Books April 2011

The Ivy Delusion

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

Right now, in admissions offices in Cambridge and New Haven and Palo Alto, the teenage children of some of America’s most thoughtful and devoted mothers are coming in for exceptionally close scrutiny—as is, so these women feel, the parenting they have offered their youngsters for the past 18 years. This is the tail end of reading season, when our august universities must turn to what their relentless high-school visiting and U.S. News & World Report boosterism have wrought: a staggering number of requests for an absurdly small number of spots at their schools. Harvard recently announced that this year it is considering an astronomical 35,000 applications for only about 1,640 spaces in the freshman class. The great hope of today’s professional-class parents—whose offspring still make up the majority at elite colleges, no matter how much progress the institutions have made in widening the socioeconomic range of their student bodies—was that the ebbing of the so-called echo boom would save their children from the heartless winnowing. The late 1990s and the 2000s saw an uptick in the number of teenagers in America, and there was a belief, in many quarters, that the increasingly competitive nature of elite-college admissions was a by-product of that demographic fluke. But now, although the number of teens has receded, the percentage of those kids who nurture the dream of attending a selective college continues to skyrocket. And so, for this year’s most accomplished and talented high-school seniors, the reckoning is at hand.

But we were talking about the mothers—the good mothers. The good mothers went to Brown, and they read The Drama of the Gifted Child, and they feel things very deeply, and they love their children in a way that is both complicated and primal, and they will make any sacrifice for them. They know that it takes a lot of time to nurture and guide a child—and also that time is fleeting, and that the bliss of having your kids at home is painfully short-lived—and so most of them have cut back on their professional aspirations in significant ways. The good mothers have certain ideas about how success in life is achieved, and these ideas have been sizzled into their brains by popularizers such as Joseph Campbell and Oprah Winfrey, and they boil down to this: everyone has at least one natural talent (the good mothers call it a “passion”), and creativity, effortless success, and beaucoup dinero flow not from banging your head against the closed door of, say, organic chemistry if you’re not that excited by it, but from dwelling deeply and ecstatically inside the thing that gives you the most pleasure. But you shouldn’t necessarily—or under any circumstances, actually—follow your bliss in a way that keeps you out of Yale. Because Yale is important, too! So important. The good mothers believe that their children should be able to follow their passions all the way to New Haven, Connecticut, and this obdurate belief of theirs is the reason so many of them (Obama voters, Rosa Parks diorama co-creators, gay-rights supporters, champions, in every conceivable way, of racial diversity and tolerance) are suddenly ready to demand restoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Because Amy Chua has revealed, in so many blunt and horrifying words, why the good mothers are getting spanked, and why it’s only going to get worse.


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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.

Chua’s description of her older daughter, Sophia, makes clear that this is a formidable young woman. However unpleasant the road to her pianistic accomplishments may have been—as a 6-year-old she had a secret habit of gnawing on the piano in frustration, which came to an end when her father informed her it was “the most expensive piece of furniture in the house”—there is no doubt that she has vast intelligence and warmth and humor. She wrote a spirited defense of her mother in the New York Post, which was itself a testament to one of the by-products of being raised this way: explaining Mommy to horrified Westerners can become a stand-alone extracurricular activity for these kids.

As of this writing, her application is being read, I’m sure, at many of the top colleges. Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them, but I can guarantee she’s put these schools’ admissions officers in a swivet. Obviously, it is not their job to provide a referendum on child-rearing practices. But they know that admitting her will send a powerful message to a large community. If Sophia goes to Harvard next fall, a significant number of parents will say to themselves: The method works. Her matriculation to a top school will surely result in more children’s being forced to endure what she did. “Early on,” Sophia explains—with unintended poignancy—in her New York Post letter, “I decided to be an easy child to raise.” These seemed to be the options in her family: to submit quietly and avoid her mother’s wrath, as Sophia did, or to scream bloody murder and receive the brunt of it, as Lulu did. If the former choice is the one rewarded with the laurel of the Ivy League, then that institution’s role in our national life—not just as a group of eight universities, but as an idea about the nature of American excellence—may just about have run its course.

Elite-college admissions offices drive professional-class parents crazy because in many respects they do not operate as meritocracies. Consider, for example, those students admitted via one of the two programs that stand as strange mirror opposites: those that give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni, and those that extend it to the children of unrepresented minorities. The latter practice suggests that generations of injustice and prejudice can be redressed by admission to a fancy college, the former that generations of inclusion and privilege demand their own special prize; the two philosophies would seem to cancel one another out, but each has its place in the larger system.

In fact, when you account for all of the “hooked” seats in the freshman class—spaces specifically set aside for kids who have some kind of recruited talent or family connection or who come from an underrepresented minority group—you accomplish, at the most selective colleges, two things: you fill a large percentage of the class (some researchers believe the figure is as high as 60 percent), and you do so with kids whose average grades and scores are significantly lower than your ideal. Now it’s time to swing a meritocracy into place; the caliber of the class is at stake. All of the unhooked students are now going to be thrown into a hypercompetitive pool, the likes of which the layperson can’t imagine. As daunting as the median grades and test scores of the typical Princeton admittee may appear, those statistics have taken into account all of the legacies and volleyball players and rich people’s children who pushed the averages down. The colleges are looking for one very specific quality at this point in the cycle: not “creativity” or “imagination” (or the ability to say funny things at the dinner table and make perceptive comments about movies—a knack today’s parents tend to call “critical thinking”); what they are looking for are the most deeply smart students in the country.

It’s sobering and humbling to see how quickly the first cut can be made among these kids, and how large the pool of stratospherically gifted kids remains, even after a few solid weeks of winnowing it down. Because the number of applicants is so big and because the competition gets stiffer every year, this cohort is dazzling. Yes, there are plenty of exhausted automatons in there, but they too will fall by the wayside. It’s not simply a matter of having sky-high grades and scores—all of the kids being seriously considered have them. Now you are looking at a deep talent pool containing many kids who are both hugely accomplished and creative, flexible thinkers. The embarrassment of riches is real; the colleges can find and admit kids who have both characteristics.

The elite colleges’ admissions officers are forever falling in love with the not-straight-A kids who write quirky, engaging essays, who clearly have garnered a particular respect and affection from their teachers, and who have done really interesting things on their own initiative. At the end of the admissions hunt, though, those kids get rejected. But their fate is not in any way a harsh one: there are other colleges in the country, lots and lots of them. Nor can you say that the country’s top colleges are creative and artistic wastelands; look up the calendar of events at any of them, and you will be quickly disabused of that notion. The bottom line is that the majority of kids applying to these places just don’t measure up, and that is a bitter pill to swallow for them and for their parents, if they have sacrificed the pleasures of a normal adolescence for the sole purpose of getting into one of the top schools.

And all of this brings us to the reason the good mothers are so furious at Amy Chua; not, really, because she has been harsh to her children. If anything, these revelations have given the good mothers something to feel better about; they would never treat their sweet children like that. Rather, they are angry because her harshness is going to rob their own children of something they fiercely want for them. They want the situation to change in their favor, but in fact the trend is against them. One of the reasons that Western, white parents of today remember an easier admissions environment at the top schools is that in their era, the schools held a dismissive attitude toward Asian students. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the Harvard admissions office in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it found evidence, if not of quotas, then at least of condescension toward the group. “Typical of other Asian applications,” said a handwritten note on one file; “classic VN [Vietnamese] bootstrap case,” said another. Chastened, the schools made a determined effort to read the files of Asian applicants as thoughtfully as they read those of white students. I would wager that the majority of the Asian American kids who apply to elite colleges are not marked for any kind of preferential treatment, and are therefore disproportionately represented in the group of applicants who are going to be judged purely on academic merit. Their ability to dominate in this category means that the Asian threat, as perceived by cheesed-off white professional-class parents, is in fact higher than their worst suspicions.

Chua has accepted, in a way that the good mothers will not, that most children today can’t have it both ways: they can’t have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. She understood early on—as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month—that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book, the one that has caused all the anguish: it’s an unwelcome reminder (how can we keep forgetting this?) that the world really doesn’t lie before us like a land of dreams. At best—at the very best—it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.

Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land will be published in January 2012.
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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  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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