Saturday, January 15, 2011

Joy in Learning beats Obsession with Performance - How Research Contradicts Tiger Mom's Creed

(The following writing was originally submitted to WSJ as a letter to the editor to the article "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior", and subsequently expanded and posted on as a review of the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom" by the same author.  I have re-posted it here in the hopes of inviting further discussions of parenting.  I am currently collaborating with the producers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on projects to help promote children's effort and persistence both at home and at school ... and helping teachers and parents to help children.  So I love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree!)

I was raised by a Chinese mother, along the lines of the "Tiger Mom" stereotype outlined by Amy Chua. Like the author, my mother was herself a high achiever. However, her mother - my grandmother - was illiterate and was more critical about my mother's household chores than her school work. When my mother aced the entrance exam for the most prestigious university in China, my grandfather initially decided not to send her because "a girl does not need that much education." What kept my own mother going was not the excessive pressures from the parents or anybody else, but the joy and solace she found in learning, as she read every book she could find while fanning the tiny charcoal oven and cooking breakfast for her four siblings. 

While Chua rightly criticized the excesses of easy praise and low effort (which one may find in every culture), the model of "tiger mom" parenting under-valued the joy inherent in the process of learning, vs. the rewards of ultimate success. 

What does modern psychological and developmental research say about the tenets of the "tiger mom" model of parenting? 

First, the claim that "nothing is fun until you're good at it" is incorrect. In fact, a multitude of psychological research studies show that "learning is fun while you are getting better at it." For example, the most enjoyable part of a computer game is the process of trying and failing and eventually succeeding to get through each level. Once you actually conquered all the levels, the game becomes boring and is cast aside. Children may not persist in piano or violin, but few would give up on a game. Why? Partly because games find a way to help children make incremental progress and turn mistakes into learning opportunities to get better. If we help children realize that mistakes are there to help us get better, rather than as a mark of shame or something to avoid, children actually learn more and enjoy learning more. Children can set and gradually increase their own threshold of progress, rather than having to adhere to a strict externally imposed standard of achievement (particularly within short time frames.) 

Second, the assumption that "tenacious practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated" is itself overstated. Further, using escalating levels of rewards or punishment to drive a child towards a short-term performance goal is not productive. Rote practice is part of, but not the preferred methods of virtuosos. Research studies on performance and expertise show that reflective, deliberate, and even "spaced" practice (practice, walk away, practice again) are the key ingredients of developing expertise and high performance. High-pressure, time-bound, and punishment- or reward-heavy situations breeds shallow learning that does not last. For example, Tiger Woods is so committed to studying and improving his own golf swings that at one peak of his career, he made a decision to change his swing at the cost of a period of subpar tour performance in order to become an ever better player (besting only himself). In a high-reward, high-competition environment, he gave up short-term performance goals in order to learn more deeply about his craft. That kind of learning and practice is hardly rote and is most certainly driven by an internal blame rather than mere external pressure. 

Third, the assumption that true self-esteem comes from hard-earned achievement rather than artificial praise -- this claim is quite close to being right. Research does show that artificial and shallow praise like, "you are so smart", "good job", not only does not promote learning, but impedes it. However, the tiger mom model of parenting also seems to imply that the alternative is for a parent to relentlessly impose a much higher, external performance standard upon the child along with rewards and punishments. That is where the approach is no longer supported by research. When a child's sense of approval is too attached to a distant performance goal (e.g., getting an A, getting to Harvard) vs. the process of getting there, a host of problems occur. On their own, children may choose the easiest path, they may want to cover up a mistake, they may grow overly anxious and distressed in challenging situations, and they have difficulty enjoy learning. Sooner or later the parent has to let go and the child has to choose on her own. Examples of high-achievers who cannot handle the embarrassment of a public mistake and resort to any means to cover up can be found in the Enron executives and Bernard Madoff. A better alternative is to show true interest in the child's process of learning and offer genuine encouragement, along with setting some boundaries for persistence and effort. 

There is joy in the process of learning. Neither shallow praise nor performance obsession (and the associated reward and punishment) helps a child to discover joy for herself. Having discovered that joy through persistence and encouragement, the child can overcome setbacks and challenges and find her own inner compass. The "tiger mom" model over-corrects and may go to the opposite extreme. 

To clarify, this is NOT a review of the literary quality of the book and should not be taken as a book review. As a research psychologist (inspired by the joy of learning from my own "tiger mom"), a child who grew up with a tiger mom, and a Chinese parent of two young "American" children, I want to provide a counter perspective to the key tenets of the "tiger mom" creed. The 2 stars here refers to the soundness of the tiger mom parenting model, and not to the book's literary value. It may be a worth read in ways other than a parenting guide and I am not the least bit qualified to judge. But many drawn to the book are led to it by the parenting model (in part due to the unfortunately sensationalized Wall Street Journal article.) 

Additional research-based resources for those who are interested -- 

On the point of smart vs. rote practice, see 
"Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin 

On the point of being good vs. becoming better, see 
"Mindset" by Carol Dweck 

On the point of praise, reward, punishment, see both Dweck's book above and also "Punished by Reward" by Alfie Kohn 

If you are looking for something non-research but humbling and inspiring, I highly recommend a little book called "Many ways to say I love you" by Mister Rogers. 

Best wishes on all of our humble explorations in parenting! 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I especially appreciate your noting that people enjoy learning and improving more than repeating past successes. (If you get a chance, could you send me some references on that?) I've posted my own commentary on Chua's essay and the related media coverage on my blog here:

    (I also pointed to your blog post in the comments and noted its main highlights.)