Pretty Princesses Produce Problems

Perhaps I was too generous in my suggestion that “The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them.”

As reported in Not so pretty: Researchers find that Disney princesses are really damaging girls’ self esteem, girls (average age 5 years) who played with princess toys demonstrated the following tendencies a year later:

  • wanted to look like princesses
  • showed less confidence
  • adopted “girly” stereotypes
  • avoided getting dirty, exploring or playing “non-feminine” games
  • were more likely to express the belief that being girls means they’ll have different opportunities and goals in life”

Especially problematic, “grown women who self-identied as princesses’ gave up more easily on a challenging task, were less likely to want to work, and were more focused on supercial qualities.”


Available here:
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A. and Birkbeck, V. (2016), Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12569

Don’t Just Acknowledge Bias, Demand Its Reduction

From Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s “When Talking About Bias Backfires“:

The assumption is that when people realize that biases are widespread, they will be more likely to overcome them. But new research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

The key is to conclude the acknowledgment of the problem with clear disapproval of it, such as:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park.”

“A vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.”

“I don’t ever want to see this happen again.”

Social cues can be powerful; use them well.

Pink as cultural construction

I’m glad to see the increasing mainstream media attention to the pink phenomenon‘s past and possible future:

Via Susan Stamberg’s “Girls Are Taught To ‘Think Pink,’ But That Wasn’t Always So“, at NPR:

Before Gatsby, a 1918 trade catalog for children’s clothing recommended blue for girls. The reasoning at the time was that it’s a “much more delicate and dainty tone,” Finamore says. Pink was recommended for boys “because it’s a stronger and more passionate color, and because it’s actually derived from red.”

Via Jeanne Maglety’s “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?“, in Smithsonian Magazine:

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.

Via Cordelia Fine’s “Biology doesn’t justify gender divide for toys“, in the New Scientist:

Some have “expressed concern that the ‘pinkification’ of toys for girls was adding to gender inequality in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

“But the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarises children into stereotypes. It’s not just that vehicles, weapons and construction sets are presented as ‘for boys’, while toys of domesticity and beautification are ‘for girls’. Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.”

Let’s hope that society can use this awareness to help everyone focus on actions over appearances.

Empathizing with actions above appearance

In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:

[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:

When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.

Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:

[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:

People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.

[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.

[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.

[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.

Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:

Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.

Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.

Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.

What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.

The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.

They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.

By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.

Science as storytelling

Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross argue for incorporating more storytelling into science education, based on:

1. Impact on learning

Research has shown that storytelling activates the brain beyond mere word recognition.

2. Inspiration

  We think schools should use reciprocal integration between the arts and sciences to capture [students’] imagination

3. Realities of how science is done

Scientists recognize that science and storytelling are intertwined.

4. Need for scientists to learn strong communication skills

 The importance of storytelling in science has been growing over the last few years as scientists work to communicate with the general public and stimulate more critical thinking about important issues.

5. Potential for inviting more girls into STEM

If teachers taught STEM subjects through the lens of story we think many of those high-achieving girls with astronomical verbal scores might be more interested.  It sure beats a pink microscope.

They advocate not just for incorporating more science-related nonfiction into humanities classes, but for incorporating more storytelling into math and science classes.

What I would add to their statement is the need to address STEM content substantively through those stories, so that they’re not “pink microscopes” that provide mere windowdressing for the subject, but genuine insights into the richness and significance of the mathematical and scientific concepts.

More meaningful interaction, less labeling

We would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling– not just by gender, but along any dimension by which we divide humanity.

In Education Week’s “Scholars Say Pupils Gain Social Skills in Coed Classes”, Sarah Sparks describes the negative consequences of segregating and labeling children by gender, as well as the benefits of the Sanford Harmony Program in avoiding and counteracting those effects.

Here are some choice quotes on the benefits of gender-balanced classrooms, based on research by Erin E. Pahlke, an assistant research professor of social and family dynamics at Arizona State University:

boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority, 80 percent or more.

Teacher stereotypes about student abilities may also be tempered in a more balanced classroom… Prior research has shown that teachers’ own beliefs about gender stereotypes—such as that girls perform worse in math, or boys in reading—can bring down their students’ performance.

On avoiding labels, based on research by Rebecca S. Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin:

even casually organizing students by gender or mentioning it in a way that labels causes boys and girls to develop the idea that gender is fundamentally oppositional, in ways the teacher has not mentioned or discussed

using a noun description like calling someone a ‘hat wearer,’ rather than saying ‘he likes to wear hats often,’ makes the description seem more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds.

when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.

On the consequences of gender-based segregation, according to Laura D. Hanish, the co-director of the Lives of Girls and Boys: Initiatives on Gender Development and Relationships project at Arizona State University:

when boys and girls played mostly with same-sex classmates in preschool, they began to behave in more gender-stereotyped ways: Boys played farther from teachers, became more aggressive, and used more ‘rough and tumble’ play over time; girls moved closer to teachers and included more gendered play.

On the Sanford Harmony Program at Arizona State University:

each week, every child is paired with a new ‘class buddy’ of the other sex. Every day, buddies do a different activity together, from art projects and music to active physical games outside. The program also includes regular activities to teach the children social skills, such as listening, sharing, and cooperation.

students who participated in the buddy matching and social curriculum were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls.

students are now more likely to play together, cooperate, and help each other.

Yet again, we see the importance of reinforcing actions rather than appearance or group identity, and emphasizing behaviors over which people have control. Indeed, a little careful effort improves social relationships.


D. F. Halpern, L. Eliot, R. S. Bigler, R. A. Fabes, L. D. Hanish, J. Hyde, L. S. Liben, C. L. Martin. The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling. Science, 2011; 333 (6050): 1706 DOI: 10.1126/science.1205031

Admire actions above appearance

Where I ended in “The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them” stopped short of describing how I might interact with a charming little girl (whether in a pretty pink princess outfit or not):

So the next time I see your daughter, please understand if I don’t immediately comment on her adorable outfit. I’m probably debating whether to reinforce her perspective-taking, self-regulation, or cognitive flexibility.

Thankfully, Lisa Bloom (author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World) shares a lively account of how she would do exactly that in her essay, “How to Talk to Little Girls.” Quite simply, here are her guiding suggestions:

Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? …ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? … Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them

There’s nothing wrong with pink. It’s a perfectly fine color. The problem is its arbitrary association with gender[1], to the point where it becomes a code for what girls and boys are “supposed to” like and dislike, and prevents them from judging for themselves what they like based on any dimension other than color.

Nor would I necessarily take issue with princess fantasies, on the grounds that fantasizing oneself as royalty, a dragon-slayer, or a time-traveler can all be healthy exercises in one’s imagination. The deeper problem is that wanting to be a princess is too often about wanting to be pretty, pampered, and protected. To the extent that it’s about something in one’s control, becoming a princess is about being able to marry a prince. I’m not too keen on encouraging young girls to define themselves or build dreams around their marriage prospects. I think the key question to ask girls playing at being princesses is, “What will you do when you’re a princess?”

What does a girl do when she’s a pretty pink princess? What does she do to become one?

Peggy Orenstein and others have dissected the dangers of wanting to be pretty along the lines of promoting consumerism, narcissism, eating disorders, and premature sexualization of girls. At its simplest, I see the ideal of “being valued for what you do and not how you look” as just another expression of the importance of believing that effort and controllable behaviors matter more than intelligence, talent, or looks. I won’t dispute the value of attractiveness or positive self-presentation in influencing success or self-esteem; the issue is that improving one’s appearance is more limited in capacity than improving one’s skills[2] and ultimately more limited in impact. One can only be so average (noting that more average faces are more beautiful), but one can always be more capable.

I also worry about encouraging children to seek some status or reward simply for its own sake. The pleasures of being pretty go beyond ornamenting someone else’s world and receiving an extra boost in attention. Attractiveness shouldn’t be an end in itself, but a stepping-stone toward further positive outcomes—whether building confidence to pursue ambitious goals, landing a CEO or political position where leadership can make a difference, or developing interpersonal skills that help bring others together. Otherwise it’s little more than an uncashed lottery ticket, devoid of real appreciation.

For me, the bottom line is about helping all children to pursue goals which they can control and which will help them develop. I want them to choose games and activities based on how interesting or worthwhile they seem, not some marketing message that arbitrarily dictates preferences around colors and images[3]. I want them to actively create their own questions and ambitions, explore the world, and forge paths toward fulfilling those desires. I want them to focus on boosting what they know and can do, not what they have and how they look, to better support them in tackling future challenges.

So the next time I see your daughter, please understand if I don’t immediately comment on her adorable outfit. I’m probably debating whether to reinforce her perspective-taking, self-regulation, or cognitive flexibility.


[1] LoBue, V., & DeLoache, J.S. (2011). Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences. To appear in British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

See also:
Chiu, S.W., Gervan, S., Fairbrother, C., Johnson, L.L, Owen-Anderson, A.F.H., Bradley, S.J., & Zucker, K.J. (2006). Sex-dimorphic color preference in children with gender identity disorder: A comparison in clinical and community controls. Sex Roles, 55, 385-395.

[2] There’s a phrase (I thought) I once heard, about the unrealistic yet persistent modern belief in “the infinite perfectibility of the human body” and its application to girls’ striving to be thin and beautiful. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track it down; if you know its source, please send it along!

[3] I’m not interested in pandering to stereotype with boy-targeted car imagery or girl-targeted pink frills, whether for “good causes” or for some toy company’s profit. Even if topics like online shopping and cosmetic surgery interest more girls in statistics, I would still advocate finding more neutral problem contexts and framing for both boys and girls.

From: Sylvie Kerger, Romain Martin, Martin Brunner. How can we enhance girls’ interest in scientific topics? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02019.x

Beyond Tigers, Dragons, and Sheep in Parenting Practices

Why give any more publicity to the Wall Street Journal excerpt (“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”) from Amy Chua’s new book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)? So many have already decried the cultural stereotyping, the arbitrary definition of success, and the psychological damage wrought by their own “tiger moms.” Others have deplored the WSJ’s editing as a brazen marketing ploy calculated to create controversy and sell books. But what I haven’t seen discussed as much in the ensuing media frenzy is a critique of the complete obfuscation of good and bad parenting advice all mixed together and the hubris of an individual drowning out good research.

(As a matter of personal disclosure, I myself haven’t experienced anything in my own upbringing that was nearly as restrictive as what Chua describes, although I recognize the values and have seen friends and classmates suffer the consequences of their parents’ methods. I was a classically trained Asian-American: as a child, I played two musical instruments, entered multiple academic competitions, and took extra classes in math and science. I was no prodigy—to my parents’ relief, since I never frightened them with a burning desire to turn my extracurricular activities into full-time pursuits—rather, their strategies paid off when I attended a prestigious school and graduated with a science degree. There I saw plenty of fellow Asian-Americans with a wide range of achievements and experiences, both stricter and freer as well as happier and unhappier. All this is mere context; I’m not writing this to prove any points about my parents’ practices, either to justify or vilify them, but to demonstrate my familiarity with the cultural values, practices, and results.)

I have no desire to fight one anecdote with another anecdote. My experiences, whether as a child or as a parent, aren’t a particularly compelling example or counterexample for any side of the argument. Nor is my goal to review Chua’s book (since I refuse to reward the marketing tactics that have caused such damage), but to restore to the discourse some key issues that have gotten lost in the discussion. I want to bring to the forefront the research that already exists on teaching and parenting, and use that to filter out the good from the bad in the sludge that has flooded the terrain.

Others have already summarized relevant cross-cultural research examining the same phenomenon Chua seeks to explain through her own experience. On the bright side, a recent article by Kathy Seal (“Asian-American Parenting and Academic Success”) notes the value of parental involvement and cultural attitudes in promoting success, particularly beliefs about the value of effort rather than ability[1]. On the dark side, embedded within many heartbreaking personal stories in this discussion is a summary of research and statistics on the consequences of harsh parenting and on Asian-Pacific Islander American (APA) suicides by psychiatrist Suzan Song:

There are multiple studies that report that despite high levels of academic achievement, Asian American students report poor psychological adjustment (Choi et al, 2006; Greene et al 2006; Rhee et al 2003; Rumbault, 1994; Yeh, 2003). The high level of parental interest in grades solely can create depression and anxiety for youth (Pang, 1991). And perception of parental disinterest in emotional well-being is significantly associated with depression (Greenberger 1996; Stuart et al 1999). There are more studies but I’ll stop here, but it’s shown that harsh parental discipline is related to depression of Chinese-Am teens (Kim & Gee, 2000).

And there are multiple stats around suicide in Asian Americans: These stats are available here:

  • Asian Am women 15-24yrs old had the highest suicide rates among any ethnicity (Dept of Health and Human Services)
  • California Institute of Tech 2009: 3 Asian suicides
  • According to New America Media, from 1996 to 2006, of the 21 students who committed suicide at Cornell, 13 were APA. This 61.9 percentage is significantly higher than the overall percent of APA students, which is 14.
  • From 1964 to 2000, the average number of MIT undergraduate student suicides was nearly three times that of many as the national campus average, with 21.2 students out of every 100,000 committing suicide in comparison to 7.5, with 11.7 as the national overall average.

Dr. Song also describes the mental health issues facing Asian-American adolescents in more depth in a guest blog post.

Going beyond comparisons between cultures, I especially want to highlight general principles that apply across cultures about what helps or hinders development. Some have suggested the need for a “less extreme” approach or a middle ground between Eastern and Western philosophies rather than championing either one over the other, yet both still lend credence to a false dichotomy. In rejecting Chua’s detrimental practices, we need not retreat from the supportive practices she has confounded with them; research can help us differentiate between the two.

Beliefs about Success and Failure

The clearest positive value in the parenting philosophy advocated in Chua’s essay is the belief that success comes through effort. Built on top of this belief are the key practices of encouraging perseverance, developing good work habits, and providing multiple opportunities to learn and practice one’s skills. Both are well supported in the research literature: attributing success to behaviors within one’s control rather than intrinsic traits such as intelligence or talent promotes perseverance that enables future success[2], and developing expertise requires hours of deliberate practice[3].

However, the key factor underlying the advantage shown by children who attributed success to effort rather than ability was that they then attributed their subsequent failures to inadequate effort, so that they were more willing to invest more effort and try again[4]. In treating failure as a cause for shame, Chua’s methods actually undermine the positive effects she was otherwise promoting. Even further, learners need errors as a source of crucial feedback to help them correct their knowledge[5]. None of this even addresses the emotional dangers associated with making parental affection contingent upon success[6].

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Yes, success builds confidence and self-efficacy, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued pursuit of future success[7]. But success doesn’t always guarantee enjoyment (especially if the processes employed to achieve that success incur resentment or dread), and pursuits that do not produce immediate, obvious success can still be worth enjoying. Helping children to appreciate the entire process, failures and all, promotes a more long-term view of progress than conditioning enjoyment on success. Likewise, Chua’s philosophy about motivation (that “the solution to substandard performance is to excoriate, punish and shame the child”) demonizes failure and favors immediate results at the expense of enduring growth. In reality, reliance on rewards and punishments as external motivators ultimately undermines motivation[8][9].

Goals and Expectations

Setting ambitious goals and maintaining high expectations are a necessary starting point for helping children develop their potential. Where Chua errs is in believing that the only good goals are those that receive tangible rewards and prestige. Mistaking the measurable for the worthwhile is a fundamental problem in assessment[10]; ill-defined objectives such as social skills and creativity lose in the competition for time and attention in a test- (or reward-) heavy culture. Ironically, Chua’s choices may actually be encouraging the “everyone gets a prize” mentality that she disparages, by inflating the value of those pursuits which earn prizes.

Further, focusing narrowly on highly-structured “drill and skill” aspects of any domain risks promoting routine expertise rather than adaptive expertise[11]. Responding to new challenges demands cognitive flexibility; constructing novel solutions in open-ended environments facilitates its development, while mechanistic repetition hinders it[12]. Similarly, solving insight problems is more effective after taking a mental “incubation” break to represent the problem differently, instead of fixating on rote reproduction of past strategies[13].

Finally, by “overrid[ing] all of their children’s own desires and preferences”, parents rob them of their autonomy and capacity for self-regulation. Helping them make better decisions, create plans and subgoals, self-assess, and adapt to feedback gives them the tools to eventually learn on their own[14][15].


More broadly, my main point here is to demonstrate that Chua’s parenting philosophy is both good and bad, not because of some conceptual multiplism claiming that all opinions are valid, but because parts are good and parts are bad—as demonstrated by research and enumerated above. Children succeed in spite of the cruel punishment, fear of failure, and usurping of autonomy, not because of it. Their success comes instead from the high expectations, the belief in diligence, and yes, even the long hours of practice. But all of those desirable values and processes can be instituted through other methods which don’t risk the painful psychological scars, which don’t come at the cost of neglecting other fundamental skills, and which ultimately are even more effective.

Amidst the deluge of commentary that Chua’s essay has unleashed, I hope the general public won’t lose sight of what research has long had to say about the same issues that one author has explored in a personal memoir. One silver lining of this media storm is more honest dialogue about Asian-American parenting and its outcomes. Rather than celebrate or pillory any particular person or experience, that dialogue must rise above the level of the individual in order for us to truly learn.


[1] Stevenson, H.W., & Stigler, J.W. (1992). The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York NY: Simon & Schuster.
[2] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[3] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[4] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[5] Metcalfe, J., & Kornell, N. (2007). Principles of cognitive science in education: The effects of generation, errors, and feedback, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 225-229.
[6][ Harter, S., Marold, D.B., Whitesell, N.R., & Cobbs, G. (1996). A model of the effects of perceived parent and peer support on adolescent false self behavior. Child Development, 67(2), 360-374.
[7] Wigfield, A., Eccles, J.S., Schiefele, U., Roeser, R.W., & Kean, P.D. (2006). Development of achievement motivation. In W. Damon & R.M. Lerner (Series Eds.) & N. Eisenberg (Volume Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional and Personality Development (6th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 933–1002). New York: Wiley.
[8] Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
[9] Lepper, M. R., & Hodell, M. (1989). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. In C. Ames & R. E. Ames (Eds.), Research on Motivation in Education (Vol. 3, pp. 73-105). New York: Academic Press.
[10] Pellegrino, J.W., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
[11] Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H.W. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child Development and Education in Japan: A Series of Books in Psychology (pp. 262-272). New York NY: W.H. Freeman.
[12] Spiro, R.J. & Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[13] Sternberg, R.J., & Davidson, J.E. (1995). The Nature of Insight. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
[14] Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. D. (2006). Promoting self-regulation in science education: Metacognition as part of a broader perspective on learning. Research in Science Education, 36(1-2), 111-139.
[15] Although my intention here is to base my arguments on research, I think this insight from one of my music teachers captures this idea beautifully: She told me that her job as a teacher was to teach me so that I could eventually teach myself.