Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Trouble With Naratives

Narratives are a great way to write about all kinds of stories in journalism and punditry.  They make complex social phenomena easy to understand to a layman; they make distant historical events more "real" to otherwise uninterested people and they make an argument a lot more interesting than a bunch of charts and graphs.  There's one problem: there are so many people in the world with so many so stories that if you look hard enough you can find story that proves any social argument.  But that doesn't mean it's something that is true universally.

I came across this phenomena recently at Slate where a researcher published some primarily findings about so called "Tiger Mothers."  "Tiger Mothers" were a subject of much intellectual debate (dare I say a meme) about how Asian-American mothers have a superior style of parenting that results in better kids than their weak-kneed white counterparts that was started in 2011 after the publishing of Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The book was a memoir of sorts, about Chua's strict regime of parenting that included things like not letting her kids be in a school play and making them do 2,000 math problems a night after one came in second in the school math competition.  The book sparked much debate that generally fell into one of two camps.  Number one, Chua is awful and her advice is terrible and number two, Chua's advice is what we need to save America.  After some bouncing around public intelectual sphere and the obligatory David Brooks column, the book shuffled off into the dark, as these kind of books do.

But while public intellectuals were moving onto other topics, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas named Su Yeong Kim was actually conducting a long term study of 300 Asian-American families for the past decade.  These long term studies tell us a lot more about the life outcomes of people than tongue in cheek memoirs do.  Paul Tullis published some of Kim's preliminary findings, and they don't look good for the Tiger Mothers:
And although Chua presented her own children as Exhibit A of why her parenting style works, Kim said, “Our data shows Tiger parenting produces the opposite effect. Not just the general public but Asian-American parents have adopted this idea that if I'm a tiger parent, my kids will be whizzes like Chua’s kids. Unfortunately, tiger children’s GPA’s and depressive symptoms are similar to those whose parents who are very harsh.
“Tiger parenting doesn't produce superior outcomes in kids.”
One study of course is not enough to condemn cultural practices, but it is enough to debunk the very strong claims that Chua has made about her own specific parenting style being somehow superior to other styles.  Indeed for every one of Chua's protegees in the world, there's a David Choe, who also grew up in a domineering Asian-American family.  Choe became a petty criminal and graffiti artist in his youth who is now a successful artists who engages in behavior that even lily-livered "permissive"  parents would be horrified to see the children doing.

No worries though, Choe is worth millions of dollars because he did some murals for Facebook's offices and got paid in stock.  So at the very least, it's better to be lucky that well parented.

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