May 10, 2011
Tiger Mom: Here's how to reshape U.S. education—A Commentary by Amy Chua
The following commentary was published in USA Today on May 10, 2011.
Tiger Mom: Here's how to reshape U.S. education
By Amy Chua
The secret to America's global success has always been its ability to attract the best human capital from around the world.
We won the race for the atomic bomb by harnessing the genius of scientists fleeing Europe, such as the Hungarian Edward Teller, the Italian Enrico Fermi, and, of course, the German Albert Einstein.
We achieved high-tech dominance in the '90s by pulling into Silicon Valley innovative immigrants from Russia, India, Taiwan and elsewhere.
Our soccer, basketball and baseball teams are filled with top talent from Africa, Europe, Asia and Central and Latin America. In so many areas — science, music, food, business — a unique American strength has always been to absorb the best of many cultures.
Not so with parenting. When it comes to raising our kids, we are strangely close-minded. We don't want to hear that anything we're doing is wrong. I was like this when I began parenting 18 years ago. I believed that raising my two daughters the same way my Chinese immigrant parents raised me was the right way and that I had nothing to learn from the laxer parenting I saw all around me. I learned my lesson the hard way, when my younger daughter rebelled.
We're insecure, uncertain
Why are we so intolerant when it comes to child-rearing? Perhaps it's insecurity. We all desperately want to get it right and never know for sure whether we are. Perhaps it's because the stakes are so high, and it's terrifying to admit a mistake. Our society's need to ignite "mommy wars" is especially odd because anyone can see that there are many ways of producing happy, healthy children — and clearly no one right formula. Yet if someone has a different philosophy of child-rearing, we instantly feel judged and lash back.
But now more than ever, intolerance is the wrong mind-set. Our children will inherit a world of fierce global competition, and we need to do our best to prepare them. Like it or not, child-rearing is inextricably intertwined with our nation's future. At stake is not just our children's well-being but the durability of the American Dream. Instead of ripping into each other, we should follow America's traditional formula for success: building on what we do well while being open to what works elsewhere and bringing it to America.
Interestingly, Asia is already looking West. Education in Asia is still too stifling, rote and high-pressured. In China, for example, kids often study from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., grades are publicly posted, and a child's future can depend on a single exam. ("Sleepovers" are still extremely rare in China.)
Today, most Asian countries are trying to find ways to encourage more creativity, individuality and leadership in their children. My memoir —seen in the West as a story about "extreme" parenting — is being marketed the opposite way in China, as a story about the importance of giving kids more freedom. Amusingly, the book's title in China is Parenting by a Yale Professor: Raising Kids in America, and I was asked by one Chinese women's magazine to give its readers tips on "how to be friends with your kids."
Seeing these educational shifts in Asia, some Americans are taking a self-congratulatory stance. "See? Even the Chinese are abandoning their methods and trying to be like us." Such complacency is misguided. As every American knows, we have serious child-rearing problems in this country, and on the whole these are problems of too little structure, not too much.
The average American child spends 66% more time watching television than attending school. We have alarming rates of teenage substance abuse and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world. In the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, American high school students ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math — with Asian nations taking top marks. This is a problem across the board. Even America's top math students rank poorly compared with top performers elsewhere.
On the other hand, America's universities are the envy of the world, a magnet for the best and brightest from every continent. We need to think candidly about what America does well and what it doesn't. Some friends and I recently had a mini-epiphany about this. We were lamenting how the new media bombardment — iPods, Facebook, texting — makes it even harder for our kids to concentrate on their homework. But one friend wondered how can you teach a teenager to concentrate? And it occurred to us: You can't. Self-discipline and focus are skills that have to be instilled when children are young — and that's one thing the Asian nations excel at. The great virtue of America's system is that our kids learn to be leaders, to question authority, to think creatively. But there's one critical skill where our kids lag behind: learning how to learn.
East meets West
If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults. This is a way to combine East and West: more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years.
America's comparative advantage has always been its openness and inclusiveness. In parenting as in all other spheres, we should let go of convenient but false dichotomies — creativity or discipline, freedom or hard work — and aim to incorporate the best of all worlds.
Amy Chua is a law professor at Yale and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.