Stupid white man criticizes smart Chinese woman

Various friends have sent me pointers to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother book and associated controversy. The author, Amy Chua, has a Samoyed and is not impressed with the American education system, ergo, she and I must have been separated at birth. I enjoyed reading about Chua, Coco, and her daughters. Now, however, I’m being peppered with links of reactions to Chua’s book. The latest is a David Brooks op-ed in the New York Times. He says that Chua’s daughters, by piling on the accomplishments, don’t have time to develop their social skills and emotional intelligence. “They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great”. How is being an average American teenager harder than becoming a concert pianist?

“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”

As the Samoyed Coco has no doubt mastered all of the above “social tests” that Brooks sets forth, I suppose he will be writing a recommendation for the bitch to attend Yale. She has demonstrated superior ability to those Chinese-American kids who have mere “book learning”.

I wonder if Brooks has visited unemployment offices lately. There are plenty of folks collecting checks who have wonderful social skills, who get along well with 14-year-old girls, and who have the audacity to think big. Sadly, however, their lack of measurable or discernible skills is keeping them from getting a job. Consider the person who excels at standardized tests, but lacks social skills. He passes an exam, gets a government job, and cannot be fired until he retires at age 52 with a full pension. Let’s assume that his lack of social skills prevent him from being productive, as Brooks suggest. That’s sad for the taxpayers, but it does not affect his ability to collect a paycheck. Let’s consider a driven test monkey who gets through medical school and becomes a radiologist. Will a hospital refuse to hire him because he can’t prove that 14-year-old girls like him? Given the small number of physicians per capita in the U.S., that seems unlikely. How about a numbers wizard who wants to work at a hedge fund? Is she going to encounter a 14-year-old girl executive who won’t hire her because she played the piano at Carnegie Hall like Sophia Chua rather than hanging out at the mall?

A person with good social skills may arguably be happier due to having a more pleasant spouse and having more fun day-to-day, but that wasn’t Brooks’s point. He was arguing that Chua’s daughters, though beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished, are lacking in some sort of productivity-enhancing achievement that Americans with complacent non-Chinese mothers possess. I.e., Brooks argues that Dean Vernon Wormer was wrong when he said that “fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son”.

[I haven’t read the book yet, but I doubt that I’ll feel sorry for any kids who have grown up with Samoyeds in the house.]

[Update: I realize that I had this exact debate about five years ago. A friend and I walked past some kids player soccer. She stopped and looked approvingly. “This is so great for them. They’re building all kinds of teamwork and social skills that will help them in business.” I replied “You’re absolutely right. That’s why Nigeria and Argentina are the richest countries in the world.”]

26 thoughts on “Stupid white man criticizes smart Chinese woman

  1. “Once, her daughters gave her birthday cards of insufficient quality. Chua rejected them and demanded new cards.” Performing well under excruciating pressure of being punished or rejected entirely by their mother. Interesting but myopic approach to parenthood. What happens the day they cannot perform well enough (in their own or someone else’s mind)?

  2. I’ll never forget when as kids a Chinese-American friend said, “I would have been left handed, had not my mother changed me.”

    I also find Brooks’ analogy bizarre — I have sometimes used the exact same teenage girl metaphor to describe why I can’t stand the academic study of law. Yes, it is incredibly complex, like a teenager’s high school web of conspiracies and minutely detailed coolness hierarchies, all of which, like, say, American tax law, would take years and a lot of thought to sort out. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t both inane and unrewarding things to spend time on!

  3. A friend of mine just got a nursing degree in radiology and she says there are no jobs at all out there, a complete reversal from 3-4 years ago when she was starting.

  4. I can’t help pointing out a glaring exception… President Obama. His rise to power seems to argue more for the importance of social skills and the audacity to think big (or at least for someone to think big), than it does for the importance of “measurable and discernible skills.” Obama certainly has skills, but I’d argue his skill set is vastly different than that of Tiger Mom’s children. I guess parents subscribing to Tiger Mom’s child raising techniques might have to offer their children a disclaimer like, “look, kids, you’ll probably never be President of the U.S. (though once U.S. Presidents probably looked more like Tiger children); you will, however, be a productive member of society, be able to stand on your own achievements, and be an easy feature story for ‘soft-skill’ advocates.” I’m interested to hear what Chua’s thoughts are on raising children with a Rhodesian Ridgeback, rather than a Samoyed.

  5. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on it, but I come from a faraway land where parents, mine especially, were pushy and had expectations. I have no idea about my social skills, and I have to say my parents did not expect any of their kids to do something we did not want to do already, but one damn good outcome of that education is that I have been drilled to believe that if I fail at something, it’s because I did not work hard enough, not because some special limitation in skill or cognition I might have.

    Being told many times over ‘it’s not that hard, you’re just being lazy, and we expect much better from you’ might sting a bit, but does pay dividends in the end.

    Two caveats: no matter how strict my parents, they would probably qualify as pussycats compared to Dr Chua’ standards. Furthermore we did not have a Samoyed.

  6. Gen: Thanks for that pointer to Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld’s article. It does seem as though she has suffered terribly. There is really nothing worse than being young, attractive, healthy, skilled, expressive, and surrounded by friends and family.

    Andy: Obama was admitted to Harvard Law School, so he presumably scored well above average on some standardized tests (though a Chinese/white-American would have to do much better to get through the American university system, due to their explicit policies of racial discrimination against Chinese and white applicants). More to the point, as you imply, there aren’t too many jobs for “President of the United States” or “Movie Star” or “King of Rock and Roll” so it may be much more sensible to plan for a career as a dentist than to, for example, try to do everything that the young Elvis Presley did.

    sv: Sorry to hear about your friend. RNs, sadly, are not as scarce as physicians. What geographical area has your friend searched? There are almost always corners of the country that are short of qualified nurses and doctors. They might not be places with a vibrant cultural nightlife, but they usually pay doctors, at least, much better than hospitals in major metropolitan areas.

  7. I will adopt Brooks’s argument in my company. I will encourage employees to have sleepovers to improve their social skills. Playing video games will be mandatory. Wednesday will be company-wide arts and crafts day. Striving to fulfill their potential and advance their career will dissuaded. As a father of a fourteen year old well socialized daughter, I can tell you with authority that Brooks is a moron.


    An alternate perspective on whether strict parenting causes academic success.

    Is practicing music for hours on end really more productive than a sleepover? Is it at all more productive than playing game of soccer with some friends at school?

    Competitive classical music is a lot like competitive sports. Playing in a youth orchestra takes talent, discipline and skill, just like playing for a high-school football team. Both can be richly rewarding experiences, as long as you accept that they’re supposed to be fun and aren’t likely to lead to a job.

    I also used to think that “soft skills” were a sociological fabrication by people who aren’t any good at math (invoked to justify their salary). Then I had to work with people like Sheldon from ‘the big bang theory’…

    There’s something to be said for having social skills.

  9. joecanuck: Thanks for the link. I’m familiar with some of the twins studies and genetic influence on personality and believe that the author correctly cited them. However, there is one big flaw in there where the guy asks “How would she explain Jews’ vast educational and financial success?” and characterizes Jews as “a minority that has been far more successful than Asians in general and the Chinese in particular”. shows the household Jewish income was 19 percent higher than the average American household income, but Jewish median age was substantially higher. Older people tend to have higher incomes, if only for obvious reasons such as “typical 23-year-old has not earned an MD yet”. (This is one reason that statistics on Hispanics in the U.S. are flawed; a 17-year-old is not likely to have as high an income as a 40-year-old (see for a table; native-born Hispanics have a median age of 17; white non-Hispanics were at 40).)

    Chinese-Americans have not had the same number of generations in the U.S. to build up family success, yet properly adjusted for median age, may already be more financially successful than Jews and, if not for colleges that admit students based on race, would already dominate our elite universities. (See for how the director of admissions at MIT said “It’s possible that Henry Park looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of grades and activities and temperament … yet another textureless math grind.”)

  10. I have 15 month old son and a five year old daughter in kindergarten so this post sparked my interest. I think Chua and Brooks both have good points (Brooks just made his point like a media troll, which is part of his job, generate buzz). But I’ll admit she pissed me off when I first read her initial critique. But she’s correct that white America coddles its children but I think this type of book just encourages fear of the Asian kid.

  11. With all sincerity, you are a national resource. Your update paragraph was great.

    If you care, the form of argument is

    “B because A” in colloquial english is usually the conditional


    if you form the contrapositive
    !B -> !A

    then show
    !B and A

    that’s your [highly effective] rebuttal.

    I’ve found its one of the more difficult forms of argument to come up with on the spot, but possibly the most effective in action.

  12. There is also a dark side to Tiger mom:

    Also from personal experience, a good friend of mine who is a vice principle at a major high school, said that he has to council a lot of asian parents that they are putting pressure on their kids to the point where the kids are ready to jump off a bridge.

    From reading the article by Sophia Chua it is hard to tell if she is just saying what her parents want her to say, you would probably have to interview some of her friends to find out what the real story is.

    On the other side sleep overs are not going to develop any useful skills. Intense mental focus at school or work should be balanced with a physical activity that you enjoy, sitting on a couch playing video games does not count. Activities like playing a sport or doing outdoor activities (hiking, skiing, climbing, sailing and etc.) will allow your mind to rest and be ready for the next mental challenge. If you like concert piano, good for you, but it sounds like Sophia was forced to like it from a very early age. From my experience, another benefit of outdoor physical activity is that it allows your brain to think through some of the problems that you have been working on and come up with a solution that you did not considered why chained to a desk.

  13. Now I read Brook’s op-ed and Sophia’s response in the NYP, and I’ve to say that I’m dissapointed with Brook’s use of I.Q. to measure intelligence, which is probably one of the most obtuse scales. Now having said that this Chue controversy sounds just like another educational theory on how to raise the next generation of productive professionals. And no I haven’t read the book, however I find it anectodal based on an American-Chinese( whatever that means) woman raising her daughters her own way although helped by Chinese culture, and notice there is no boys mention, which is an entire different ball-game.

    However I do believe culture and profession plays a part in how members of society predispose themselves to study subjects and contribute to innovation. For example take Japan, which America is usually compare to, its hierarchy culture of achievement prevents innovation since in order to start something new one must expect failure or indeed a lot of failure before anything innovative happens. Thus if the culture expects all As through college you would’ve never have gotten Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc,. the latter two started by college drop-outs, which I highly doubt would have happened in Japan.

    America probably has the most optimistic spirits last time I checked when it comes to starting new small businesses or taking chances on ideas, nonetheless it still needs to solve the beauracratic immigration problem, and it’s inability to identify talent—which is absurd. The bickering in D.C. over government spending and what to do about the deficit, which points to the previous point, there is a need for young people to pay the debt–or find new suckers to buy bonds. Also health insurance has to be either privatice or Universal, but how is the population going to pay for it? And could I go on— no system of government, nor economical has been perfect. I hope Chua’s daughters, which seem like average elitist girls, grow up to solve those problems, or perhaps they’ll end up sunbathing in Cancun thanks to Tiger Mom.

  14. Last year I went to a conference, and one of the neuroscience researchers said that videogames (I think first-person shooters, more specifically) are the only kind of activity/hobby that has measurable & lasting positive effects on intelligence outside of the hobby itself. The US navy seems to agree

    Basically, chess develops a person’s intelligence to play chess, but first person shooters are more generic. As a decent chess player who hasn’t played first-person shooters since Doom 2 in the 90’s, I feel jealous of the kids — their ability to reason quickly impresses me.

  15. Phil, you remind me every day why I should have gone into government instead of private industry. Anyway, I have to say, my experience in business has taught me the importance of “social skills”, although I prefer to call them “political skills”, since “social skills” seems to imply just the ability to be friendly and to communicate clearly. “Political skills” means being able to avoid backstabs and betrayals, to discern people’s actual motives, rather than the motives they say they have, and so on. Sales & marketing skill is now mandatory for all citizens, since job-hunting *is* sales & marketing and is much more difficult than it used to be. Then there are things like salary negotiation, which is not a straightforward rational process but “a psychological staring contest” (as one friend of mine, who is very good at it and earns 3 times as much money as me, put it), and then there is office politics — reading facial expressions, so for example, you can figure out that one of your co-workers is going into the manager’s office every day and blaming all the problems in the software development process on you *before* you get fired. And so on. Modern business is very cutthroat and people play a mean game of ‘hard ball’ — and with good reason, given the alternative is to be one of those unemployed “loser” people you mock so often in your postings.

    Now I will grant you, perhaps, from a *societal* standpoint, it might be better if everybody focused on book learning. But from an *individual* in modern society, where political skill is *so* essential to survival, I think it is a big mistake to neglect it. For a society, having a bunch of skilled politicians who don’t know how to actually build anything or accomplish anything might not be very good.

  16. Wayne: Thanks for the comment. I hope that I don’t mock the unemployed. I have a lot of sympathy for my fellow American citizens and would help them if I could (though I think it is insane to pay people to stay home for two years and play Xbox rather than using the money allocated for the 99 weeks of unemployment and using it to help folks relocate, learn additional skills, etc.). Many of the folks who are unemployed have been let down by our schools. The taxpayers put in enough money to fund fantastic schools, but the money was looted out by bureaucrats and teachers more interested in collecting a paycheck than in figuring out why 50 percent of the pupils learn almost nothing.

  17. Would playing team sports not have the same benefit as video games and building “Fluid Intelligence”, plus solving the obesity problem?

  18. Well, at least these social skills are now more valuable in college than academic proficiency:
    see Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
    “Drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates are failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master.”

  19. My favorite rebuttal to the tiger mother is this

    One point (among many) the author makes is that Chua’s children are still teenagers so who knows what kind of adults they will turn out to be.

    My own thoughts are that the most successful people know how to work hard and motivate others to work hard too (i.e. leaders). The leadership model that Chua is teaching to her daughters is the exact opposite way to lead and motivate others in a corporate environment.

  20. Ryan: Thanks for the link. Any article where the author (she calls herself “Dr. De Mars” though she was not in fact smart enough to go to medical school) says, near the beginning, “I have a Ph.D.”, you can be pretty sure that the rest will be deeply flawed. Her first and only falsifiable argument against Chua is that “It is clearly impossible that every child in China is number one in the class, unless every classroom in the country has a thirty-way tie for first”. Chua wasn’t talking about sending her children to school in China, where they’d have to compete against other kids with Chinese mothers. She was talking about sending them to school in the U.S., where they’d be stacked up against TV-watching Xbox-playing kids with American mothers. Kind of like the U.S. invading Grenada (let’s give Ronald Reagan credit for not starting any wars against countries that could kick our ass).

    In the middle of the article she implies that there is something less than than conventionally successful about her daughter, who completed USC at age 24 and then got a union job as a Los Angeles schoolteacher. shows that her daughter, once she completes her online Master’s from University of Phoenix, will be earning $79,490 per year plus pension and benefits that may be worth another $80,000 per year (depending on your theories of life expectancy and investment returns) for working 9 months, i.e., a monthly salary of nearly $18,000 in a job from which she cannot be fired for incompetence or laziness. Considering that a school day is 6 hours, that’s about $136 per hour or 8.5 times the U.S. median hourly wage of $16/hour (a wage that applies to a worker who can be fired at any time for any reason). If my kid earned 8.5X what a typical American earned, could not be fired for any reason other than a criminal conviction, and had an inflation-adjusted pension guaranteed by all of the assets of a state, I wouldn’t apologize for him or her.

    Towards the end of the article she celebrates herself as a college applicant. She didn’t have a great GPA but “an intense desire to learn” so the bureaucrats at Washington University let her in. She notes that “I doubt many universities would admit a student like me today”, but doesn’t give the brutal stats. When I applied to MIT in 1978, fully half of the applicants were admitted. The U.S. population has grown by nearly 50 percent and the world population has nearly doubled. Education and preparation for kids around the world has improved. The number of prestigious universities is about the same, so competition is much more intense. Chua prepared her daughters for that intense competition and they are apparently walking over 99+ percent of other kids their age.

    Dr. De Mars (whenever a person introduces himself as a “doctor” at a social event, my friend David always pulls the person aside and says “I get this terrible burning sensation whenever I go to the bathroom; what do you think it could be?”) says that Chua is a pinhead because she isn’t preparing her children to “be themselves and to mold the world to fit” and do whatever they love. But that isn’t responsive to the cited article by Chua, which starts off saying “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids”. Chua is explicitly addressing the question of how to prepare a kid to be “successful” in the standard American sense of “fancy degree, high paying job, prestige”.

  21. Phil, I think your observations about the quality of education are pretty accurate.

    Regarding unemployment, I probably should not have used the word “mock”; what I am reacting to in that you seem to believe people are unemployed because they are unskilled — a partial truth, as some people are indeed unemployed because of their lack of skill. However as I understand it, we have a situation where there is depressed aggregate demand, throughout the economy, and the evidence of this is that we don’t have any profession or any sector of the economy where wages are rising to compensate for a skills shortage in that area. (The high salaries in government that you frequently point out are due to various forms of corruption, in my view, not to a skills shortage). In my own case, I’m currently employed, but when I was unemployed, it was because of my lack of skill — but not my lack of skill at programming computers (my profession) — it was my lack of skill at office politics. So I’ve learned the hard way that political skill is the most important life skill.

    And I would even argue that because our education system does so poorly and we are surrounded by … i was going to say stupid people, but let’s say, people who lack critical thinking skills … as we are surrounded more and more by people who lack critical thinking skills, success in life is going to be determined more and more by persuasion skills, emotional manipulation skills, ability to play high-stakes political games, etc, and not by objectively measurable skills or intelligence. (For another cynical take, see ).

    Your right about the intensifying competition, but, if you ask me, American youth are responding to it, just not in the way that you think they should — by studying harder and becoming smarter. It appears to me that American youth are responding by cheating more, and by becoming less empathetic and more narcissistic. I can point you to articles about the research showing that these changes are real, if you’d like. My theory, which I admit I can’t prove, is that honesty is maladaptive in the current environment, while cheating is adaptive, empathy is maladaptive in the current environment, while narcissism is adaptive, so people growing up are adopting the more adaptive traits.

  22. I am convinced there is a way to find a compromise between an average American teenager and a concert pianist. And every careful parent must be able to find the balance between his or her aspirations and the actual capacity of their children to do well in every aspect of their lives. But this balance can only be found by supporting and encouraging the children instead of using the oppressive methods that Amy promotes in her book.

  23. Jay: First of all, there is no evidence that Amy Chua “promotes” her style of parenting in her book. My friends who’ve read the book say that it is a memoir of her experience as a parent, not a textbook for other parents to follow. Second, “compromise” and “balance” sound good, but people with mediocre skills are probably the best example of compromise and balance. A Toyota Camry has the best compromise and balance of any car, but that doesn’t make it the world’s best car. Chua, apparently, thought her children would be happier if they were excellent at some things. Until we all read the book we shouldn’t assume that she is insisting that all American parents get off the couch, turn off the TV, and push their children to develop a skill.

    I found which says that the average American who watches TV does so for 151 hours per month. Chua says in the WSJ that she did not let her kids watch TV. “Compromise” and “balance” would have had them watching 75 hours of TV per month, half the U.S. average. Over 18 years, that’s 16,200 hours. Do we believe that the Chua daughters would have been improved by watching TV for 16,200 hours?

  24. “Chua is explicitly addressing the question of how to prepare a kid to be ‘successful’ in the standard American sense of ‘fancy degree, high paying job, prestige”.”

    Yesterday I watched the movie Race To Nowhere, talking about stressed-out school kids who, among other things, take stimulant drugs to be able to handle 4+ AP courses a term so they can get into a school that employers respect. I understand many kids don’t need to resort to stimulants to be able to handle such a course load, but the ones who do need the stimulants seem to be trying pretty hard already.

    Phil, I know the stress felt by some fraction of high school kids wasn’t the point of your blog post (or David Brooks’s), but I would be interested in seeing another blog post with your review of that movie. Amy Chua’s children seem to have done just fine (so her parenting approach might have been justified), but at what point do demands on kids become excessive? What standards are reasonable for everyone to achieve (i.e. maybe basic arithmetic by 5th grade, chromatic scales), and which should be left to those more vocationally inclined (i.e. maybe algebra, concert playing, foreign languages…)?

    Finally — and this is tied to both Amy’s article and to Brook’s rebuttal — below is the take of Yishan Wong, a successful director of engineering at Facebook and good piano player. He is not impressed with Amy Chua’s parenting style, and not entirely grateful for his own parents’ either — and seems to agree with Brooks that this style of parenting stifles creativity and love for the activity in question.

    Personally, I just think that we will always find Asians who are grateful to their parents for their parenting style (i.e Amy Chua’s daughter), and other who resent it despite being successful by any modern standards (Yishan Wong).

  25. Phil: I’ve now come full-circle back to a website that you created because of your Samoyeds. Some years ago when you were still running the site, I happened upon images of your beautiful Sammies. When our Golden finally died of old age, I remembered your Sammies, and we ended up getting a pair ourselves. They are like our children, and we love them as much as we do our three daughters. Thus, when we saw photos of Amy Chua’s household and spotted a pair of white, furry dogs, I immediately Googled “Tiger Mom Samoyeds”. Lo and behold, one of the first links that came up was this page.

    Since like Amy Chua, we are Asian, have daughters and a pair of Sammies, and my wife is currently reading Ms. Chua’s book, I thought I’d chime in to the on-going debate. First off, the book is not a primer on child-rearing, but an engaging diary of a busy, professional and highly successful woman. Just as Ms. Chua has been extremely strict and demanding of her daughters, her father had very high expectations of Ms. Chua. I think that by anyone’s standards, Ms. Chua turned out quite well both as a professional and as a person.

    Reading the book, we see parallels between our own child-rearing experiences and the challenges that Ms. Chua faced in raising her own daughters. Although we have not been nearly as unrelenting or demanding in our methods, we too have set the bar quite high for our children in education, music and the arts. I’d like to think that many of the same techniques used have been quite effective, as our oldest was accepted to Berkeley last fall, and has been successful both academically and socially.

    While the “Tiger Mom” method may have worked for us, we are often left to wonder whether it would have worked equally well for another family. It is not that we think our children to be superior, but that thought is driven by watching other families struggle with kids who are simply disinterested, belligerent or unwilling to strive in traditional schoolwork. But is that the child’s fault?

    The flaw in today’s U.S. education system is that we encourage everyone to go to college, and early on, society evaluates success or failure on the basis of an individual’s degree. What we really need is a system that helps the student identify his/her talents and interests, and to help nurture it; something modeled after the European or Asian apprenticeship system. A liberal arts degree, while personally enriching, will not help many students with jobs or career choices. Society needs capable mechanics, craftsmen, artisans, carpenters, and masons, just as much as bankers, lawyers and doctors, yet they are nowhere to be found these days in a sea of mediocrity.

    I’ve come to believe that every child has an innate ability or talent, and that it is the parent’s job to identify it, encourage it, and help develop it. The path to a career in that field may not require good grades, high SAT scores, or even a college degree. What is critical to success is that child’s single-minded devotion and love for that particular field, to become the best among the best. I think that that is the lesson to be taken away from Ms. Chua’s book, and the values that Ms. Chua’s children will be able to apply to whatever career they choose to pursue.

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