Science strives for precision and finding the right or at least the best answers to questions. The science of complexity means shifting our thinking from right answers to appropriate ones and what is best to good. The recent debate over parenting (particularly among Chinese families) illustrates how framing the issue and the outcomes makes a big difference.
Amy Chua “is probably the most reviled mother in America” according to Margaret Wente writing in the Globe and Mail. In her column, Wente is looking at the phenomenon that Chua writes about in her new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What has drawn such attention to Chua and her book is that she advocates for a very strict method of parenting in a manner that achieves very specific objectives with her children. The payoff? Her children are very successful. This is not a new argument, particularly when it comes to Chinese and other Asian cultural stereotypes. But like many stereotypes, they emerge from something that has a kernel of truth that gets used in ways that gets applied as a universal, rather than in context. Judging by the comments on the original Wall Street Journal story that attracted attention and the Globe and Mail’s review page, I would say that there is some truth to this stereotype and some wild overstatements as this gets applied universally to parenting.
A summary of the comments and commentary on this, crudely, fall into two camps (which, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later is ironic given how problematic the whole idea of reducing arguments into twos is, but go with me on this): 1) Amy Chua is recalling my childhood or parenting reality and its nice to hear someone acknowledge it and 2) Amy Chua is promoting harmful, inaccurate, racist stereotypes.
Child-raising is a common example of a complex system, showing how past experience is not necessarily a formula for future success. Thus, you can have the same parents, same household, even same genes (in the case of twins) and get two very different outcomes. Complex systems do not lend themselves to recipes or “best practices”. You can’t shoehorn complexity into “right” / “wrong” and either/or positions.
What is interesting about the discussion around Chua’s parenting style, which she claims reflects traditional Chinese behaviour (I am not Chinese so this is out of my realm for comment) is that the focus is on raising successful children, not necessarily happy, well-adjusted, self-determined or even creative children. And success, in the terms referred to means achieving or exceeding certain prescriptive standards for socially acceptable activities. This might mean acceptance at a prestigious school, an error-free performance, or a straight A report card. It is a rather narrowly proscribed form of achievement based upon a particular set of cultural conditions and assumptions.
One of the problems I see in this debate is that people are conflating the two types of outcomes, which is where the complexity comes in. What Chua has done is actually refer to parenting in line with a set of complicated activities and outputs, rather than part of a complex system. She has sought to reduce the complexity in the system of parenting by focusing on issues of tangible measurement and has created a familial system aimed at reducing the likelihood that these objectives will not be met. Her benchmark for success are visible outcomes, not the kind that come from growing one’s self-esteem, building true friendships, or learning to love. This isn’t to say that her children or those raised by “tiger parents” don’t have such experiences, but this isn’t what her method of parenting is focused on. And therein lies the rub and why much of the debate surrounding Chua’s book is misaligned.
If you are assessing the life of a person and their total experience as a human being, Chua’s method of parenting is quite problematic. Success in this situation has many different paths and may not even have a clear outcome. What does it really mean to be successful if love, happiness, and self-fulfilment is the outcome of interest – particularly when all of those things change and evolve over a week, a month or a lifetime? It is the kind of task that one might use developmental evaluation to assess if you were looking to determine what kind of impact a particular form of parenting has on children’s lives. Margaret Wente’s article uses some examples of “tiger parenting” outcomes with those who achieved much “success” using the benchmarks of externally validated standards and found mixed outcomes when “success” was viewed as part of a whole person. Andre Agassi grew to loathe tennis because of his experience, while Lang Lang appears to love his piano playing. Both have achieved success in some ways, but not all.
These two examples also go to show that with human systems, there is little ability to truly control the outcomes and process. Even if one can reduce outcomes to complicated or simplistic terms, those outcomes are still influenced by complex interactions. Complicated systems can be embedded within complex ones or the opposite. So no matter what kind of prescription a person uses, no matter how tight the controls are put, the influence of complexity has a way of finding itself into human affairs.
So is Amy Chua’s method of parenting successful or not, supportive or harmful, right or wrong? The answer is yes.