10 January 2011

Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be B+ Students

Here are the facts of the case. The accused is a professor of law at Yale, who has written one good, one pedestrian, and one apparently godawful book. The charge is of corrupting the youth. The scene was this morning's Wall Street Journal.

Matt Ygleisas puts the case against Amy Chua simply:
Amy Chua writing in The Wall Street Journal makes the case that just because you’ve written a good book doesn’t mean you’re not history’s greatest monster. ... On the list of problems typically experienced by the children of Yale Law School faculty “not successful enough” comes way below “has dysfunctional relationship with mother.”
A friend of mine who doesn't read Yglesias but does read the WSJ editorial page, where Professor Chua published her screed decrying "Western parents" who let their students do such terrible things as watching television, choosing their own extracurricular activities, and getting a B+, summed up the charge more pithily: "wtf? craziest f***ing b***h ever?"

Let's be frank. There is no real defense to be made here on Chua's behalf. I'm sure her children are still young enough that they haven't begun to deploy the sorts of weapons of the weak that teenagers everywhere have used against overbearing parents. And what's with the racism? (No, there isn't a better word.)

There's still something to be said about this debate, though. Although I don't have children, I have been a child, and my upbringing was a little bit more like Yglesias' than the Chua daughters'. In particular, my parents were very good about supporting and nurturing my interest in everything from dinosaurs and astronomy to history and politics. They even let me be in school plays (although they also forced me to play the piano). So I'm pretty sure that their efforts were highly net positive.

What they couldn't do, however, was overcome the fact that there were extremely limited opportunities in the city in which I grew up (which, to be fair, was the pinnacle of civilization for three hours in every direction). Travel helped: I went to New York for the first time when I was four, and to D.C. every couple of years from five onward, and to other places more frequently. Yet there's a big difference between, say, taking two-week summer courses at a university with a directional name (viz., "Southern," "Eastern") and being able to take semester-long college work during high school. The examples multiply easily and ceaselessly.

The takeaway, then, is that the criticisms of Chua qua Chua are both right and wrong. Right, in that they justly skewer her parenting style and her noxious recommendations to others. Wrong, in that they reinforce her unspoken premise that parents are the most important determinant in children's lives. There is plenty of academic and other work suggesting that the ways in which parents matter have more to do with income and social effects; even common sense suggests that the same family living in the Chicago metro area is likelier to raise children who will be more interesting and more successful than their counterfactual counterparts living in Metropolis, Ill.

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