live more.")

As for Judith Rich Harris's 1998 fine book "The Nurture Assumption," which Bryan is much influenced by, allow me to point out that much of her research involves the ineffectualness of parents on changing the accents and personalities of their children.

In my 1998 review in National Review, I pointed out that personality is hardly the end all of what parents influence:

To show that peers outweigh parents, she repeatedly cites Darwinian linguist Steven Pinker's work on how young immigrant kids automatically develop the accents of their playmates, not their parents. True, but there's more to life than language. Not until p. 191 does she admit -- in a footnote -- that immigrant parents do pass down home-based aspects of their culture like cuisine, since kids don't learn to cook from their friends. (How about attitudes toward housekeeping, charity, courtesy, wife-beating, and child-rearing itself?) Not until p. 330 does she recall something else where peers don't much matter: religion! Worse, she never notices what Thomas Sowell has voluminously documented in his accounts of ethnic economic specialization. It's parents and relatives who pass on both specific occupations (e.g., Italians and marble-cutting or Cambodians and donut-making) and general attitudes toward hard work, thrift, and entrepreneurship.

Nor can peers account for social change among young children, such as the current switch from football to soccer, since preteen peer groups are intensely conservative. (Some playground games have been passed down since Roman times). Even more so, the trend toward having little girls play soccer and other cootie-infested boys sports did not, rest assured, originate among peer groups of little girls. That was primarily their dads' idea, especially sports-crazed dads without sons.

Amy Chua's background is explained in her important first book World on Fire. Her grandparents emigrated from Fujian province in China to Manila, where they joined what Chua famously calls the "market-dominant minority" of Overseas Chinese.

My review in VDARE.com of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother explains the links between Chua's latest book and her first book.

And here's my review of Chua's first book in 2003:

"[P]eer quality is endogenous and a single family is free-riding upon the parenting efforts of others." I think you're saying that each parent has a small but non-zero effect on his/her children, while children have stronger effects on each other (i.e., among peers). So parents are affecting not only their own children but indirectly, through peer influence among children, *other people's children*. Parenting matters more than Judith Harris, Bryan Caplan, etc., recognize, because they ignore these indirect effects on other people's children.

I do wonder, though, about *magnitudes*. For any given parent, aren't these indirect effects of his/her parenting activities also quite small?

It's somewhat odd to have people who presumably believe in evolution ignore how it might be relevant here. What country has been domesticated longest, and also puts a high premium on following rules, being dutiful, and working hard? What country attracted rebels, misfits, criminals, and adventurers? This could all be genetic, with genes driving culture and thus performance, rather than culture driving performance.

Why do people still believe that absolute pitch will somehow explain anything about musical performance. Relative pitch is the only one that matters for being a musician. Nor will pressuring your child lead them to be classical musicians, a horrible job, one that people only take because they love music.

Also YanSHen, yes there are rapidly diminishing returns on studying for the SAT, but it can be studied for, and the variance in studying is huge for the SAT. We're talking orders of magnitude, many people spend no time, to a few hours studying for SAT's. The amount of time others spend, like one's practicing "Chinese Mothering" is easily 100 times more, some could even be over 1000 hours of preparation. Despite what some try to claim, the SAT's are definitely able to be studied for to a significant degree, maybe not taking an 800 to 1600, but easily 50 points or more.


Someone who's both highly accomplished and who feels (rightly or wrongly) that she's on the high end of performance given her own potential has a lot of reasons to worry about generational decline. Regression to the mean exists even if all your grandparents were pretty bright, and it includes not only intelligence, but also work ethic and other personality traits.

"Asians in a foreign country like to excel at science, math, music because there is only one answer for a math problem, one outcome for an experiment, "

Nonsense - if you are solving a unresolved math problem or making a new scientific discovery (and is in that way that you can EXCEL at science or maths - solving unsolved problems), you have to invent by yourself how to solve the problems, and, at the beginiing thare are many possible ways to "attack" the problem (yes, perhaps only of this ways is correct, but you don't know what is).

Other point - I never noticed any particular "high-achievness" in sino-portugueses / macaenses, nor any particular propension for maths or science. I suspect the US vision of chineses is largely a result of bias in immigration

Wrong and wrong.

PISA 2009 Math

Shanghai 600
Singapore 562
Hong Kong 555
Taiwan 543

(Chinese average 565)

Macau 525
OECD average 496
UK 492
Portugal 487

(Portugal + Chinese average 526)

Note that Macau's score is exactly what you would predict by averaging Portugal and the four ethnic Chinese entities. Macau also obtained good science scores in PISA 06 and PISA 09.

And it's clearly just not elite Chinese immigrants who are dominating these math and science tests.

Interesting. Steve Sailer is still pushing the "East Asian SAT scores are inflated because of test prep" meme. Here's what he ignores. Tests like the SAT are fairly g-loaded and thus less amenable to preparation. In the Bell Curve, for instance, Charles Murray showed that there were rapidly diminishing returns to test prep for both the SAT Verbal and the SAT Math sections. Perhaps Sailer would like to empirically challenge that assertion?

Yan Shen:

- Assume g is fixed through life and between group differences are static (i.e. consistent with a heritable explanation)
- Assume Chinese have higher SAT results and show relative improvement over time
- How g loaded can the tests actually be while still having Chinese show relative improvement (or anyone show differential relative improvement), without a change in their population?

Can you grasp what I'm saying here? Is there a flaw in the logic that leads me to produce this question from my statements?

"why on earth would you make that calculation and what relevance and meaning has it?"

The demographics of Macau would suggest it's well on its way to being just another Chinese city, but to the extent that it is a cultural and genetic hybrid between China and Portugal, its apparent intermediacy to these two regions on the PISA tests is suggestive of a creole cognition.

The difference between 100 (Hong Kong) and 400 years (Macau) of colonization?

As a Chinese-American educator and cognitive scientist, I'm a bit frustrated by the continued emphasis in the media (and the ensuing discussion provoked by the media coverage) on extreme dichotomies and generalizations. The parenting "style" that Chua describes is a mix of Chinese and American (well described by Prof. Timothy Yu at http://tympan.blogspot.com/2011/02/paper-tiger-mo... and it's neither all good nor all bad. It contains elements of both, and no Chinese, American, or other parent need assume one extreme at the expense of the other. Yes, many of the specific practices and values that Chua describes are more strongly associated with Chinese and other East Asian cultures, but they're not unique to them. There's plenty of research on these components of parenting, teaching, and learning that has been conducted within the U.S. on American kids. As that research shows, high expectations, belief in effort, and extended practice lead to success, whereas coercion, punishment for failure, and stifling of autonomy can hinder it (and potentially produce damaging motivational and emotional scars).

I've posted a fuller analysis of the issues and research on my own blog (http://etherlesslearning.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/beyond-tigers-dragons-and-sheep-in-parenting-practices/).

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the psychological risk and harm inherent in this type of parenting "style". I believe it's widely suspected that mental diseases of certain demographics is widely underreported due to cultural shame and other factors. In fact, I know a PE fund that invested in both "buxiban" (cram schools) and psychological counseling in China. Selling both the poison and the cure, as they described it.

As for my own experience in getting to a top university as a teenager, I was among the clique of students where B's represented family discord and failure. I knew several students who cut themselves to see blood, and teenage girls who were amazingly (and surreptitiously) promiscuous. All were elite academically performing students who left their scars off their college applications. I also knew students from another school that were arrested for stealing tests; they were very nearly disowned after. "Better Luck Tomorrow", the joke went, was a documentary.

A 100% weighting on "measurable performance" as a parenting decision is foolish. It ignores moral education, learning decency, and as others have noted, the creation of a strong and independent sense of self. When one of my parents passed away, it was an extreme struggle to find for what purpose I did anything, and motivation within me died. This is a high price to pay to be able to play a cello.

"Tiger Parenting" isn't a parenting style to be relatively compared to realistic norms. It's a form of abuse, taken at the expense of a child for the sake of insecurity, status, and "family honor" of the parent. Given the parent's own background in a difficult immigrant life may make their actions excusable, but it doesn't change the fact that it is still very wrong.

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