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How to raise an unhappy child

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | January 20, 2011

The media is abuzz about Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (see this excerpt from the Wall Street Journal).  Chua argues that “Chinese” mothers “are superior” because they demand absolute perfection — and won’t refrain from berating, threatening, and even starving their kids until they’re satisfied.

Chua acknowledges that her argument will offend softy “Western” parents, who prefer to coddle rather than throttle their kids—parents who prioritize happiness over achievement.

detail of book cover

book cover detail

I am not offended so much as worried.  My inbox is full of parents looking for an answer: Should I be more demanding?  Will my children be aimless underachievers if I foster things like friendship and gratitude rather than tripling their piano practice time?

Though I’m anything but permissive, even by Chua’s standards, I am one of those “Western” parents that absolutely does prioritize children’s long-term happiness over their achievements and performances.  Ironically, I adapted these values from a confluence of Eastern philosophy—particularly Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Buddhist teachings—and Western science, which provides ample evidence that success follows happiness, and not the other way around.

Chua’s argument goes against years of scientific research into what makes kids truly happy — and successful — in life.  Moreover, it rests on a faulty premise: Rather than being overly permissive, many American parents—especially the well-educated, affluent Americans reading excerpts in the WSJ or on —a re overly focused on achievement already. Chua’s guide to raising ever-more high-achieving children could fuel this fire, and that’s scary.

Chua defines success narrowly, focusing on achievement and perfection at all costs: Success is getting straight As and being a violin or piano prodigy.  Three decades of research clearly suggests that such a narrow focus on achievement can produce wildly unhappy people. Yes, they may boast perfect report cards and stunning piano recitals. But we are a country full of high-achieving but depressed and suicidal college students, a record number of whom take prescription medication for anxiety and depression.

Chua argues that happiness comes from mastery, and that mastery is achieved through “tenacious practice, practice, practice.”  She’s right here — practice does fuel success — but she’s wrong that forced mastery will lead to happiness.  “Once a child starts to excel at something,” she writes, “he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”

Although there’s some logic to this “virtuous circle,” the drug-like gratification that comes from this type of achievement is not happiness or fulfillment: Once the initial exhilaration wears off, it’s on to the next goal, in search of that elusive feeling of accomplishment. It’s success without long-term enjoyment, work without meaning.

Chua is prescribing life motivated by perfectionism — fear of failure, fear of disappointment.  Not only is this a vicious form of unhappiness, but research by Carol Dweck and many others shows that kids who are not allowed to make mistakes don’t develop the resilience or grit they need later in life to overcome challenges, or pick themselves up when they do fail. Perfectionists are far more likely to be depressed, anxious, and in college, they are more likely to commit suicide.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is how Chua disparages play and friendships: She takes pride in never letting her kids have playdates or sleepovers, so that they have more time for schoolwork and practicing their instruments.

If scientists have learned anything on the subject, it’s that social connections are the foundation for happiness, health, and success in life.  When kids build friendships through play, their social and emotional intelligence flourishes; social skills are a key predictor of success later in life.  What’s more, research clearly links loneliness and isolation with chronic illness and increased mortality rates, not to mention unhappiness.

Chua also recommends motivating kids through coercion and threats — a recipe not just for unhappiness but also for unethical behavior.  People who are motivated externally with threats and rewards are less creative, less able to solve problems, and more likely to cheat to meet the expectations of those around them.

I’m not suggesting that you should fret about your children’s self-esteem, pump them full of false praise, or let them run wild.  I don’t do those things, and I don’t advocate permissive parenting.  I do advocate happiness and joy as the paths to a meaningful life.

But if that sounds fluffy to you — if you, like Chua, value your children’s success over their long-term happiness—and you are inclined to practice Chua’s methods for turning out an Ivy-Leaguer, here is what I want you to remember: Fostering the skills that kids need for happiness is a better bet for their long-term success.

Do you think children raised by “Chinese” mothers are “superior,” as Chua asserts?  Where you raised in the “Chinese” style of parenting Chua hyperbolizes?  If so, did it work for you?  Did you learn the skills you need for happiness now?  Has Chua’s essay made you rethink how you parent?  Why or why not?

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

Comments to “How to raise an unhappy child

  1. I think it’s important to mention self-acceptance in this context. Perfectionism militates against self-acceptance. Because they can’t accept themselves, perfectionists always demand perfect performance. This is also what fuels compulsive bodybuilding and anorexia. It’s all about trying to find your identity in your performance or in bodily perfection.

    However, performance should *follow* identity, not vice versa. In other words, if you’re secure, you perform for the “right” reasons, and your performances need not be perfect. But if you’re insecure, you’ll be performing for the wrong reasons, and you will never find a secure identity if it’s tied to how well you perform.

  2. The hardest part of parenting, for me, has been to LET GO and let the kids learn for themselves. It takes enormous faith in them, and in the rest of the world, and I suppose in my husband’s and my parenting to do this. But the alternative–keeping them tied to the piano, or strapped to their schoolbooks–is worse, even if it would be easier. Not to mention letting them drive off by themselves the first day they get their driver’s license.

    I agree with David Brooks in the NYTImes: Ms. Chua is a wimp, because she coddles her daughters by not letting them go, free to sink and swim–we ALL sink and swim, before we really learn to swim well–on their own. Helicopter/Tiger parents run the risk of squeezing the fun out of life: learning the hard way from our mistakes. Those are some of my happiest memories!

    Signed, Harvard Grad (not all Ivies are Helicopters) with son at Berkeley

  3. It was SO SO SAD that Chua’s book was not worth to read at all. She claimed ‘Chinese Moms’ were superior!??! Pardon me! What a narrow-mind opinion. Successful in life is not defined by just go top-rated university or social status. Happy and Healthy children need countless love and gentle cares from parents, then they be able develop creative thinking ability and positive attitudes toward society, country, world. Please DO NOT WALK BACKWARD, LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO JUST FOCUS ON ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE! Cheer up! American Mother, our children are happier and intelligent than Chinese Kids! Be confident, be Positive, we are raising our kids right.

  4. As a China born China bred, I can tell you that no Tiger Mom will end up happily. All my friends will finally stand up and fight with their parents. But what I would like to say here is that WSJ is not telling the stories that Amy Chua wants to deliver. She actually struggled through her relationship with two daughters. The article here explains a bit more.

    • Has Tiger Mom ever met a young person, who was raised like her daughters? Well I (a working professional) have and it is very chilling. As I walk across the college campus, I have had several encounters with Tiger cubs (males & females), who do acknowledge my presence and will literally step right in my path almost tripping me, just to stay-a-step ahead.
      I do feel sorry for them, they don’t smile or make eye contact and seem far to serious for being so young.

  5. Amy Chua’s parents where immigrants that she admits in an interview with WSJ that were “…extremely strict…”

    A country with an economic system that is not adequately flexible to allow its own individual citizens to choose for themselves their own answers to their economic problems and challenges has limited, or restricted, career choices. In such a country “success” is not broadly defined, it is narrowly defined. In other words, authoritarian governments, dictatorships, or whatever you want to call them, have few options for their people to attain “success” other than for their citizens to shoehorn their lives into regimented lifestyles. This should be no surprise to anyone; regimes create regimented lifestyles because those are the only lifestyles that lead to success within those economies.

    Amy Chua’s parents raised her, taught her, molded her, or broke-her-in like a horse into the mindset of the regimented citizen. After all, it is likely that is how they experienced success in their country of origin. However, in this country there are examples of success that showcase the possibilities of an economy that is flexible and defines success broadly. Note, that this is what an economy is capable of when discrimination does not interfere with the citizenry.

    Example #1: Walt Disney, the founder of the Walt Disney Company was a high school dropout.

    Example #2: Alvin C. Copeland founded Popeye’s Chicken, which is now the nation’s second largest chicken fast food franchise, was a high school dropout.

    Example #3: Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, was a college dropout. Note, that there is some argument whether he dropped out for family reasons or was expelled.

    Example #4: Bill Gates, founder of MicroSoft, also a college dropout.

    And just in case you prefer the more traditional definition of success of finishing college and going on to become a millionaire before running for public office there’s the next one.

    Example #5: Barrack Obama. No need to say any more.

    In conclusion, the definition of success that Amy Chua subscribes to is geared toward the economy of a different country. Her definition is quite narrow for this country. Just ask Barrack.

  6. My daughter born in Marin and raised in Sonoma county by a single head-of-household mother from a large Midwest Irish American family, was an excellent student in elementary, middle, high school and graduated with honors from College(missing only 8 days). She sang in church and community choirs for 8 years and played basketball for 5 years, and never had a drug or alcohol problem. Today, in her mid 20’s she is bright, funny and works FT, her boyfriend has similar traits and qualities.
    My simple strategy was to lead by example, work hard, care about your neighbor, to know who God is, have fun without alcohol or drugs and put family first.

  7. My sons – ages 20 and 27 – were raised by a British and an African-American parent, they were “B” students in Oakland & Berkeley schools, and are now accomplished creative artists, continuing their education to the Master’s level. They are happy, confident, witty, very respectful, empathic young men, with excellent manners and emotional intelligence. If their dad and I had followed Ms.Chua’s parenting advice, my children would have rebelled or felt coerced to please their parents rather than be true to their own spirits. The parenting road we travelled was rocky at times and stressful, however I now feel very confident in my parenting of these two young men – there has to be a balance between high expectations, guidance, love and discipline. There is also a role for the extended family in parenting, too.

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