Books April 2011

The Ivy Delusion

The real reason the good mothers are so rattled by Amy Chua

MORE ON Tiger Moms:
Sandra Tsing-Loh: Sympathy for
the Tiger Moms

Christina Schwarz: Let's Leave the Children Alone
Oliver Wang: Notes of a
Native Tiger Son

You should know that the good mothers have been mad—and getting madder—for quite a while now. The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere. Although the movie spends some time exploring the problems of lower-income students, it is most lovingly devoted to a group of neurasthenic, overworked, cracking-at-the-seams kids from a wealthy suburb in Northern California, whom we see mooning around the enormous kitchens of their McMansions and groaning about sleeplessness and stress. It posits that too much homework can give your child stomach pains, chronic anxiety, anhedonia.

The thesis of the film, 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.

I’ve read or—apparently—written every infuriating and provocative report on the state of professional-class parenting over the past decade, and nothing has come close to captivating me the way Tiger Mother has. I was riveted not because of the sensational moments that have by now become infamous, but because in the 1980s and ’90s I taught English and was a college counselor at an elite California prep school that had a large number of Asian families of the kind Chua describes, and I’ve seen what she’s talking about and know firsthand the kind of collateral damage Tiger Motherhood produces. Many Asian kids admitted to me—in confidence, because privacy to the point of secrecy is one of the hallmarks of this kind of family system—that they experienced some of the harsh treatment Chua describes imposing on her daughters.

Unlike Chua, the Asian mothers at our school rarely spoke about their methods or their goals, in part, it seems to me, because they knew how many of us disapproved of them. We called them “those mothers,” and we rolled our eyes and fretted endlessly about their kids. We were always working to subvert their goals by encouraging their children to look at colleges that were off the official list of exclusive schools and to take risks, blow off some steam, and not take things so seriously. In short, I realize, some of us were deeply ignorant of the philosophy that motivated these mothers; we would have benefited from a book like Chua’s, which explains the beliefs underpinning their approach: kids are inherently strong, not weak; self-esteem derives from accomplishing difficult and worthwhile pursuits; adults are better than children at judging what does and does not constitute a valuable or enriching experience; the better you get at something, the more you will enjoy doing it; and a great deal of what is on offer to American teenagers these days is not only coarsening but downright dangerous.

Furthermore, while the good mothers—and many of the talking heads in Race to Nowhere—are adamant that one of our country’s biggest educational problems is that we don’t have much respect for teachers, Chua reminds us that no one respects teachers more than Asian parents. They don’t blame teachers or criticize curricula. They really do believe that teachers are talented and important and smart, and that they know what they’re doing. Asian parents don’t march in and tell teachers how to do their job, or mock their assignments. Their belief in the transformative nature of education, and in the value and talent of the people who have dedicated their lives to it, is refreshing.

However, the way Chua is raising her girls crushes a lot of kids. When Chua writes that Chinese parents “can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners,” she’s dead right. I know a lot of social workers who would be very interested to learn of a 7-year-old forced, as Lulu once was, to sit at the piano, apparently for hours, without water or even a bathroom break. But the other fact that both Chua’s book and my experiences teaching kids like her daughters have revealed to me is that for all the destruction the model produces, it can also yield some of the most extraordinary—talented, generous, capable—young people you will ever meet. There is a desperate desire on the part of the good mothers to believe that all of the kids who grow up in this system are little robots, but they’re not.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land will be published in January 2012. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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