The Problem With the Triple Package: Why Immigrant Parents Aren't Superior

The holes in the Tiger Mom's theory that superiority, insecurity, and impulse control breed success.


Almost exactly three years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion essay by Yale law professor Amy Chua titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The piece espoused the principles laid out in Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: That childhood is essentially a kind of boot camp for what will hopefully be a lucrative adulthood, and thus should be free of sleepovers, school plays, and poorly performed piano sonatas. Children should be harangued into round-the-clock studying and prevented from taking part in leisurely activities.

The piece and the book whipped up the expected firestorm. Throughout, Chua largely stuck to her guns, though she pointed out that she did not write the WSJ headline.

But this time, Chua, together with her husband and fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, wrote an entire book doubling down on that very headline. In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, out next week from Penguin, the couple argues that not just Chinese mothers, but Jewish, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban, and Mormon mothers and fathers are superior. (Conveniently, there is one of every race, so nobody can get mad.) The couple previewed their theory in a wildly popular New York Times opinion piece on Sunday.

The reason comes down to this so-called “Triple Package": A superiority complex, impulse control, and insecurity, which combine to drive these groups to succeed in the comparatively lackadaisical (according to the authors) culture of the United States.

The methodology for the selection of these power cultures isn’t totally clear, but it appears to have something to do with their relative representation among CEOs, their average incomes, and/or their achievements in academia. For instance, by 1990 the percentage of American-born Cubans with household incomes above $50,000 was double that of Anglo Americans, they write. And a majority of Harvard’s black students, they point out, are either the children of African immigrants or are immigrants themselves.

The Triple Package traits work approximately like this: Those eight cultures have, first, a superiority complex stemming from a mystical creation story (in the case of the Chinese) or a religious doctrine (the Jews and Mormons) and therefore feel their family must outperform those of other ethnicities and creeds. Second, they have insecurity, which can stem from either their precarious financial situations or from being discriminated against (the authors use the Nigerians and Iranians as examples). Finally, a certain grittiness or impulse control helps these groups persevere through adversity. (Mormon missionaries, they note, are always getting doors slammed in their faces.) The children of Triple-Package cultures spend their lives being told by their parents that a B on a test would shame the family, or that they must be perfect because they are the “chosen people,” and being forced to spend hours “drilling and memorizing” their schoolwork.

The book is already working like poison ivy on the otherwise happy camping trip that is the social-psych book world, so let’s start with its positive aspects. It does offer an in-depth look at the inner-workings of certain cultures, and it lays out plenty of strategies for the striving parent. It’s also an interesting, though slightly worry-inducing, read for those of us who aren’t from one of their eight subgroups. (I’m actually a Russian Jew, but I suppose the hard-charging Semite in me has been watered down by the more carefree Slav, who just wants to wear velour and listen to Cascada.)

Percentage of foreign born population by state (Imgur)

The selection of the groups does appear somewhat random. Russian immigrants don't earn any less than Chinese immigrants do, for example. And don’t even get me started on the superiority thing: No Russian-American dinner would be complete without some mention of outer space, ice hockey, or our homeland’s mighty literary canon. Meanwhile, the authors exclude other groups from the Triple Package list despite seemingly obvious caveats: A huge percentage of Mexican immigrants, for example, aren’t documented, which would make it hard for them to obtain the kinds of jobs that require paperwork, which are most of the good ones.

Immigrants are indeed an ambitious bunch. Immigrants and their children are more likely to get college degrees than are all Americans, they’re more likely to believe that hard work will help them get ahead, and they are more than twice as likely to start businesses as natives.

But the book's evidence for the internal dynamics underpinning these trends tends to overly rely on anecdotes from individual members, such as a Chinese-American Survivor winner and or an Iranian-American confused for an Arab after 9/11. The authors’ examples of “typical American” parents are comical stereotypes—one “white American” mom catches her daughter smoking pot and makes her write a “poem of atonement.”

What the authors don’t mention are the heaps of counter-examples involving remarkable people who don’t belong to Triple-Package cultures. Take this description of one easygoing 1960s American family:

The “household, known as Pennyroyal Farm, became the center of a vibrant arts community in Staunton … ‘Musicians would come and crash there for a couple of weeks because they’d run out of money,’ … ‘They’d play great music, and then finally they’d move on.’ … ‘Margaret and Fletcher were sort of hippies before there were hippies.’

The child of these hippy-dippy parents, Margaret and Fletcher, is Francis Collins, an Anglo-American, an MD/PhD, and current head of the National Institutes of Health.

Finally, while the authors do convincingly illustrate that many immigrants have these three traits, and that these groups are successful, the correlation and causation problem remains unanswered. With the exception of the famous marshmallow test and willpower, they don’t explain how exactly the Triple Package elements lead to better outcomes.

The current research on insecurity and success, for example, cuts both ways. In a meta-analysis, the psychologist Roy Baumeister found that boosting self-esteem has not been shown to help academic performance. Meanwhile, a study of 500 students, academics, and workers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who are more confident achieve higher social status, regardless of their actual abilities. So why tout insecurity when the current science on self-deprecation is still vague?

Similarly, in the impulse-control chapter, Chua and Rubenfeld note that, “one of the most remarkable things about impulse control is that it transfers over from one domain of life to another.” But studies have found that willpower is, in fact, finite. “A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll,” the American Psychological Association writes. “Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.”

And though Chua and Rubenfeld do point out fear as part of the “insecurity” motivator in immigrant ambition, they underestimate just how big of a factor it is. In reality, two steps out of LaGuardia or LAX or whatever polyphonic airport greets them, many immigrants who lack English and connections are seized with an all-consuming terror of starving to death. Research on immigrants has revealed widespread fear in their communities, particularly among the undocumented. And this fear tends to be immediate and causal: If you get an 85 on a science test one day, the thinking goes, you'll be chewing on shoe leather the next day because the family's meager cash reserves will have somehow evaporated overnight. In another recent immigrant tome, Little Failure, the author Gary Shteyngart describes his father arriving home from work one day and raining blows upon him for not completing a set of math problems out of a Soviet textbook in time. In the same breath, the elder Shteyngart worries that his "German boss" will fire him and the family will need their three-figure savings to live on. This is not because of some triumvirate of ironman characteristics. It is plain panic over survival.

Shteyngart clearly turned out fine—after years of therapy—but even Chua and Rubenfeld point out that not every Triple-Package child does. It's unclear from the book whether the Triple Package is something even worth aspiring to.

In an interview after Chua's first book, the New York Times wrote:

“In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme,” she writes in the book after describing how she once threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she did not play a piano composition perfectly. “On the other hand, they were highly effective.”

She's similarly equivocal in her follow-up. The couple offers seven chapters singing the praises of the Triple Package, and exactly one describing its “downside.”

And it’s a pretty big downside. Immigrants in all countries tend to have elevated levels of anxiety, but this type of relentless parental pressure can have particularly severe consequences.

Though some surveys show that Asian Americans suffer from less anxiety and depression than white Americans, in at least one 1995 study, Asian American teen girls were shown to have the “highest rates of depressive symptoms” of all races. Among the children of Filipino immigrants, family can be a source of “stress and alienation,” a 1997 study found.

“In a study of thousands of high school students, Asian-American students reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, even as they racked up the highest grades,” Chua and Rubenfeld wrote in the New York Times this weekend.

Other social scientists doubt the effectiveness of pushy parenting, regardless of culture. Suniya Luthar, a Columbia University psychologist, has documented rising depression and anxiety levels among the children of rich parents, which she attributes to “the pressure for high octane achievement.” Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, has suggested that “Qualities such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control, he writes, are more likely to ensure a child’s success in life than ‘cognitive’ (the traditional process of acquiring knowledge) teachings.”

Ang Lee, the Life of Pi director whom Chua and Rubenfeld hold up as an example of a successful Triple-Package immigrant, has spoken out against his father’s overbearing expectations. “He was not much fun and he was kind of disillusioned in me in some ways,” he told the Guardian. ”When I had my own family I was different because I didn't want to do that to my own kids, so I am fun.” Chua’s first book, meanwhile, launched dozens of blog posts along the lines of this one, titled: “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy.”

And there are clear disadvantages to cultural barriers within families. Children of Chinese and other Asian immigrants report high levels of “feeling embarrassed by their parents” and “parent-child conflict,” according to work by Rubén Rumbaut, a researcher whom Chua and Rubenfeld cite. Rumbaut also found that Cubans, one of the Triple Package super-cultures, had the highest dropout rates in Miami public schools.

The authors denounce American “just learn to love yourself” psychology, but unconditional self-acceptance is one of the best things for mental health. Self-compassion, or being kind to yourself when you fail, “had a significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness. It also had a significant negative association with negative affect and neuroticism,” one study found. More money may make you happier, but the reverse is also true: When people are happier, “they become more motivated to invest time and effort, and overcome obstacles when pursuing their goals,” as a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found in 2012. And calling your children “garbage,” as Chua admits to having done, does not make them happy.

An immigrant circa 1905, Ellis Island (Jorbasa/flickr)

Chua and Rubenfeld finally settle on the idea that children should be steeped in the Triple Package, but at the last minute they should “kick away” the Triple-Package ladder and follow their own rainbows. But the authors gloss over how this “kicking away” is supposed to work. You can’t “kick away” a childhood of anxiety and parental pressure. You can never make up for interests that atrophied because you spent every adolescent weekend in some basement cram school. And it's hard to get back the emotional intelligence—a factor that's key to rising in the workplace—lost to a childhood without social gatherings.

Chua and Rubenfeld seem to disparage “Americanizing,” or the fading of Triple-Package angst, but they also applaud the early-American style of striving. The book lionizes penniless entrepreneur who starts a multinational company from nothing or the young immigrant who triumphs over a language barrier and makes it to the Ivy League. They’re right that most white, middle-class Americans don’t fight for their lives the way Triple-Package cultures do, but it’s not because TV and Burger King have made them lazy. It’s because, for better or worse, people from comfortable, English-speaking backgrounds just don’t have to try as hard. For all their struggling, the children of immigrants end up earning the same, on average, as other Americans do.

The authors never define "success," but for them it seems to hover somewhere in the nexus of money, fame, and power. But that isn't everyone's definition. American parents who have already made it to the middle-class can afford to call "success" something closer to "happiness" or "self-actualization." Americans allow their kids to attend slumber parties and major in art history, not because they’re overindulgent, but because they know that with equal amounts of both focus and passion, their children will grow up to live comfortably—and comparatively worry-free.