Saturday, January 29, 2011

In reluctant defense of (reading the book of) Amy Chua

PG and I have, like everyone else, been having a debate about Amy Chua's book. Since neither of us has read it (in its entirety, at least), I was beginning to think we'd discussed it from almost every possible other angle, and thus reached a dead end.

Not so! Yesterday I listened to the Slate Audio Book Club on Chua (which, incidentally, I recommend to even those considering reading the book - it's not as if there are "spoilers" at this point - but which made me more curious to read the book), and judging by the response of some intelligent people who apparently read it cover to cover... PG and I were both right. One of the participants said the coverage misses the third half (UPDATE not half, part - thanks for noticing this to my own mother, yes I catch the irony given the topic of this post) of the book, and they all agreed that the buzz =/= what's actually in the book. Points for PG. However, one (possibly the same) participant also pointed out that the way she can tell that the people holding forth on the book haven't read it is that they actually leave out some of the more outrageous things in it (the relationship with the permissive Jewish relatives, esp mother-in-law, apparently). Rather than making just them more sympathetic to Chua, reading the whole darn thing made the participants unsympathetic in new ways as well. And it doesn't appear that consuming the this-is-not-a-parenting-guide disclaimer, or the entire "narrative arc" culminating in an I-was-wrong, makes a reader not take away from the book that they should maybe question their own lax parenting style. (One participant mentions making her son practice the drums longer, and taking a more active role in her son's - another son's? - swimming lessons.) But at least someone at Slate thinks the book was a success as a memoir (they all agree it's a memoir), so PG, you win this round. If I were pre-enlightenment Amy Chua's daughter, I'd be punished accordingly for taking second place.

What I thought was most compelling in the podcast, that hasn't come up much in the discussion overall, was the question of what it means for someone who's essentially a mainstream, high-achieving, well-connected, elite American to adopt what is essentially an immigrant attitude to parenting. In other words, that this isn't a memoir about immigrant parenting or elite parenting, but about the unusual choice of elite parents (or one elite mother, if only for a time) to create an artificial sense for their children that the world will end if they don't get all A's. This interests me on a personal level both as someone raised in a family that's perpetuated some "immigrant" ways (though nothing as out-there as the WSJ excerpt) well beyond any actual immigrant generation, and as someone who for entirely particular reasons rarely experiences a moment of bourgeois everything-will-be-OK. (Yes, I opted for humanities grad school, but when I started, it was with plans B, C, and D in the back of my mind, never anything about how I could take some time off to find myself if it didn't work out.)

On a general level, though, what matters is the question of regression to the mean, something I alluded to in my first post on this, but that seemed more central after hearing the Slate folks discuss. One of the participants phrased it as, Chua didn't need to go the immigrant-parent route, because her children already had all the privileges that come with being the children of two Yale law profs/public intellectuals, in a milieu of immense intellectual and not insubstantial material advantage. But that's not how it works! Privilege of this nature does not guarantee one's children will be successful, only that if they're not, this is highly embarrassing for everyone involved - the parents who believe in meritocracy who must now confront that their children are not so great after all, and the children who've been schooled in how unjust of a society we're living in, who know they have it good, and who've still failed to make anything of themselves. If Chua hadn't cracked the metaphorical whip (or literal? why I do need to read the thing...) maybe her daughters would be trying to find creative ways not to let on how successful their parents were, so as not to attract unfavorable comparisons.

The draw of the book, then, is precisely the fact that even the most successful "Western" parents can't rely on good schools and their general educatedness if they want their children doing at least as well as they did. That it is the end of the world, in its way, if generation after generation slides in the US News and World Report ranking of its alma mater. Chua's originality is in finding a way to address this that isn't coming out and saying, damned if my kid doesn't go to Harvard. No, it's about having a work ethic, about things that are only fun when you've worked at them, about honoring immigrant forbearers or Asian traditions or who knows. Whatever it is, it's not crass, it's not about brand names. She's offering an alternative to the multiple-intelligences, well-roundedness excuses parents give (and provide themselves) for their kids' academic mediocrity, a respectable way to subtly make sure your children don't go to their safety schools. She's telling them not necessarily that it's possible to make every child an academic success, but that it's OK to care not only if one's child is happy, but if the family's place in a certain elite is secure for one more generation.


X. Trapnel said...

I suppose I just don't understand why this is supposed to be a good thing, precisely. It's good for society if the elite is better able to entrench themselves? In what way is this the end of the world?

I'm also a bit wary about the ambiguity surrounding their kids being fine. It's almost trivially true that matching their parents' achievements isn't guaranteed, sure, but the more normatively compelling version of 'things are going to be ok' has to do with relative immunity to the horror stories one hears about genuine poverty, being wiped out by sudden illness, that sort of thing. They really are largely immune to that (and so am I, no matter how I may have squandered my 20s =P).

X. Trapnel said...

Err, that should be: in what way is it the end of the world if we have both relative and absolute social mobility, which, yes, implies the downward as well as upward sides of that coin?

Phoebe said...

As I mentioned in my first post on Chua, regarding the meritocracy-mediocrity issue, it's not "a good thing," as in a cause society should get behind, to promote the children of the privileged. It's if anything a bad thing - the talented children of the mediocre should win spots in the elite over the mediocre children of the talented, mobility should go both ways, etc. If you look at it in a not-so-zero-sum way, though, then the more children being raised to finish their math homework or whatever, the better, in that this raises overall standards/national standards if that's your concern. I'm inclined to see more what Chua has to say about this to see how she structures an argument that's about making parents think perpetuating privilege is not something to feel ashamed of.

Not sure I understand your second point - who is claiming "ambiguity" - me? Chua? While obviously it's impossible to entirely replicate the experience of someone truly on the cusp of poverty, such as many a new immigrant, it is absolutely possible to raise children with this sense even in upper-middle-class homes. For one thing, parental wealth doesn't mean a child is given any particular allowance, nor that any help will be offered after the age of 18. But on a less concrete level, a kid can grow up with the sense that the world will end if he doesn't get straight As, even if practically speaking he'll be having organic kale with his family that night however he does on the test.

Again, not sure I understood the second part of your comment, so correct me if I'm missing something, but I don't think there's anything trivial about kids not matching parents' achievements in a meritocracy. Downward mobility, the kind not resulting from a poor economy but from an academically mediocre kid, is a source of immense shame for the individual families involved. Part of it is snobbery - the whole uh oh Haverford isn't Harvard - but it's not that entirely. It's also that upper-middle-class professionals are not some kind of landed gentry whose descendants never need worry about material comfort. Much of the privilege that gets passed down in such families is in the form of status-maintaining values, precisely because there's not enough money around to not worry about it. The adult children of doctors, lawyers, etc. typically do need to work, and if they opt for low-paid fields/flounder trying to find themselves, they'll be looking at enough of a drop social-mobility-wise that the families they form could easily be at the margins of poverty.

X. Trapnel said...

children being raised to finish their math homework or whatever, the better, in that this raises overall standards/national standards if that's your concern

But this hardly applies to piano/violin. Which is part of a broader worry: the Chua way seems to be about teaching children that the important thing is to excel in whatever is deemed important by external authorities, rather than to critically evaluate such judgements, and pursue only those goals that withstand such scrutiny. Which is a good recipe for generating not just Carnegie Hall-caliber pianists, but also ibankers and lawyers skilled and socially destructive pursuits. This is extra pernicious because children like hers are in the best position to adopt this critical posture; as you say, 'real' children of immigrants often can't afford to.

Yes, the ambiguity that concerns me was in your posts; I see it again in your last paragraph. There's at least 3 levels here: Haverford not Harvard, "never need worry about material comfort", and "at the margins of poverty." There's a huge difference not only b/w 1 and 2, but also 2 and 3.

Part of why children like Chua's are, yes, largely immune to 3 is that they are quite unlikely to flounder in ways that really lock in mistakes--in particular, they are unlikely to have lots of children whom they can't support. The cliche is precisely the reverse--they dick around and delay starting families.

My claim is that any anxiety on Chua's part is either focused on level 1, or is largely irrational. Her children are simply not at risk of real deprivation.

Phoebe said...

OK, I think I understand now. Addressing your points in reverse order...

I suppose I disagree that Chua's "children are simply not at risk of real deprivation." Chua may be a different case, in that she's probably wealthier than the typical education-crazed professional, but in general, the only period of time during which the kids of the typical lawyer, doctor, etc. are not at risk for sliding into poverty is while still living at home, or if their parents pay for college, during college. In most cases, kids from such families figure out - thanks to their cultural privilege, how to support themselves, or if they don't, their parents help them out. But if the parents tell their kids, make choices we don't like and we're cutting you off, and mean it, and may say this not only to make a point but also because they simply don't have the money to support certain choices and retire, what great cushion prevents the offspring of professionals from crashing? Trust funds aren't relevant for the social class in question. So, remove the Chua-level hysteria from the equation, and you're still looking at a genuine fear of fairly rapid downward mobility.

As for critically evaluating pursuits... Again, I should point out that I'm not advocating Chua's (pre-oops-I-was-wrong) parenting method. The whole violin-but-not-cello thing is bizarre, but there are certain routes to mainstream success - Chua's just more open than are other parents who care just as much about how one gets there, and the fact that this is (was?) her goal for her children.

Britta said...

I mostly agree with what you're saying, but I disagree about the trust funds. I know children of the (upper middle class? lower upper class?) elite whose parents were successful professionals (including lawyers), and many of them have 6-figure trust funds managed by their parents' accountants. There's a big difference between having (lower upper middle class?) parents who will help with college and (upper-upper middle class?) parents who will pay for college, grad school, professional school, etc. AND sock $300,000 in an index fund for you to do whatever with, like buy a condo at some point. These are all people on an Amy Chua level, give or take a bit. I agree that at some point the money runs out, but most parents on Amy Chua's level give or take have more than enough means to make sure their adult children don't slide into below the upper middle class. Being guaranteed home ownership whatever career you have is a huge preservation of our class system.

Phoebe said...


Fair point. I suppose the issue is partly precision - there are some upper-upper-middle-class kids for whom any downward mobility gets delayed at least a generation (or might - $300,000 sounds like a lot to a doctoral student, and constitutes privilege if used wisely, but is not a tremendous amount to blow through, and isn't the kind of wealth that will be there regardless of life choices, probably just enough to make some young people not yet accustomed to the boring expenses of adulthood think it will last forever), then there are the lower-upper-middle-class kids who graduate without student loans, but are on their own after that, the alternative being to move home. Anecdata as usual here, but I suspect the members of middle of the upper middle class, and to some extent all who aren't just adding the "middle" even though they're super-wealthy, are not in a position to preserve their family's class through wealth alone.

It's not that they don't pass along their status, but that they do so largely through cultural preferences, education, knowing how to work the system, etc. Life is unfair as everyone already suspected, but not because every child of upper middle class parents has a bottomless trust fund.

Point being, yes, Chua's daughters were likely to be fine regardless, but not because families like theirs are a new aristocracy, living off seemingly eternal family money. At best, money might have assured that their daughters didn't lose the lifestyle to which they'd grown accustomed - the artificial "immigrant" parenting is about perpetuating this for indefinite generations.

PG said...

In fairness, I'll download the whole book ASAP and read it as well.

I'm surprised that the offspring of two professors could expect $300k trust funds. I don't know where one would get data for Chua and Rubenfeld specifically because they're at a private institution, but the public law schools that are required to publish salary data and compete with Yale Law for professors are Virginia and Berkeley. The most highly compensated professor at Berkeley -- where this includes, among other benefits, housing allowances, in an area with much higher housing costs than New Haven -- gets about $350k a year. A lot of money, yes, but I'd be impressed by the frugality of a household that can make even $700k a year at the top of their marketability yet still can afford not only upper class lifestyles (nanny, an overseas trip every couple of years, private schools and music lessons, kids' college tuition) but also $300k trust funds. I didn't get the impression that Rubenfeld's remark, that he would need to write another successful novel to pay for the expenses Chua incurred in the name of the children, was entirely joking.

I've certainly witnessed the phenomenon of parents' being willing to spend well-nigh unlimited amounts of money on their children's rearing and education while being unwilling to put substantial amounts of money under the children's direct control. (I think this is a perfectly sensible attitude, and one replicated in a national welfare system of housing vouchers, food stamps and Medicaid rather than simple cash transfers. In both cases, the expenditures are made in order to ensure the beneficiary has things that the *grantor* cares about, not because one wants to spend X amount of money and doesn't care how the beneficiary spends it.)

Phoebe said...


We don't know, it's true, whether Chua's daughters could be a kind of landed gentry, assuming of course their parents were willing to set that up. I was extrapolating that this was unlikely on the basis of, among other anecdotal evidence, the fact that my father's a doctor, I grew up in fancy schmancy Manhattan, and I certainly have to work. I suspect that the vast majority of categories of people used as examples of 'privilege' also have to work, and that there's a popular conflation of cultural privilege (which is itself plenty real, so there's no reason to exaggerate material comfort) and a the kind of wealth where money truly doesn't matter. If I had to guess where the confusion comes from, perhaps from a time when "bourgeois" meant anything from a small-time lawyer to someone who was basically landed aristocracy but without a title? The high end of that would today be understood as upper class (do we care about titles, legally valid or not in the US?), and people would and do laugh when such individuals add "middle" to the description. I tend to think the "middle" bit implies precisely that wealth alone is not what's going to keep this family where it is.

I don't have a kindle, and already have to read too many long documents on the computer screen, so the book will have to wait till I'm back in the US.

Phoebe said...

Also - there's the fact that "middle class" exists as a euphemism for "gobs and gobs of money," perhaps more so in Britain than in the States. Consider the use of the term in the "No" portion of this Guardian discussion, in particular the reference to "middle-class TV bigwigs."

And entertainment probably does enter into the construction of that euphemism - the other issue being, as I mentioned before, the old definition of "bourgeois." I don't know the British shows being referred to, but one might consider "Modern Family," "Friends," or even more so any number of romantic comedies, where that which does not ostensibly depict "the rich" reveals a standard of living (real estate, as well as general upkeep of perfectly coiffed and in-shape cast) well above that of people who in real life make ten times the amount of what the characters are supposed to.

Britta said...

The people I know with trust funds in the low-mid six figures come from people with family incomes in the mid six figures--the sort of family where the dad makes about $400,000-$500,000, and the mom about $100,000 or so. Obviously, depending on how you try to live, that is either a very large amount or so little you have to write to the Chicago Tribune claiming you can't afford to pay a higher tax rate. But, you can live very comfortably (e.g. cleaning lady, private schools, fancy car, yearly overseas nice vacation, nice but not enormous home in good zipcode, etc.), if not extremely extravagantly, and still afford, over the 18-20 years of your child's life, to sock away a couple hundred thousand in a trust fund for your kid (plus, if you've invested it wisely, it should grow on its own for a lot of that period). I get if you're trying to live like Paris Hilton, $700,000 doesn't seem like a lot, but it's easy to have all the things PG mentioned and still save a bundle at that income.

In terms of law professor incomes, a law professor at UChicago can make about $430,000 a year, according the law prof who wrote the letter whining about how poor he was to the Tribune (I think that's how much he made. I would have to double check that that's not his household income and his wife has a high paying job, but I think that's what his salary was). If that is true, it might be possible two Yale law profs could have an income of around $800,000 a year. I'm not saying Amy Chua's children will have a 6-figure trust fund, but they definitely could.

Phoebe said...


I'll respond to the specifics next, but first, I do think the issue is perpetuating elite/upper-middle/whatever status forever, not just raising kids who don't live on the street. In other eras, and today for the super-rich, family money/status could/can be relied on to make this happen. By Chua's standard, and indeed by the less openly expressed standard of others in her milieu, a child who does not on his own, as an adult, maintain the same buffer against poverty/lower-class-ness as his parents did has failed. How long it would take for genuine poverty to be a genuine risk would vary, but even two successful lawyer parents can't sustain upper-middle-class-ness without providing a whole lot that isn't money.

As for the particulars... Wealth is a spectrum, so yes, some very rich lawyers (and if your info is right, top law profs would be among them) may be able to provide for the next several generations, while some small-firm-lawyer and stay-at-home-parent couples' kids will qualify for financial aid. There are also mitigating factors such as where the family lives, whether both parents work (or work in such high-paid fields), how many children the family has, etc. I don't have all that much anecdata here, because (I'm assuming) people with $700,000 worth of family money to do what they want with don't discuss this openly, and I don't know that many people to be in this situation. But I suspect that the general category of families referred to as "upper-middle class" are not in that upper-upper-middle situation, especially when one considers not only lower-paid lawyers, etc., but also the various careers (journalist, non-law prof) that may self-identify as such but not pay so well.

As for Paris Hilton... While I have never personally blown through $300,000 or $700,000, nor had the opportunity to do so, I have heard of this happening, and it really wouldn't require weekly trips to St. Tropez on a private jet. Upscale apartments in NY can rent for $10,000 a month - a year of so of lifestyle-to-which-one's-grown-accustomed, plus fairly mundane expensive habits that add up (eating out without noticing prices on the menu, mani-pedis, etc.), some vacations, would do it. As would losing it all in a bad investment or business venture, the kinds of things entered into by those who don't, as the saying goes, know the value of a dollar. That amount could quickly enough become $700,000 worth of debt.

The point isn't that these amounts, whichever of the two we've settled on discussing, are or are not "a lot," or that they couldn't be used wisely so as to maintain one's status, but that neither one offers the kind of protection from a rapid decline in status. Either amount is a nice perk, but not a never-having-to-worry, never-having-to-work situation.

PG said...

I think Britta is referring to Todd Henderson of the Truth on the Market blog, where he coyly described his income as higher than $250k but didn't specify exactly. When BusinessInsider estimated it at $450k, he bleated that that was *too* high; BI amended its estimate to $400k. Note that Henderson's wife is a physician at the University of Chicago hospital, so I'd guess that nearly half the income is produced by her. (Henderson's initial post about how he was merely middle class drew comparisons between himself and the Obamas -- to what purpose, I don't know, since I don't remember the president ever claiming that they *weren't* wealthy, and indeed Obama said in 2007 that his daughters shouldn't benefit from affirmative action because their economic privilege cancels out any possible racial disadvantage, and explicitly distinguished from the situation of middle-class black kids for whom he believes affirmative action might be appropriate.)

Anyway, I'd note that the other standard expense of the upper-middle class, who generally don't get defined-benefit pensions, is saving for their retirement -- something that can easily eat any trust funds. I'd certainly sock away at least $1mil for my retirement before I'd hand my kids trust funds. If I were going to make some sort of Western vs. Asian childrearing complaint that favored the Asians, it would be about Westerners raising children (or having spouses) who think it's appropriate to dump their elders in nursing homes on the government dime. Except of course some Asians will do that too :-P

Phoebe said...


It would be interesting to know what % of those who could do so even want to provide six-figure-plus trust funds to their kids/grandkids. The notion that doing so not only takes retirement/vacation/charity/shoe-closet-building money away from the parents, but is also actually detrimental to the kids, is pretty widespread. I think, as you said, paying for education only, or perhaps to help with buying a house, is the more usual situation. It could be I know more people in the situation Britta describes than I think, but I can't off the top of my head come up with very many examples.

This is basically just a large-scale, adult version of the question of what it means to spoil children - we speak of kids as "rich," "middle-class," "poor," but while poor is straightforward, between middle-class and rich, there's a great deal of variety of how much money kids themselves have to throw around, making that a separate question from the privilege being from a family where the parents have a lot of money entails.

PG said...

Trusts are advised by tax planners in order to get estates under the mark at which they'd get hit by the estate tax, which until recently was about 50%. I find it plausible that you and Britta know lots of people with trusts, assuming you know lots of people whose parents could have a net estate (including non-liquid assets like a home) of $2mil and gotten any estate-planning advice. Whether you know lots of people who could live off their trusts, even frugally, is a more relevant question.

Also, many parents (perhaps especially Asian parents) wouldn't give their child enough money that she wouldn't need to work for the reasons you've described. It would be incredibly shameful in their community to have a mentally-competent child, on whom they lavished tutoring and tuition, not working at a job producing at least a middle-class income (or married to someone who could support her while she raised the kids).

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this, but Stephen Colbert's inteview with Amy Chua on last week's "The Colbert Report" is funny and worth watching. JM