Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Tiger Mothers, Class, and the Siren Song of Elite Universities

Several years ago as network television was losing viewers to cable and the internet, one commentator lamented the loss of moments of collective consciousness that had been created by television shows like The Cosby Show, Friends, and the X-Files. According to this commentator the large audiences these shows commanded enabled a series of ideas and topics to filter into society-at-large, weaving threads of common knowledge into a broad and diverse population. Without these shows, he wondered, would we lose these collective moments, would the quilt of society become just a collection of fabric scraps?

The answer, we have learned, is a resounding no. While on the average day, the multiple media and multiple platforms which people use present an unfathomable array of different content, there are a few stories that manage to find their way into a huge number of them. This kind of viral spreading can be annoyingly ugly when its content is the ridiculous pseudo-dramas of people like Charlie Sheen or Brett Favre. Other times, when a story has a certain depth and its range of harmonics trigger a host of different vibrations in different people, the results can be both fascinating and enlightening. Such a story acts as a mirror, giving us a peek into the souls that constitute our collective.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book is one of these latter type of stories. After a first life on the pages and blog of the Wall Street Journal and a second life in the proliferating discussions about her in blogs like this one, a third life is coming. This month’s Atlantic Monthly contains not one, but two essays reviewing her book and the conversations that have swirled around it. Regular commentators Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan parse through Chua’s text and the initial knee-jerk reactions to it to pick out some of the less obvious dynamics at work in the conversations these have created. The results make for interesting reading.


The most important theme that emerges from both pieces is that much of what Chua and the reactions to her book represent is less a question of cultural difference and more one of class expectations. Tsing Loh, herself the daughter of a Chinese father who pushed her to excel musically and mathematically, highlights how much “working of connections” and “financial outlay” were involved in bringing Chua’s children to the heights they achieved. This marshalling of monetary and social resources - a mention of which was conspicuously absent in Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay - takes some of the steam out of the mythological power Chua claimed for the Tiger Mother as it reveals a reality that many of us already knew: lots of people work hard; those who rise to the highest levels often have money and/or connections the rest do not. As Tsing Loh jokes after talking about all of Chua’s efforts, “I find this expense less uniquely Chinese than perhaps, dare I say,…, upper-middle-class suburban Jewish”. In other words, it is a question of class, not culture.

Flanagan’s essay approaches the question of class and the reaction to Amy Chua through the lens of the admissions processes in Ivy League-caliber universities. She conjures for us the image of the ‘good mother,’ the professional class woman who has cut back on her career aspirations in order to nurture her child(ren) into the world. The good mother, Flanagan writes, has “certain ideas about how success is life is achieved.” These ideas are built around the notion that if they deeply support a child’s natural talent the rest will fall into place.

In Flanagan’s eyes, the problem for the good mothers is that despite this belief and their desire to rein in the hyper-competitiveness that surrounds their childrearing, they also see anything less than admittance to an Ivy League-caliber school for their children as a failure, a slipping away of elite status, a “banishment to nowhere”. And in many ways they’re right. In Liquidated, her ethnography of Wall Street investment banks, Karen Ho talks about how companies like Goldman Sachs only recruit investment bankers from three or four universities, with Harvard and Princeton topping the list. The same seems to be true for the best law firms and medical positions. So when students miss out on a placement in an Ivy League type school, they suddenly find that many of the roads to the highest positions in business, politics, and society have become unavailable to them. Their ability to improve their class position – to move from the professionals to the elite - has been dealt a severe blow.

So the good mother slowly accedes to the demands of the market. She reluctantly lets the hurricane that is the childhood industrial complex engulf her child, and consequently her family, in its swirl of increasingly time intensive sports teams, music lessons, public service activities, clubs, etc. in hopes that this sacrifice will be enough for the child to snare one of those golden positions.

But, according to Flanagan, its not working. Amy Chua’s kids – the ones whose parents have single-mindedly focused on this goal since their birth - are getting those positions instead. Because their parents have pushed them from day one, kids like Chua’s have developed the singular and spectacular talents that lift them to the top of the pile of applicants in the eyes of university admissions officers. The children of the good mothers, those mothers who want their kids to have both the blissful childhood and the Ivy League education, cannot overcome their mothers’ initial reluctance. In short, they cannot catch up.


As a parent and a rejectee of an Ivy League-caliber school (I was wait-listed at MIT), I came away from reading both essays with a single, depressing thought:

So this really is what it has come down to. Polly is two. Pip is four. We have to decide now whether or not they will pursue admission to an Ivy League-caliber school. It is a choice they do not get to make. If they are going to have a chance to get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the like, we have to start doing things now. Because by the time they are old enough to make the choice for themselves, it will be too late to acquire the skills and experiences necessary to do the kind of spectacular things they will need to do in order to make the Ivy League cut.

It is the trap of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie: I want to give Pip and Polly every chance to succeed in whatever course they decide to pursue. However, in order to keep all those options open, I have to push them towards the highest levels of achievement because once you start slipping, you can’t catch back up. Amy Chua’s girls have too much momentum behind them.

The only way out of this trap is to pursue what Flanagan calls the “Rutgers solution:” decide Polly and Pip will go to a regional or state university, set goals accordingly, and let any other extra stuff come from their interest and their discretion. While this doesn’t actually sound that bad, it essentially precludes the potential of either of them making the leap into greatness, into the realm of the global elite. And that potential, however small, is difficult for me – the product of upwardly mobile parents and weaned on the idea that anyone can become president - to let go of.

There is also one other trap lurking in the background of the choice between the Ivy League track and the Rutgers solution. If we give up the pursuit of grand achievement for my Pip and Polly, if we step out of the market and say no to the competition, how do I measure myself as a parent? When I don’t take my children to music lessons and sports camps and all the things other bourgeoisie children are doing, what metrics do I use to determine whether I am doing a good job? No one counts how many smiles or laughs they had this month. All the benchmarks are out there beyond the walls of my house. Inside, there is only me, Ava, and the kids and whether we feel things are going well or not. And how am I supposed to know what “going well” looks like? Its not like I’ve parented a hundred kids and have a sense of what that is. I have these two. They could be geniuses. They could be idiots. They could be the best kids in the world or the worst. If I don’t send them out there, how will I ever know?

To step out of the hurricane that is the childhood industrial complex is to leave me to my own devices when it comes to evaluation, and that is a position that makes me feel highly vulnerable and exposed. One needs a combination of self-confidence and blissful ignorance not to go completely crazy from the subsequent navel gazing. Unfortunately, that combination is hard to maintain in the face of the constant barrage of experts and products trying to sell me ways to fix any number of possible child-related problems. Our culture pushes parents hard and from many different angles.


In some ways, Chua and the Tiger mothers are taking the easy route. They have picked their goal and are pursuing it with a single-minded fury that allows for no hesitation, no questions, no uncertainty, no doubts. Even as Ava and I rightly decide to go the other way, to value our time as a family over the pulls of the childhood industrial complex, to send our children to whatever university Ava is currently working at, there will always be in my mind the tiny ‘what if,’ the bit of curiosity about whether Polly or Pip could have set the world on fire had they been given the chance.

But this may be one of the most positive developments to come out of Amy Chua entering my life: that doubt is shrinking ever smaller as I see what that other life looks like. It will not ever go away completely, but every time I read something more about Tiger mothers, I become more and more comfortable with the idea that for Polly and Pip – not to mention me and Ava - the Rutgers solution is not a bad way to go.


  1. Thanks for writing this. Reading the book, I was struck by how driven Amy Chua is herself. Now, even though she has (to some degree) let go of the control she had taken over her daughters' choices, she models every day the sort of people it sounds like they will turn out to be.

    I frequently wonder if the expectations I have of myself and my children are not high enough - or whether I am driving them (and myself) too hard. It's true that it is difficult sometimes to step out of the American Dream perspective to decide what the end result is "supposed" to look like. One thing I am sure I do not want to emulate: screaming, manipulation, bribery/threat combinations that I think are just poor parenting. Seems like there must be a firmer, quieter, more respectful way to obtain the same results, assuming that is the goal.

  2. Thoughtful essay. I can't help but notice that Chua's book release roughly coincides with at least one of her daughter's college application process (if I'm doing the math right). If so, I'm pretty sure that's one application that doesn't get overlooked. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but I suspect Chua knows that even being the multi-talented daughter of a Yale law prof. might not be enough for Harvard. The only thing my mom did was help me pick out a nice shirt for my interview.

  3. Anonymous - I agree that Chua's kids will probably be very much like her in their force and determination. For better or worse, kids largely learn to be people by watching the adults who are raising them. The good and bad qualities transfer from adult to child almost as if by osmosis.

    As an aside, I'd enjoy hearing more of what you think about the book. I will not get a chance to read it anytime soon so I scavenge what I can from others. In fact, if you (or anyone else) wants to write a post about the book here, I'll be happy to publish it. Just send it to me via email.

    Paul - You are doing the math right. It came out today that Chua's older daughter was accepted by Harvard. Here's the link:

  4. I wrote about her approach to music education as perhaps the one opportunity for sublime pleasure in what is otherwise a bleak and technocratic pedagogical regimen. "a banjo, clarinet and tiger mother walk into s bar...".