Saturday, January 15, 2011
More on the intellectual superiority of the Chinese
Amy Chua is a hoot. Her WSJ op ed about the superiority of Chinese parenting, a take from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has blogs around the world roaring at a woman who could be so cruel to her children. I was laughing out loud throughout, partly because she clearly was having the time of her life twitting the sensitive helicopter parents who can’t bear the idea that their wonderful child is stressed or criticized in any way whatsoever. I was also laughing because the mother of my first two children was half Thai and all Chinese, and it was all so familiar. The subject heading of the email attaching the Chua article to my elder two daughters was “Bring back memories?” My own archetypal memory is when my eldest daughter, then perhaps eight years old, came home with her first Maryland standardized test scores, showing that she was at the 99th percentile in reading and the 93rd percentile in math. Her mother’s first words—the very first—were “What’s wrong with the math?”
Both children turned out great and love their mother dearly.
To get a little bit serious: large numbers of talented children everywhere would profit from Chua’s approach, and instead are frittering away their gifts—they’re nice kids, not brats, but they are also self-indulgent and inclined to make excuses for themselves. There are also large numbers of children who are not especially talented, but would do a lot better in school if their parents applied the same intense home supplements to their classroom work.
But genes play a big role in whether you can demand that your child get an A in advanced calculus or make first seat in the violin section of the orchestra. With that in mind, let’s contemplate the genes being fed into those Chua children who are doing so well.
Maternal grandfather: EE and computer sciences professor at Berkeley, known as the father of nonlinear circuit theory and cellular neural networks.
Mother: able to get into Harvard (a much better indicator of her IQ than the magna cum laude in economics that she got there); Executive Editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School.
Father: Summa cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, now a chaired professor at Yale Law School.
Guess what. Amy Chua has really smart kids. They would be really smart if she had put them up for adoption at birth with the squishiest postmodern parents. They would not have turned out exactly the same under their softer tutelage, but they would probably be getting into Harvard and Princeton as well. Similarly, if Amy Chua had adopted two children at birth who turned out to have measured childhood IQs at the 20th percentile, she would have struggled to get them through high school, no matter how fiercely she battled for them.
Accepting both truths—parenting does matter, but genes constrain possibilities—seems peculiarly hard for some parents and almost every policy maker to accept.