Lions, Tigers, and Bear Moms- Oh, My! (from Contexts)

A piece I wrote on the aftermath of the Tiger Mom Amy Chua controversy recently appeared in Contexts-- a sociology magazine for the general public. Hope you enjoy it and would love to here what you think!

On January 25, 2011, Stephen Colbert announced, “My guest tonight is a Yale professor who has written a controversial book about the demands Chinese mothers put on their children. Not Harvard? Her mother must be so disappointed. Please welcome Amy Chua!” Chua’s appearance on The Colbert Report capped off a whirlwind media tour that most academics can only dream of. Today Show? Check. CNN? Check. And, then, of course, Colbert.  Chua’s month of controversy started on January 8, 2011 when The Wall Street Journal ran a story, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” in advance of the January 11th release date of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. 

The Journal article, comprised of excerpts from the book, spread like wildfire as people emailed, tweeted, and shared the link on Facebook.  Over 8,000 people commented on the article on the Journal’s website, telling Amy Chua their thoughts on her parenting practices, which include: calling her daughters trash when they do not perform up to her expectations, forcing the girls to practice their musical instruments for at least three hours a day, and even denying them dinner if they do not perfect a piece.  The comments definitely weren’t all pretty.  But the press helped propel Battle Hymn to the New York Times’ Bestseller list, giving credence to the adage “all press is good press.”

One of the most common memes in press coverage was an attribution of public agitation to abiding fears of the “China Threat.” A few weeks before the Chua controversy, educators had been stunned by the superlative test scores coming out of Shanghai on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Some commentators thought Battle Hymn could be America’s new “Sputnik moment”—except that Amy Chua was born in the United States and her parents grew up in the Philippines as Chinese immigrants.


Preschool Olympians and Ivy Leaguers?

Two extreme parenting stories are making the rounds this week (yes, even in the midst of the horrific, and ongoing, tragedy in Japan). I see them as part of the same trend-- what do you think?

1) Yesterday The New York Daily News ran a story with the attention-getting headline: "Manhattan mom sues $19k/yr. preschool for damaging 4-year-old daughter's Ivy league chances."  The short version of the story is that mother Nicole Imprescia is suing York Avenue Preschool for not properly preparing her daughter for the ERB exam-- needed for private school admissions in New York City-- and for having two-, three-, and four-year-olds sharing the same learning space.

The article has some great quotes like, "The court papers implied the school could have damaged Lucia's chances of getting into a top college, citing an article that identifies preschools as the first step to 'the Ivy League.'" While I hate to place blame, especially on parents, I'm pretty sure Ms. Imprescia is damaging her daughter's Ivy chances far more than York Avenue Preschool ever could.  I fear Ms. Imprescia would make Tiger Mom Amy Chua look positively domesticated.

My favorite quote is the following: "Fortunately, Imprescia's lawyer said, the tot's prospects aren't doomed. 'Lucia Imprescia, for the record, will get into an Ivy League school - York Avenue Preschool notwithstanding,' said Paulose, of the firm Koehler & Isaacs. 'The child is very smart and will do well in life.'" As if getting into an Ivy League school is the only way to do well in life?! On top of that, there is no way to know if fourteen years from now little Lucia will be in a position to apply to the eight schools that make up the Ivy League... But I'm glad this lawyer can guarantee her future.

Since I read this article yesterday it has been picked up by MSNBC, so expect to be hearing more on this case.

2) MSNBC ran another attention-getting parenting story-- this one about genetic testing to determine if children have genes that predispose them to particular athletic careers. I first read about these services several years ago in Tom Farrey's wonderful book Game OnSince Farrey's coverage, as the MSNC article shows, the tests have become more sophisticated, and more US-centric.  With a simple cheek swab and swipe of the credit card, parents can know if their child is predisposed to being a sprinter or marathoner.

One father is quoted in the article explaining his ten-year-old soccer-playing daughter's response to their discussion about the testing: "She told me, 'Well, Daddy, I just have to try harder'" if the results came back negative, Marston said." The article goes on, "But even at age 10, [Elizabeth] knows it will take more than genes to reach her goal of playing in the Olympics."

Of course, simply having a form of a gene is no guarantee of future success, which is why pediatricians, like Drs. Alison Brooks and Beth Tarini writing this month in JAMA, are opposed to these types of at-home testing kits.  Children should neither be forced into a particular sport because of a genetic predisposition, nor should they be directed away from a particular activity.

What's the connection between preschool lawsuits and genetic testing for child athletes? 

More than anything both stories illustrate the extreme parental anxiety that exists today, especially in upper-middle class communities. My research on competitive afterschool activities shows how parents connect elementary school performance to preparation for the college admissions process. Ms. Imprescia's focus on the Ivy League isn't extraordinary today-- what is extraordinary is her willingness to sue because of her assumption/entitlement/fervent desire for Lucia to end up at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, or Penn.  High performance in athletics is a "way in" to these schools, and a way to earn scholarships at others, so the Marston family is also on to something.

But both stories also show parents hyper-focusing on extremely unrealistic goals for children. The likelihood of getting into Harvard, for example, is around 6% this year. Getting an NCAA scholarship? Lower. The Olympics? Lower still. You get the idea.  Setting up highly unlikely, and perhaps unrealistic, goals for children from a young age can be damaging. It can skew children's thoughts on success, and hence happiness. The reality is that even with talent and hard work luck plays a huge part in securing an Ivy League spot (speaking from experience here), getting a college athletic scholarship, or nabbing a gold medal at the Olympics in 2024.

Perhaps Ms. Imprescia has already sent away for her own genetic testing kit for little Lucia? In any event, let's hope she's also set up a therapy fund along with the college fund.