What I'd Like To Tell 'Tiger Mom' Amy Chua

02/05/2014 07:06 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

Amy Chua, the author of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday, January 26 titled "What Drives Success?" The core of the article focuses on how some racial and ethnic groups in the United States are more driven to succeed than others because of the authors' theory of (and new book about) "The Triple Package," which proposes that a combination of three traits -- an inferiority complex, a superiority complex and impulse control -- are the key to having "the grit" to make it to the top. And by the top they mean excellent grades, an Ivy League education, and earning power.

It's odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it's precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control -- the ability to resist temptation -- and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. -- Chua and Rubenfeld -- What Drives Success?

Ignoring the fact that there is more than a hint of racial profiling and generalizing, some of it laughably old news (Jews like Broadway!) what is missing from this editorial in general and this theory in particular is any mention of the most important ingredient for success, economic or otherwise -- and that's passion.

All the drills, punishments, screaming, fighting, and so on cannot make someone feel passionate about something. That's not to say that children don't need discipline and management when they're growing up -- education is a crucial part of childhood, and school is a place where children must be independent and responsible, starting with their kindergarten cubbies and culminating in AP Calculus. Parents are responsible for both overseeing the homework process (though this varies from child to child) and instilling in our children the sense of self-respect that makes following through and doing their best not a matter of guilt and fear of parental anger, but a point of pride and accomplishment.

But parents are also responsible for encouraging their children to discover what it is they're passionate about and giving them the chance to explore and develop that passion. When children find something that really matters to them -- not just because someday it will make them rich and, in Chua and Rubenfeld's opinion, therefore successful -- it can be the key to them finding their motivation to work hard. Rather than punishing children for doing something wrong (like, say, getting an A- on a test), isn't it more encouraging and productive for them to have a reason to want to succeed? If your child wants to play a sport, decent grades are required. If your child wants to be in an after school theater program, schoolwork must be completed to your expectations.

Chua and Rubenfeld extol feeling uncomfortable in one's own skin and beholden to one's parents as the keys to future success. If you want to see your children succeed, they seem to suggest, make them feel as bad about themselves and as guilty as possible for everything they have and all the ways they have failed. Don't be loving and kind, be hostile and disappointed. Most of all, if you hope to raise a successful child, you should be an immigrant. Because, they say, those of us who are comfortably settled in the U.S. are, for the most part, raising children who are entitled, lazy, unmotivated and indulged, whereas those who have struggled to make it to the USA are more likely to be compelled to succeed in this country.

Chua and Rubenfeld mention frequently the Chinese population as a group who are succeeding in our society (Chua is Chinese). As an example of how successful the Asian population is, they cite the 2013 admissions stats for New York's Stuyvesant High School, one of the country's most competitive schools.

For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants. Chua and Rubenfeld, What Drives Success?

Just what exactly does "many" mean? Twenty? One hundred? Six hundred?

That's clearly an overwhelming number of Asians admitted to this elite school, and it's quite an accomplishment.

But what they fail to mention is:

When (Stuyvesant) the school's newspaper, The Spectator, conducted a survey of 2,045 students in March, 80 percent said they had cheated in one way or another. -- Stuyvesant Students Explain the How and Why of Cheating, New York Times

If the students are cheating once they're admitted, you can bet they cheated on the test that got them there in the first place. It seems that cheating is ok among these students, as long as they remain academically successful. Race has nothing to do with this -- it's about character. What kind of people are we raising if 80% of the population of a highly regarded school admit to cheating?

If children are so caught up in not disappointing their parents or dishonoring their families or, God forbid, not getting admitted to an Ivy League school, they're going to be under enormous pressure, both at home and socially, to succeed. Any adolescent who wrestles with an inferiority complex, a superiority complex and impulse control every day is going to be, more often than not, unhappy and fearful, which can, according to Chua and Rosenfeld, lead to a drive to succeed -- but can also very possibly lead to mental health issues.

How is a parent to know which way their child will go?

It may be unsophisticated to say this, given the insane competitive nature of top-tier college admissions, but it's quite possible -- even likely -- that students can succeed at a level below all As. It isn't unheard of for (gasp!) average students at average universities to go on and lead extraordinary lives doing amazing things -- and, even sometimes, make a boatload of money doing them. Plenty of people who get an expensive, top-tier education wind up living fairly average (income-wise) lives.

The happiest and most fulfilled people generally have one thing in common -- a deep and meaningful passion for what they do.

Immigrants often come to our country with the single-minded goal of succeeding financially. This may explain the disproportionate amount of immigrant children, particularly Asian children, who are admitted to the most elite universities. Are those of us who have been here for generations supposed to stick peas under our children's mattresses to make them uncomfortable enough to reach for that level of accomplishment? Should we all raise children with single-minded determination and limited social skills? Is passion something to be discounted in the quest for academic and economic success?

I don't think so. Who would write all those Broadway show tunes if we did?

This post originally on Empty House Full Mind

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