Monday, March 21, 2011

Do “Tiger Moms” shift equilibrium of parenting strategies?

Read “The Ivy Delusion – the real reason the good mothers are so rattled by Amy Chua” in The Atlantic, which discussed and tried to explain the reactions of many parents to the Yale Law Professor’s parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Or rather, I would guess, their reactions to the provocative collection of quotes and passages published in the Wall Street Journal under her name (but which she herself claims misrepresents her work).

Anyway, the reason I mention this is that the explanation proposed for the backlash in The Atlantic seems particularly amenable to economic modeling (whether or not it is correct):

  • Parents have preferences over their kids’ future material and professional success and over their current (and to some extent future) welfare, and there is trade-off between these. The more “Tiger Mom” you go on your kids (no playdates, piled on homework, extracurricular academic and artistic activities, etc) – the more you raise their chance of future success, but the lower their current welfare is (and to some extent, the higher the risk of future breakdowns).
  • The (primarily Asian) “Tiger Moms” place a much lower emphasis on welfare relative to success according to the author.
  • As a consequence, once discrimination became reduced, Asian kids came to dominate the merit-based slots at the top Universities. This involves an externality, in the sense that by driving their own kids hard, they raise the bar for other kids for getting into the top schools. (This is important – unless it is relative performance that matters to the parents, the mechanism breaks down)
  • This reduces the success of the practices followed by so-called “good moms” of the article (used somewhat ironically or sarcastically, it seems to me), and pushes them to shift towards a stricter parenting style in order for their kids to not lose out in the Academic race – a change they dislike relative to the previous situation.
  • The “good moms” then react by trying to get “everyone” to refrain from extreme Tiger Mom parenting – the goal: To reduce Tiger Mom behavior to the point where their own kids again are at the top of the performance distribution and get into the top schools.

In brief: As discrimination is reduced, Asian kids rise to the top, other middle-class parents see their kids left behind and consequently struggle to discredit and reduce the practices that make them lose out. The underlying mechanism: In a meritocracy where effort and time-consuming practice and discipline are a key determinant of your performance, the top spots go to those willing to pay the heaviest price – and those who are not willing to do so will want to change the game to rig it in their favor.

The thesis of the film [Race to Nowhere, which “good moms” arrange screenings of], echoed by an array of parents and experts, is that we can change the experience and reduce the stress and produce happier kids, so long as we all work together on the problem. This is the critical factor, it seems, the one thing on which all voices are in concert: no parent can do this alone; everyone has to agree to change. But of course parents can do this individually. By limiting the number of advanced courses and extracurricular classes a child takes, and by imposing bedtimes no matter what the effect on the GPA, they will immediately solve the problem of stress and exhaustion. It’s what I like to call the Rutgers Solution. If you make the decision—and tell your child about it early on—that you totally support her, you’re wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She’ll take AP calculus if she’s excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not. It doesn’t matter, either way—Hello, New Brunswick!

But the good mothers will never do that, because when they talk about the soul-crushing race to nowhere, the “nowhere” they’re really talking about (more or less) is Rutgers. And more to the point, while you’re busily getting your child’s life back on track, Amy Chua and her daughters aren’t blinking.