Some thoughts on Amy Chua and the neuroscience of parenting…
In the latest absurd twist in the “we-should-be-more-like-China” frenzy, Amy Chua, an American born woman of Chinese background (parents born in the Philippines, which has a huge Chinese population) has written a book titled The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
From the Product Description on the book’s Amazon page:
Here are some things Amy Chua would never allow her daughters to do:
• have a playdate
• be in a school play
• complain about not being in a school play
• not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
• not play the piano or violin
The truth is Lulu and Sophia would never have had time for a playdate. They were too busy practicing their instruments (two to three hours a day and double sessions on the weekend) and perfecting their Mandarin.
Of course no one is perfect, including Chua herself. Witness this scene:
“According to Sophia, here are three things I actually said to her at the piano as I supervised her practicing:
1. Oh my God, you’re just getting worse and worse.
2. I’m going to count to three, then I want musicality.
3. If the next time’s not PERFECT, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”
Naturally, there’s been a reaction — of which this piece in the WSJ is a good example.
Yet for all the affluence and intelligence of the battling mamas in this debate, their arguments seem (from my very brief look) to be almost entirely anecdotal, even though there are developmental psych and neuroscience data that begin to to add up to a “science of parenting.” And I think that if one were to go through it in detail, Chua’s parenting style — at least the provocative, extreme version that she uses to sell her book — would come out looking like brain-damaging child abuse, at least for many kids.
Arguably the most fundamental dilemma in human existence, experienced most acutely in childhood and adolescence, is the tug of war between short-term wants and long-term consequences. Eat your broccoli! Don’t have sex before you’re married! Ideally, children should develop the ability to navigate this dilemma by predicting — and feeling, almost as strongly as if it were in the present — the long-term consequences of their present behaviors. The prefrontal cortex, whose extensive influence on our behavior and consciousness distinguishes us from all other earthly species, appears to be primarily responsible for this translation of distant consequences into present motivations. And there is evidence that this “farsight” is one of the most important ingredients of success in our modern world.
A more primitive parenting style like Chua’s tends to block the environmental pressure that helps children develop this ability, because it puts the parent in the decision-making role — the parent becomes the child’s prefrontal cortex, in effect, by making unwanted behaviors unavailable, or by punishing them immediately.
Some of this brute-force approach will always be necessary in raising children, especially when they are younger, but I think that the lesson of developmental psych and neuroscience will be that the “tiger mother” style can easily become excessive and harmful, especially with older children. A more enlightened style would be to increasingly allow children, as they get older, to practice making decisions for themselves and dealing with the consequences. At first these consequences would be the usual artificial, short-term parental punishments, of the type used to train any small child or even animal. Later they would be more real-world and long-term, to encourage the prefrontal, “executive” decision-making capacity — including cognitive flexibility and creativity — that the child will need to get along in the real world, where there won’t be a mommy to decide what to do or punish “wrong” behavior immediately.
I think that this is intuitively obvious, but there are already some data that I can recall off-hand — surprisingly apt data, considering Chua’s implication that her “Chinese” style is superior. Note this piece in Nature about the role of executive functions and the prefrontal cortex in addiction. One passage has a nice quote from USC neuroscientist Antoine Bechara, who had been doing studies of executive functioning in kids raised with Chinese vs. more Western parenting styles. The children “who are encouraged to make decisions” and learn from the consequences, Bechara said, “grow up to show better performance on measures of decision making, and there is even a hint of evidence from fMRI that the kids with that latter kind of parenting style have better prefrontal cortex function.”
It’s probably also worth pointing out that Chua is the product of two waves of immigration, first from China to the Philippines, then from the Philippines to the US. Immigrants tend to be energetic, can-do people. So the immigrant energy and ambition that Chua inherited from her parents and other restless ancestors could be the major reason why she is successful in the conventional sense (Yale Law professor and bestselling author) — and why her kids (apparently) haven’t been broken by her parenting style.