Sunday 19 November 2017

Books: The Tiger Mom roars again

Tiger mother Amy Chua became notorious for her last book which detailed the study regime she forced on her children. In her new book she and her husband analyse what makes immigrants successful. Allison Pearson is unconvinced:

Amy Chua – aka the Tiger Mom
Amy Chua – aka the Tiger Mom
Husband and wife team Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Allison Pearson

NON-FICTION: The Triple Package, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, Bloomsbury, £18.99 hbk, 336 pages

According to a fascinating 2012 study, children of Polish immigrants in Catholic primary schools in England raised the performance of non-Poles. Far from hindering his or her peers, the child of immigrant parents with a strong work ethic was soon leaving them far behind.

Such findings cause great discomfort because they challenge cherished educational pieties, such as: all kids are equally capable of achieving. More bluntly, as a teacher friend who is blessed with highly-motivated Indian pupils said of her white working-class students: "They'd do brilliantly if there was a GCSE in CBA." What does CBA stand for? Can't Be Arsed.

Into this minefield stride husband and wife team Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (right and below). One is Chinese American, the other is Jewish; both are professors of law at Yale Law School and international bestselling authors in their spare time. It's safe to say that one qualification they don't possess between them is a doctorate in CBA.

Their book, The Triple Package, sets out to answer the thorny question: why do certain ethnic and religious groups in the US so spectacularly outperform other groups? Why do Jews win so many Nobel and Pulitzer prizes? Why do Chinese immigrants generally have a high income? Why are Mormons so prominent in business and finance? The authors have already been accused of racism, mostly by people who haven't read the book.

Chua still bears the scars from the furious criticism of her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. That book scandalised parents with its suggestion that carefully nurturing your child's self-esteem, as is now the American way, was far less effective than holding them to high standards, making them do piano practice and bawling them out for lackadaisical Mother's Day cards.

Chua is the classic example of a group that bestows on its children a "triple package" of qualities. The first is superiority – Chinese, Cuban, Nigerian, Indian and Jewish children are encouraged to feel they belong to a "chosen" group that has better values than a vapid mainstream culture. After superiority, the recipe for success demands a good pinch of insecurity – a chip on the shoulder, the feeling that nothing you ever do will be good enough. Arrogance and anxiety combine to make a rocket fuel which powers the ascent to the top of the class or profession.

The third element of the "triple package" is impulse control. Rubenfeld and Chua are quietly scathing about a life devoted to "feeling good in the now", the philosophy embraced by the US's least successful groups. The Constitution may extol the "pursuit of happiness", but the authors argue that genuine fulfilment comes from hard work and from learning to defer your wants, not indulge them.

Frankly, none of this sounds much fun; fun is definitely not an ingredient in the recipe for success. Chua and Rubenfeld do pause to ask whether the Triple Package "is a blessing or a curse. Is it something one should aspire to re-create in one's own life and family?" But there is never any real doubt here that the darker sides of the "never good enough" personality are worth it, whether it's a cure for cancer, a perfect performance of Brahms's Violin Concerto or a powerful, passionate and very entertaining book called The Triple Package.

But there is a catch, acknowledged wryly by Chua and Rubenfeld. I once interviewed the great Victoria Wood, who was consciously trying to raise her own daughter with more love and esteem than her parents had given her. I pointed out that, unfortunately, those cruel deficits were the motor of Wood's own phenomenal success.

"What am I supposed to do?" she cried. Lock my daughter in a cupboard under the stairs, occasionally throw in a box of Twixes and shout at her, 'Go on, then, be a comedian!'?"

The Triple Package suggests that a decline in Jewish insecurity may be linked, ultimately, to a decline in Jewish success.

Give your kids everything you didn't have and you take away the hunger that enabled you to give your kids everything you didn't have.

Until, that is, they find a way to mass produce a chip on the shoulder. Let's get some brilliant, insecure immigrant kids on to that right away.

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