Tiger Moms, Innovation and the Economic and Social Good

In case you haven’t noticed, the economic buzzword of the last few years has been innovation.  It is the word to use if you want to lobby the government for something, for instance.  Are you a representative of some industry group?  Just tell Congress that you need tax breaks for innovative research and development (R&D).  Do you represent a state Department of Education, and want more funding from the federal department?  Just sprinkle your grant application with that magic word innovation here and there.  Frequently, use of the term in political rhetoric is some variant of “The U.S. relies on innovation to maintain its world status as an economic power.”  The word is abused, but there is some truth to the notion that it is vitally important.

Meanwhile, the Tiger Mom, Yale Law professor Amy Chua, has been back in the news.  She had a new book out this year, The Triple Package, in which Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld try to correlate success with the traits of their favorite cultural groups.  Though the authors didn’t quite claim that these groups subscribe to Chua’s ruthless “boot camp” approach to child rearing, Chua and Rubenfeld seem to think the difference is only a matter of degree.

So where — if at all — do these two concepts intersect, Tiger Mom-ism and innovation?  I’ll argue in this post that the first is quite antithetical to the second.  If there is an intersection, it takes the form of a violent crash, rather than a melding.  I’ll also (hopefully politely) question whether Chua is her own best poster girl for her philosophy.

I submit that innovative people tend to be dreamers.  I’m certainly not advocating that parents raise lazy kids, but all that intense regimentation in Tiger Mom-land clearly gives kids no chance to breathe, let alone dream.

Do you know ANY children of Tiger Parents who went on to achieve greatness?  I suppose there must be some, and I hope some of you post examples here.  But I can’t think of any among the real game changers in my fields (computer science, math, statistics) who were raised that way. Indeed, look at all the prominent tech people who did just the opposite of what Tiger Cubs do — they dropped out of college.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison (founder and CEO of Oracle) etc.

What is our (U.S.) comparative economic advantage?  We are not any smarter than the rest of the world, and those of other nations work just as hard as we do.  Instead, we excel at — yes! — innovation.  And it in turn is due to our free spirit, our relative lack of pressure to conform, our tolerance of people who seem to be doing nothing but aimless tinkering, but who are in fact DREAMING.  

In my EPI study, I investigated computer science students who later worked in the field.  The data revealed that the U.S.-born workers were more innovative than comparable foreign-born people who had been international students at American universities.  The natives had higher per-capita rates of patenting, and were more likely to work in R&D, etc  Innovation is what we DO.

Discipline and hard work have their place, of course, but not to excess.  Self-discipline should not mean that a child can’t have a bathroom break during music practice, a Chua household rule. From what I’ve read, Chua’s kids are funny and well-adjusted, kein ein hora (yes, I belong to one of Chua’s favored cultural groups), but it often doesn’t work out that way.  

After Chua’s first book was published, a number of offspring of Tiger Moms wrote moving accounts on the Web of how miserable they had been as kids, and how much resentment they still felt now as adults.  In rare but a disturbingly common number of cases, it apparently is a contributing cause to tragedy.  Chua has actually been asked about such things a number of times, but she summarily dismisses them.

What I think is especially telling is that Chua has admitted that she is not very interested in her own profession, the law.  She’s written that during law school, for instance, she couldn’t understand why her classmates, including her future husband, were so passionately discussing legal controversies.  Her own publication record, vital to anyone in academia, appears to have very little in the legal field.  (Her husband, whose time at Yale Law started before Chua’s, is a prominent scholar of constitutional law, and has served as assistant dean at the school.)  Chua has apparently written some good history books, but truth be told, has not made an impact on her own profession.  Impact requires passion.  In other words, Chua is not a good poster girl for her thesis, and indeed, her case buttresses my own thesis here, that Tiger Mom-ism and greatness don’t mix.  

In fairness, it should be noted that Chua’s father Leon is a fine innovator, the (conceptual) inventor of the memristor, an electronic device.  Did HE have a Tiger Mom?  Interesting question.  But it should also be noted that Chua Sr.’s memristor concept (one was not actually constructed until decades later) was just what I’m talking about, a wacky, pie-in-the-sky idea that no one thought practical at the time, if indeed the concept made sense at all.  In other words, Professor Leon Chua was a dreamer.





8 thoughts on “Tiger Moms, Innovation and the Economic and Social Good

  1. Interesting viewpoint on American innovation. But American innovation has not done much for creating massive high-tech export-intensive manufacturing industries that mass employ American workers and concurrently help balance of payments. On the other hand, Germany which is supposedly not as innovative as US runs massive current account surpluses due to its exports of high-tech machinery, materials, and components.


  2. Norm: I hope that you will discuss the related Chinese focus on rote learning in an upcoming blog post. Such an approach tends to stifle innovation and individuality.


  3. There’s a lot of interest in William Deresiewicz and his new book ‘Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.’

    He writes about his dislike of Tiger Mom.


    BOOKS MARCH 25, 2014

    The Miseducation of the Tiger Mom

    An odd new book by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld gives ambition a bad name

    By William Deresiewicz

    Tiger Mother is back, this time with her consort in tow. Not content to lecture us about the superiority of Chinese parenting, as she did in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua has returned, with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, to pitch the argument on a collective scale. We are now to learn that it isn’t only family success that depends upon adhering to her creed of joyless drudgery and manic self-inflation, it is also the success of ethnic and religious groups, as well as of the nation as a whole. The argument is “controversial,” of course: Chua knows how to float a bestseller by now. It is also sloppy, shallow, and underinformed, badly misperceiving both America’s historic strength and its current debility.


  4. ‘Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.’

    To me, Deresiewicz is perfectly describing the American elite who push unanimously for immigration ‘reform.’ They think they’re doing right, but they have identified their personal career interest with what’s right since they were kids, busily filling out their resumes for Ivy League admission with activities designed to impress.

    A great example was our president, from Harvard, claiming twice in recent press conferences that everyone is with him on immigration reform, except a nasty minority of Tea Party zealots determined to torment him. The press could have easily smashed that argument by citing the numerous recent polls showing that 2/3 of Americans are fed up with his lax immigration policies leading to the children’s crusade. But no one did – that might get you kicked right out of the elite. The elite don’t care what the great unwashed think, it doesn’t even register in their cozy club.




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