Tiger Mothers, Networked Fathers and Organization Kids

01/20/2011 11:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A visceral understanding of the importance of social networks infuses much of David Brooks' writing, so it's no surprise that he was able to pinpoint a vulnerable crease in the armor of Tiger Mother Amy Chua:

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.

Brooks' counterpunch -- let's call it "the Rallying Cry of the Networked Father" -- sets the stage for a deeper question that reaches beyond Chua's book: What is the surest path to success (which I'm defining as the opportunity to fulfill one's potential)? Is it the relentless pursuit of excellence and technical mastery, or is it being able to work in groups and navigate social networks?

The fact is that our attitudes towards these issues is complex and unresolved. On the one hand, we tell ourselves that it's excellence that counts and we celebrate individual achievement, and we feel chastened when someone like Chua calls us on the "Everyone's a Winner" culture that has emerged over the past generation. But it is also often the case that it is not excellence but the opinions of other people -- often irrational and tribal at heart -- that determine who gets what opportunity. We don't like to acknowledge this, of course, not only because it runs counter to deeply held beliefs about hard work but because it carries with it a lot of unseemly anti-intellectual baggage.

Given these mixed messages, it was inevitable that some kids would hedge their bets by fulfilling both criteria. Not that this is easy given the constraints of a 24-hour day -- it means practicing a piece of music for four hours and going to sleepovers; being president of the student council and winner of the math competition. But as Brooks himself has pointed out, this solution is not without its own costs: what he has called the army of "Organization Kids" that dominate elite universities, equipped with flawless resumes, charismatic personalities and a constitutional inability to take a risk or hold an unpopular idea that might derail them from the fast track.

Parenting, if it is done in any sort of mindful way, forces you to concretize your own worldview, to make explicit choices about what values to instill and skills to impart to your children. Arguments about parenting styles, then, are often in the end arguments about the kind of world we live in. That's the real debate behind the debates Amy Chua's book has ignited.