Home > Bryan Caplan, Morality, The Guardian > Childhood is Part of Life

Childhood is Part of Life

Bryan Caplan and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua debate parenting styles in The Guardian:

BC: I have three sons – eight-year-old identical twins and a baby. I’m not permissive, we do have discipline, but the point is to make sure they treat people decently. Once my kids were born, I realised that all these things that people say about parenting are wrong according to the best science. Parents seem to think their kids are like clay, that you mould them into the right shape when they’re wet. A better metaphor is that kids are like flexible plastic – they respond to pressure, but when you release the pressure they tend to pop back to their original shape. I don’t know Amy and her kids, but from my reading of the book the mother-daughter relationship seemed strained for many years, and that’s sad.

AC: I instilled a sense of respect and discipline that will last them a lifetime. I don’t think just by doing fun things and praising kids all the time that they develop that inner strength. When my kids wanted to give up on things, I wouldn’t let them, and those are lifelong lessons. The reason my daughters say they would be strict parents themselves is because that represents a mother who loved her children more than anything.

Twin studies aren’t perfect, but they provide the best scientific insight on the effects of parenting. Those studies suggest that parents have far less influence on how their kids turn out than most people think. Chua emphasizes that her style of parenting is truly caring because it sets children up for successful lives. In the book she writes, “everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The Tiger Mom prevented her kids from going to sleepovers, having play-dates, being in school plays, or doing anything else they wanted to do that didn’t fit Chua’s strict model.

As a child I had lots of fun playing at other kids’ houses and would never trade in my time in school plays, although neither will likely determine my level of success in life. Chua’s kids, as she freely admits, missed out a loads of fun and spent countless hours in distress (for their own good). Behavioral genetics shows that all that suffering was largely for nothing. Even absent that evidence, I still don’t understand why some parents believe that success in adulthood somehow outweighs misery in childhood. She can’t possibly believe that if she allowed her kid cut back a few hours on the piano or act in a couple plays they’d turn into homeless drug addicts. Chua ensures unhappiness for her children and, evidently, herself in the hope that they’ll be somewhat more successful as adults. Amy Chua and, more extremely, Kirk Murphy’s mother fail to recognize that misery is misery whether it happens at 7, 15, or 38.

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