The tiger mother and you: Are we preparing our kids for a better financial future?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherThose of you who are parents — and those of you who came from them — may have already read the Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua (which is an excerpt from her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). If you haven't read it, this excerpt will give you an idea:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.

As shown in this Today Show interview with Chua — a Yale law professors and the daughter of Chinese immigrants — when her daughter gave her a plain handmade birthday card, Chua handed it back and said, “I reject this.”

We namby-pamby Western parents may cringe at such harshness, which is one of Chua's points. Western parents, she says, are too worried about their kids' self-esteem. Chinese parents, on the other hand, “assume strength, not fragility,” and thus can get away with calling their kids “garbage” or “fatty.”

The article has set off a conflagration of debate, mostly critical of Chua. However, as typical of my deliberate, contemplative nature (read: wishy-washiness), I'm not quite sure what to make of it all. If this is indeed the way most Chinese (as well as other Asians) raise their kids, and if this indeed is the reason Asians, as a group, are more academically successful, I can't help but pay attention. My job, my kids' future jobs, and my non-Asian investments all depend on being able to compete in an increasingly globalized world. Herein, I'll lay out thoughts on why Chua's style of parenting may be off the mark, and then discuss why she may be on to something.

“Yes, Mommie Dearest”
The criticism of this style of parenting falls along these lines:

A's aren't everything. A Motley Fool freelance contributor, who during the day works for one of the biggest companies in the world, recently took a company-sponsored class. One of the things the instructor said was this: “The ‘A' students typically work for the ‘B' students, but it's the ‘C' students who own the company.”

While that's very simplistic, it was somewhat confirmed in a recent interview I conducted with Thomas Stanley, co-author of The Millionaire Next Door and author of the more recent Stop Acting Rich. He said that, according to his research, the typical American millionaire “owns his own business, went to a four-year public college, and was a B or C student.” (The interview will be posted on Get Rich Slowly next month.) I won't encourage my kids to be C students, but a person's success will be determined by more than a transcript — things like interpersonal skills, self-confidence, creativity, and a certain amount of independent thought, among others.

The “Chinese” way doesn't produce innovators or entrepreneurs. If you read through the 7500-plus comments to Chua's article on, you'll see plenty along the lines of “Yeah, well, why does the U.S. have three times the GDP of China with one-third the people?” Or “Have the Chinese invented anything great since gunpowder?” Or “Why do the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners comes from the West?” Most of these are chauvinistic throwaways. But they do touch on a fair question: Does very rigid parenting produce too-rigid adults? Would there be a Microsoft or Apple if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were raised this way? The Chinese themselves are wondering this.

The principal of the Peking University High School wrote (also in the Wall Street Journal):

Now that China is a market economy hoping to compete globally, it's jealous of America's ability to turn its brightest students into the world's best scientists and businesspeople.

That sounds like a miserable childhood. No Sesame Street? No drums? Sure, Chua's daughter has performed at Carnegie Hall. But is that worth not getting your hand dipped in water by your friends while you're asleep…and all the other fun stuff that happens at sleepovers?

Among the comments to her article, you'll find plenty of people who were reared this way and didn't appreciate it. One example:

I am Chinese-American and I hate the way that my parents raised me. As a child I lacked complete freedom to make my own choices. I was not able to freely hang out with friends and I was forced to study all the time.

To be fair, you'll also find plenty of comments along the lines of “I was raised that way and am thankful for it.”

Fat, Drunk, and Stupid Is No Way to Go Through Life
On the other hand, maybe we Western parents are too easy on our kids. Here are some thoughts along those lines:

American kids are getting out-worked. Whitney Tilson, a hedge-fund manager and indefatigable education reformer, has written a lot on this topic (and Chua's article) on his blog. Here's a sample:

I find what Chua describes (no sleepovers, playdates, or ability to make any decisions at all) to be extreme, but if one were to put parental expectations of/pressure on/control of kids on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being what Chua describes, I think the ideal is much closer to 10 than 0 — maybe an 8.

In a world filled with endless, cheap, mind-rotting entertainment via hundreds of TV channels (heavily weighted toward 24/7 sports, cartoons, and other junk), the Internet, video games, music and movies, I'm firmly convinced that nearly all children will spend every waking hour messing around with these activities and wasting their lives, unless their parents AND schools (but the former much more importantly) keep a very close eye on them, tightly restrict what they can do, and make them do many things they don't want to do, such as study hard, read books, have a reasonable diet, go to bed on time, dress decently, etc…

For more on how Chinese (and Indian) youth are just HUSTLING a lot more than America youth are, I highly recommend a great documentary, Two Million Minutes.

American kids are getting out-educated. You've likely already heard all the stats about America's flagging education system, so I won't dwell on the topic. I'll just quote one study — from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — which found that American 15-year-olds ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. Tops in each category: the kids in Shanghai, China.

My kids have to compete with these kids. I live in a county with a high school that is regularly ranked as the best in America. It's a public school, but you have to apply to get in, and it's tough. Among the class of 2014, 57.5% are Asian. To what extent are my kids competing against kids with “Chinese mothers” (a term the Chua explains can be applied to parents of any ethnicity who are equally strict)? And that's just for high school; what about the rest of their lives?

Maybe we do care too much about self-esteem. I have to include this quote from former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (whom I respect a great deal):

We've lost our competitive spirit. We've become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things. I can see it in my own household.

I have two girls, 8 and 12, and they play soccer. And I can tell you that they suck at soccer! They take after their mother in athletic ability. But if you were to see their rooms, they're adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies. You'd think I was raising the next Mia Hamm.

I routinely try to tell my kids that their soccer skills are lacking and that if they want to be better, they have to practice hard. I also communicate to them that all the practice in the world won't guarantee that they'll ever be great at soccer. It's tough to square this, though, with the trophies. And that's part of the issue. We've managed to build a sense of complacency with our children.

For more from Rhee, and a funny/sad snippet on American kids' self-esteem, watch this trailer for the excellent movie Waiting for Superman:

Building Better Brokamps: Project 21

My wife and I have discussed this article and our parenting quite a bit. We don't want to be overly strict; we want our children to have happy childhoods. But we also want them to be equipped to compete in the job markets of tomorrow and have their own shot at getting rich slowly.

Important note! As you know if you've read my GRS profile, my wife and I adopted a girl from China, so I don't view this as a “U.S. vs. China” thing. It's more a question of what's the best way to raise a kid. From the bottom of our sappy little hearts, my wife and I are grateful to the people of China for entrusting their little Gao An-Qiong to us.

Our solution for now is something we're calling “Project 21” (working subtitle: Raising Our Own Best Guests). We're imagining that it's several years from now, and our kids are 21-plus years old and home for Thanksgiving dinner. What kind of people do we hope to see around the table?

We've just begun this, so the list hasn't been finalized yet. But it includes a range of skills and characteristics, such having a work ethic, being financially prudent, and, yes, doing well in school (what would you expect from two parents who each have a master's degree in education?). It will also include some touchy-feely — but very important — stuff, such as being polite, being adept at the art of conversation, demonstrating compassion to others, having interests and passions that they want to share, and appreciating creativity, cleverness, and a good joke.

Last night my wife said, “Bad parenting is a major threat to national security.” I heartily agree. But the question is, what exactly is bad parenting? I'm not sure I'd want to be Chua's kid (though, in this hilarious interview with Stephen Colbert, Chua explains that her book is a bit more nuanced than the WSJ article). But I do appreciate that she's spurred a national debate about how our kids are raised.

More about...Economics, Books

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