Last Persons and the Tiger Mother

Are competence and integrity really under attack? Are they really being sacrificed for individual happiness? Are people really raising Last Persons? The controversy that surrounds Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother demonstrates the battle. Parenting and education offer major avenues to instill values and capabilities in the next generation and are good barometers for what is valued.

Chua’s approach, like all competent action, executes a strategy towards goals. This strategy is informed by models of reality and perception of constraints.

She sees parents making excuses instead of developing their kids potential. She experiences kids spending time on trivialities, draining resources, and playing victim. She notices decline in values and meta-capabilities necessary for achievement in progeny of successful immigrants and vows to not allow it.1In The Triple Package, Chua models psychology of success with a proud combination of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control and elaborates on the antithesis between these and contemporary Western culture.

Chua’s strategy glorifies hard work and achievement, denigrates excuses, and prizes excellence. She executes it vigilantly because she knows failures that others later try to excuse as inevitable come from little slips. She shows the effort, pain, and planning involved in achievement. And it basically works: her kids achieve excellence in music, get into Harvard, and appear to be reasonable, hard-working people who love and understand their mother.

Most reactions focus on Chua’s cruelty, but she explains how her actions connect to successful execution, how her approach ultimately benefits children, and why good parents are responsible for such efforts. Most objectors offer no plan of how to achieve results Chua seeks with alternate methods and no explanation of how standard parental behavior does not contribute to problems Chua sees. The two sides basically agree: Chua says others create Last Persons by not doing the necessary things; they reply that things Chua considers necessary are mean.

More insightful evaluations come from people who grew up with parenting techniques Chua advocates. Unlike most righteous objectors they often acknowledge that there are trade-offs being made: that in some sense alternatives sacrifice excellence for happiness, that in some sense they embrace Last Personhood. Ryan Park begins an insightful exploration of his conventional success with a question whether

“the trade-off between happiness and success [is] worth it?”

In agreement with Chua, he ties his parents’ ability to educate him to

“two cultural values that would carry their children far: a near-religious devotion to education as the key to social mobility and a belief that academic achievement depends mostly on effort rather than inborn ability”

But ultimately decides:

“I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind — and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.”

Many justify such choices by denigrating the shallowness of success: gaudy consumerism, obsession with status, sacrifice of individuality and integrity. Chua seems preoccupied with competitions without much caring about their purpose: she seems to care more about winning than music, about grades than learning, about perfection of execution than creativity of innovation. Why work and suffer to become an uninspired, expendable cog while increasing your risk of depression? So you can buy trinkets?

Many immigrants are indeed preoccupied with material possessions, credentials, and titles. Many successful people are indeed driven by kudos. Though lives of most natives don’t seem deeper: perhaps enlightened ones replace consumption of items with consumption of experiences, obsession with titles with obsession with their social brand, sacrifice of individuality to authority figures with sacrifice of individuality to their peers. Many prioritize pictures of experiences over experiences themselves, social media likes over truth, message virulence over insightfulness.

Immigrants are preoccupied with material possessions and kudos because in most countries durable stuff is expensive and titles glorified so these serve as good proxies for worth. In the U.S., it is experiences that are expensive and attention that is glorified so these become symbols of status. Neither is inherently more authentic. If anything, overcoming difficulty to earn success is an experience with much potential for genuine meaning.

But there is more to the issue and that is the underlying preoccupation with self. Park confides:

“Every time I snuggle my daughters as they back away from a challenge — when my own father would have screamed and spit and spanked until I prevailed — I wonder if I’m failing them in a very different way than he did me.”

Success raises material living standards and social prestige. Perhaps Park is concerned that by prioritizing emotional well-being over meta-capabilities essential for achievement he sets his daughters on a path of lower income and social status. And some have come to extend such logic towards demands for success to cease to be so important for raising material standards and social prestige that it undermines happiness.

But success is ultimately a proxy for societal usefulness! It is true, and a bit sad, that many individuals pursue success and its trapping as ultimate goals. It is true, and quite sad, that many machiavellians build systems to funnel such pursuits towards nefarious ends. Nevertheless, this is how economic, legal, and social incentives get people at all levels of insightfulness, ingenuity, and selfishness to contribute, in aggregate, to the greater good of society. While shallow pursuit of success isn’t good, incompetence and entitlement are worse. The problem isn’t so much with pursuit of success as with definitions of success that divorce it from contribution.

Perhaps one could argue that fewer violin virtuosos wouldn’t make the world worse. But Park is also willing to have fewer neurosurgeons – and, I presume, fewer engineers, scientists, lawyers, judges, bankers… And, I presume, lower quality would be as acceptable as lower quantity. And, if quantity or quality of teachers, politicians, activists, artists, and writers are affected, I presume that would be OK too. After all, there is nothing in the calculation that considers benefits to society at all. Park sees the repercussions of this choice and struggles with them; many make it proudly with little recognition of effects on society at large.

These effects aren’t just on the quantity or quality of professionals. Rational inquiry is challenging. Acceptance of responsibility is uncomfortable. Fairness is trying. Civic virtue is demanding.

Embrace of Last Personhood sacrifices meta-capabilities that ask “How?” questions, overcome obstacles, and empower integrity thereby growing mistakes, necessitating bureaucracy, and diminishing goodwill. It glorifies simplicity and emotions thereby growing entitlement, necessitating manipulation, and diminishing sense of agency. And when effects of lower capabilities, baser values, and contorted institutions inevitably rub against increasingly unreasonable demands for happiness, it is not the reduced standards of cultivating the crooked timber of humanity that are blamed, but those still attempting to make things function.

Julie Park – another graduate of tiger parenting – sees past the choice between shallow success and self-limiting happiness towards something more: authentic greatness. She expounds in a delightfully deep piece:

“in life it is possible to aim at something higher than success. Success is good, but more important than success is greatness…This aspiration to greatness is absent from every instrumental attitude to art, education and work. Nothing great has ever been achieved by people who see such things solely as instruments for achieving success and respectability.”

The problem with tiger parenting is that it squashes the search for authentic self, for individual calling – and hence for greatness.

While Park doesn’t explicitly connect pursuit of individual actualization to societal benefits, this connection is well-worn territory. Pursuit of excellence is good even if it doesn’t directly concern itself with effects on society. Tiger parents do, of course, encourage pursuit of excellence, but within the confines of achieving preset goals. Park advocates for importance of goal formation.

Internally motivated pursuit of greatness doubtlessly holds more potential than externally motivated pursuit of success. But majority of those who gleefully embrace this angle of attack on Chua ignore the crucial question of how greatness is achieved – or relegate it to magical categories like talent. There is significant overlap in skills, interests, values, and meta-capabilities necessary to pursue both individual greatness and conventional excellence.

As Chua writes in The Triple Package:

“How people respond to failure is a critical dividing line between those who make it and those who don’t. Success requires more than motivation, more even than a deep urge to rise. Willpower and perseverance in the face of adversity are equally important.”

The core of the challenge is that skills and meta-capabilities of excellence are legitimately difficult to develop. Nurturing authentic internal motivation and creativity together with them is wonderful and even complementary, but adds to the difficulty. Focusing on application of these skills while hand-waving their development is how entitled ignorance convinces itself it is worldly wisdom.

Ryan Park is not ignorant of what he may be sacrificing. Perhaps his deepest concern isn’t practical, but existential: leaving his daughters ultimately unprepared to pursue their own passions. Last Persons don’t have such concerns because they see delusion as an acceptable solution.

The cogent disagreement is often not so much over the importance of creativity, but over the possibility of consciously improving individuals, over the societal benefits of doing so, and over the extent of responsibility to try. Most attackers on Chua aren’t offering an approach optimized for creativity. They are offering an approach that simply demands less: less planning, less struggle, less effort, less responsibility. The reasons given are rarely more than undeveloped intuitions, overcompensated regrets, or outright excuses. Ryan Park again bears the burden of self-awareness:

“I’m temperamentally unable to mimic my father’s succeed-at-all-costs immigrant mind-set, an instinct I share with most of my generation.”

Unsurprisingly, the typical outcome isn’t creative genius, but its opposite: Last Personhood. Individual potential blooms under dedicated, knowledgeable mentorship; the crucial missing ingredient is often the committed, strenuous effort such mentorship demands. Its replacement with gathering of happy moments should make one guilty for lackluster focus on repayment of debt to the larger world, but Last Persons do not develop the sense of obligation necessary to feel that guilt. Their position is summed up thus:

So if research shows that individuals end up less happy there is nothing more to say. That the alternative demands less unpleasantness and responsibility is merely a fortuitous bonus. But aside from dismissing societal obligations, this simplistically ties unhappiness to the approach rather than incompatibility with the external environment. Julie Park correctly identifies the source of Ryan Park’s temperamental instinct:

“The child raised with a community of intimates who value her for herself will find it bizarre to stake her sense of personal esteem on public affirmations of success.”

Indeed they would. They’d also be hard-pressed to find a reason to define themselves in ways that stake their personal esteem on anything difficult and binding – whether achievement, integrity, or a sense of heroic responsibility – and would consequently lack the experience to authentically relate to those who do. Yet in a community centered on reaching one’s potential and contributing to the world, the same children would feel shame for not doing their part and be capable of empathizing with individuals pursuing excellence.

Individual identity and action are developed in symbiosis with culture. Peers and society provide necessary camaraderie and validation. There is little surprise that people concerned with competence, integrity, and contribution find themselves unhappy outcasts in a culture of Last Persons: the common diagnosis that they lack emotional and social support is correct. But this isn’t so much because they prioritize achievement over social bonds as is commonly claimed as because they expect deep bonds to arise from authentic pursuits of competence, integrity, and contribution and this needs a culture that values these as much as they do.

Julie Park recognizes the depth of the issue:

“parenting techniques are always grounded in basic assumptions about the way things are and what matters to us. And they are always guided by some answer to the most fundamental of ethical questions—how to live?”

Many are content to wave away individual psychological motivations as too inscrutable or irrelevant to explain the world. They are essential. Motivation is partially driven by a vision of how to live and developing this vision is a core component of education.

Visions are scaffolded with foundational perspectives on pride and progress: Warrior’s desire for excellence, Pragmatist’s drive for improvement, Idealist’s search for truth, and Last Person’s pursuit of happiness.

Chua’s approach is capable of creating significant levels of internal motivation. Persevering to achieve excellence is sufficient for a coherent, durable, energetic identity. And it can be supplemented with a desire to live ethically and contribute to the world. People throughout history have found meaning and greatness under greater constraints and pressures. But Chua’s vision, like all others, continuously validates itself in interactions with the real world. Compatible societal norms, or ability to distance yourself from incompatible ones, are crucial.

Yet compatible norms are being undermined and incompatible ones granted greater voice – often with unintentional assistance by people of highest competence, integrity, and commitment to excellence. Laszlo Polgar begins Raise a Genius! by framing pursuit of excellence as a personal choice without a moral dimension.2In the Foreword of Raise a Genius! Polgar writes: “I do not wish to exhort anyone to raise a genius. I wish to demonstrate that it is possible. I urge no one, I encourage no one, everyone must decide for themselves what they wish to do. I can only pass on my pedagogical system…confident that it is possible and worthwhile to raise geniuses, for they can…become happy people.” A common thread through Gifted Grownups is the desire to be treated merely as no worse than regular people. Amy Chua herself points out the risks and disadvantages of pursuing success.3Chua concludes chapter 6 of The Triple Package with: “Triple Package drivenness by definition makes it difficult to live a nondriven life. A simple, decent existence—with no scrambling to climb any ladders, without caring whether anyone thinks you’re successful enough—may be the most admirable life of all. But it is rarely available to people afflicted with the Triple Package.”

Some of this may be motivated by respect for polite modesty, egalitarian evenhandedness, and cohering debate. Some may be motivated by desire to be magnanimous and not punch down: benefits of competence and integrity appear so obvious that it seems narcissistic and mean to explicitly glorify them. And some may be evidence of inferior social status and limited political power. It doesn’t matter because Last Persons don’t fret over causes: they grasp and internalize the direct message that happiness by other means is just as good.

But by attempting to not make people of varying interests and abilities unnecessarily unhappy, we make acceptable the easiest answer as to why people pursue excellence and integrity: it’s just something some people like to do and others don’t. It makes them feel good, but there is no need to feel bad if you aren’t one of them.

Crucial questions of “How?” and “Why?” are waved away and the challenge of excellence is misdiagnosed to an insulting degree. Excellence is hard. Few, if anyone, pushes through challenges for years without believing that doing so is in some respect better. Better by not allowing themselves to be defeated, better by not sacrificing their principles, better by contributing to something greater. To some extent we are all born with a drive to explore and conquer, but it needs to be nourished and developed as we are also born with a drive to fit in and be recognized.

Perhaps genuine curiosity, authentic calling, or simple playfulness can drive a person enough to conquer obstacles without external help and validation. Perhaps necessary values can get instilled through books or introspection. Perhaps other motivations can occasionally beget creative excellence. Albert Einstein, after gently downplaying Warriors and Pragmatists, puts the heart and soul of the temple of science into

“odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows [who seek] escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought…Man tries to make for himself…a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it…Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

But even if characteristics like aloofness are individual sources of creativity rather than defense mechanisms that help striving endure incompatible environments – and even if they can sprout alone or in small communities of intimates – they still have to survive attacks from larger society or isolate themselves from exposure to incompatible ideas.

Some say that’s why authenticity needs to be coupled with not caring about what others think. Yet Julie Park’s point, common sense, and basic psychology tell us that what others think matters a great deal. At least some others provide some of the needed direction and validation some of the time. Learning not to care may be a necessary pragmatic accommodation, but it exerts major costs in energy, motivation, and ethics.

It is supposed to feel bad to swallow your pride, sacrifice your integrity, and free-ride on contributions of others. A major part of mentoring the pursuit of competence and integrity is cultivation of such values and emotions, not their suppression. The intuition for when an easy way out beckons along with disgust with giving into the temptation are skills and preferences to be developed. Without such foundations to try your best, the question of how to achieve becomes irrelevant: few reasons remain to persevere rather than claim it wasn’t for you. Objective measures and possibilities are denied, negative judgments are prohibited, surrender attracts praise for authenticity and bravery, and dismissal of inconvenient opinions is framed as mature wisdom.

Concern with not making mediocrity feel bad undermines the foundations of why people strive for competence and integrity at all. This doesn’t mean that mediocrity must be constantly shamed or that excellence does not benefit from lessons in humility, kindness, and privilege. It merely means that, implicitly or not, excellence and contribution must remain on a pedestal.

It doesn’t take long for enthusiastic leveling of excellence and contribution to get extended to their denigration:

By this logic Erin Gruwell (portrayed in Freedom Writers) is more crazy than heroic for sacrificing her family life; Elon Musk is a terrible person for prioritizing world-changing projects over his family; and Amy Chua ought to be ashamed for turning the house into a war zone merely to instill excellence. If there is a duty at all, it isn’t to principles, craft, or humanity, but to yourself and your immediate family. Yet people who ignore disadvantaged students, manufacture gas-guzzlers, and manipulate innocent fools are somehow still bad because they put themselves and their family first.

Sarah Constantin quips:

From a 40,000-foot view, the world isn’t so much divided into ‘left’ and ‘right’ as it is divided into ‘people who basically want to make the world better’ and ‘people who enjoy being assholes.’”

I think the major chasm is more precisely between people who prioritize duties towards the world and people who don’t. The latter includes some jerks, but also an overwhelming number of superficially nice Last Persons. Institutions can manage a small number of jerks, though it can be unsavory. And they can herd a large number of Last Persons, though it can be disturbing. But no level of institutional hacking can work long-term without respect for competence and integrity.

The difficult part of improvement lies in competence-soaked questions of “How?” and in integrity-laced challenges of conscientious and unyielding execution. Desire-soaked questions of “What?” are easy, opportunities to point out costs are plentiful, and reasons for mistakes, simplification, or capitulation are never hard to find. On this basis, competence and integrity are prerequisites to solving the world’s problems – along with offering a path towards individual success and spiritual fulfillment.

People concerned with competence and integrity seek to prove their answers in the arena of action. They see rejections and justifications as challenges to be answered with committed execution. It never occurs to them that “impossible” can be equated with “takes more effort than I want to put in” without losing integrity – yet many have no trouble with this sleight of hand.

The unsavory need to manipulate Last Persons comes from the fact that they have always comprised a large part of humanity. Implicit in glorifying individual pursuit of competence and integrity for societal benefit is belief that reducing their number helps even if it remains large; that by being the change one wants to see in the world, one actually improves the world. But many have taken an alternate, more pragmatic approach of optimizing around the prevalence of Last Persons: integrity is subordinated to management of emotions of others, domain competence is subordinated to competence of herding. The approach is effective, but it undermines the culture of competence and integrity thereby justifying Last Persons and increasing their number.

Chua describes how to produce competence and conscientiousness and offers evidence that her approach can work in modern America given sufficient effort and determination.4Chua’s authoritarian harshness is more an accommodation to having to execute in a deeply incompatible environment than a rejection of the importance of love and connection or their blind sacrifice at the altar of success. She advocates for opposite priorities in China: “I honestly don’t think you can be a Tiger Mother in China. The system is so strict there’s no need: what kids need is love and support at home. If we value competence and integrity and believe that having fewer Last Persons is a worthy goal, then the core challenge to her approach isn’t in the visible meanness of parents or immediate happiness of children, but in proportionality and long-term effectiveness. Does it produce lasting competence, integrity, and motivation? Are there approaches that achieve these with greater joy, creativity, and independence? Are there ways to better connect excellence with long-term happiness and fulfillment?

Julie Park, Ryan Park, and Amy Chua herself5For example, Chua concedes that additional choices, including of instruments, would have been a good idea. And she acknowledges that choice ultimately rests with the child: “Now, eventually if your child says, ‘I don’t like math, I want to be a poet,’ you have to let them.” recognize that authoritative parenting offers an answer that may enhance internal motivation and creativity, develop work ethic and desire to contribute, and be more durable in incompatible cultures.

But as long as the core question remains how to raise the best people we can and as long as we don’t consider Last Persons to be such people, Chua remains more right than wrong. Execution is the hard part and she shows what it takes to execute.

Authoritative parenting takes at least as much planning, work, psychological acumen, and emotional stamina as the authoritarian approach. Few understand the effort involved in committed execution of either approach, never-mind put that effort in. Many reap the Last Persons they sow, but refuse to connect the outcome to their own actions and loathe to acknowledge societal consequences. Many remain content with “optimizing for children’s happiness” and blaming circumstances. Accepting this as equal removes a major motivation for parents and children to try to do better.

Chua loves and understands her children. She is deeply concerned with the impact of undeveloped potential on them, and probably on the world at large. She does the work and takes responsibility. There are probably better methods than authoritarianism and better intermediate goals than music, but to focus on this is to ignore the core issue: the task is legitimately hard and worthwhile, many are unable or unwilling to do the work, many embrace the decline with proud self-centered ignorance, many are creating Last Persons. Chua stands against this tide.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. In The Triple Package, Chua models psychology of success with a proud combination of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control and elaborates on the antithesis between these and contemporary Western culture.
2. In the Foreword of Raise a Genius! Polgar writes: “I do not wish to exhort anyone to raise a genius. I wish to demonstrate that it is possible. I urge no one, I encourage no one, everyone must decide for themselves what they wish to do. I can only pass on my pedagogical system…confident that it is possible and worthwhile to raise geniuses, for they can…become happy people.”
3. Chua concludes chapter 6 of The Triple Package with: “Triple Package drivenness by definition makes it difficult to live a nondriven life. A simple, decent existence—with no scrambling to climb any ladders, without caring whether anyone thinks you’re successful enough—may be the most admirable life of all. But it is rarely available to people afflicted with the Triple Package.”
4. Chua’s authoritarian harshness is more an accommodation to having to execute in a deeply incompatible environment than a rejection of the importance of love and connection or their blind sacrifice at the altar of success. She advocates for opposite priorities in China: “I honestly don’t think you can be a Tiger Mother in China. The system is so strict there’s no need: what kids need is love and support at home.
5. For example, Chua concedes that additional choices, including of instruments, would have been a good idea. And she acknowledges that choice ultimately rests with the child: “Now, eventually if your child says, ‘I don’t like math, I want to be a poet,’ you have to let them.”

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