Are the Tiger Parents On to Something?

Are the Tiger Parents On to Something?

"You are capable of great things because of the group to which you belong; but you, individually, are not good enough; so you need to control yourself, resist temptation, and prove yourself."

That's it: the Triple Package, according to the husband-and-wife Yale-law-professor duo Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The American minority groups that send this particular message, several of which are profiled in this book, rise above others in terms of accomplishment and material success. Cultures that reject group superiority, individual insecurity, and impulse control may not be doomed to poverty, but they won't stand out for their disproportionate share of society's riches, either.

Chua and Rubenfeld make their case with a lot of cultural observation and little bit of empirical research, and to a limited extent it's convincing. Readers will come away believing that successful groups really do share these attitudes. Those looking for any sort of practical application will be sorely disappointed, however, because the authors fail to suss out what role the Triple Package plays relative to other factors in these groups' accomplishments, and they never tell us how to jump-start the Triple Package where it isn't already up and running.

While Amy Chua is, for better or worse, known primarily as the Chinese lady who wrote a book about being mean to her kids, she has actually been studying overperforming minority groups for quite some time. In her book World on Fire, for example, she explained how imposing free markets can create ethnic conflict by giving disproportionate economic power to small-but-productive groups. This is why it's not necessarily problematic that The Triple Package relies largely on narrative and anecdote: It's co-written by someone whose impressions on this topic deserve a certain amount of deference.

The Triple Package makes intuitive sense, too -- it boils down to a mix of confidence, drive, and self-control. It's pretty hard to succeed without those things, so it's no surprise that the successful tend to have them. And given the authors' focus on small, overperforming groups, the peculiar aspects of these attitudes -- the confidence that comes from tribal loyalty, the drive that comes from a desire to prove oneself to a hostile world -- don't seem all that surprising, either.

But Chua and Rubenfeld think they've happened upon something nonobvious. To them, the Triple Package is not merely what one might expect to find among high-performing minorities, but a force that causes high performance all by itself and can be harnessed by any group. And this is where the book stumbles.

For most of the groups Chua and Rubenfeld profile, the biggest problem is simple cherrypicking. To varying extents, America's Cubans, Nigerians, Indians, and Iranians are not just average people from their countries. They are the cream of the crop: people who were successful at home before ever setting foot here and brought all sorts of success-causing traits with them (and in some cases education and money too). The authors nod at this trend here and there but never give us a good way of separating it from the purely cultural effects of the Triple Package.

Another competing explanation for some of the Triple Package groups' success is self-selection. When people are allowed to enter and/or leave a cultural group (such as a religion), and the group highly values a certain trait (such as impulse control, intelligence, or drive), people with that trait will be more likely to join the group, and people without that trait will be more likely to leave. In these cases, it's very difficult to tell whether a group's culture is inculcating the trait in its members, or whether cultural pressures are simply maintaining a membership of people with the trait.

In Commentary, Charles Murray once made this case in regards to Jewish accomplishment. ("I suggest that the Jews who fell away from Judaism from the 1st to 6th centuries C.E. were heavily concentrated among those who could not learn to read well enough to be good Jews -- meaning those from the lower half of the intelligence distribution.") Chua and Rubenfeld must have read the article, considering they cite it in a different context. But they more or less ignore the possibility; the closest they come to grappling with it is a footnote waving aside a very different (and quite speculative) evolutionary argument connecting Ashkenazi Jews' high IQ scores to genetic diseases.

Here, for example, is an actual sentence from their discussion of Mormons: "And what is the proponent of IQ explanations to say -- that a mass genetic mutation in Utah made Mormons smarter than other Americans?" Well, no, such a person would probably just say that Mormonism attracted people with high IQs, perhaps even starting with its wealthy founding generation. The same argument could be made with any number of other traits, especially impulse control. (Who opts in to giving up coffee?)

And what about the Chinese, the focus of Chua's previous book? One can't decide to become or cease being Chinese, and The Triple Package presents a good argument that it's not just a matter of cherrypicking from the home country -- the Chinese population is "bimodal," with many professionals but also many members of the working poor, and both groups are academically high-achieving. Chua and Rubenfeld also show that IQ advantages, if they exist at all, cannot explain the academic gap between Chinese students and their white peers.

But there's no need to resort to the Triple Package when a single factor -- Chua's "Tiger Mothering" -- will do the trick. The Chinese put an immense amount of pressure on their children to do well, and the result is incredibly hard work (if also, possibly, some cheating). And in terms of practical implications for people outside the group, it's much easier to pester your kids about their grades than it is to construct a precise blend of attitudes in them.

And that might be the biggest problem with The Triple Package: Even if we take their claims at face value, Chua and Rubenfeld have few ideas when it comes to manufacturing this culture where it doesn't already exist. A group-superiority complex is hard to develop if you don't already believe you're part of God's true religion, and if you don't actually belong to a group with a storied track record of accomplishment. A lot of the anxiety Chua and Rubenfeld write about comes not from parenting but from discrimination and other outside pressures (such as the "status shock" that high-class Cuban exiles felt when they found themselves in America with nothing). And given current technology and culture it's hard to imagine Americans stepping away from the pleasures of instant gratification.

The Triple Package describes a trend: Minority groups that succeed also tend to exalt these three traits. What we're supposed to make of that fact, though, is anyone's guess.

Robert VerBruggen (@RAVerBruggen) is editor of RealClearPolicy. This piece is cross-posted at RealClearBooks. 

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