Letting children choose promotes prosocial behavior

As described in “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior“:

[S]haring when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light. Perceiving themselves as people who like to share makes them more likely to act in a prosocial manner in the future.

Previous research has shown that this idea — as described by the over-justification effect — explains why rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children come to perceive themselves as people who don’t like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so. Because they don’t view themselves as “sharers” they are less likely to share in the future.

Developmental psychologists Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir found that compared to children who were given a non-costly choice or who were required to share, preschoolers given a costly choice were more likely to share again at a subsequent opportunity.

My thoughts:

  1. I would be interested in an analysis comparing the effect of the conditions on the children who did not share– that is, collecting baseline data on children’s initial propensity to share, and then comparing how the interventions affected them across the range of initial tendencies.
  2. I wonder how well this would apply to long-term planning and diligence (e.g., completing homework, practicing a difficult skill, doing chores).

The results do suggest that choice can be a powerful mechanism for promoting positive habits and attitudes, something which I think parents and schools could harness more productively. That choice can potentially foster empathy and perspective-taking is very encouraging.

Full reference: N. Chernyak, T. Kushnir. Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613482335

The many pluses of positive parenting

Again highlighting the importance of encouragement, David Bornstein describes several evidence-based parenting programs that reduce at-risk behaviors:

As he summarizes, “The essence of the research is that children do best when they receive calm and consistent feedback and assertive discipline that’s based on reasonable expectations – with significantly more encouragement and positive feedback than criticism.”

Incentives and investment in schooling and parenting

In an interview with Paul Solman at PBS, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman discusses the achievement gap, IQ testing, early childhood education, and parenting, framing the issues from the perspective of incentives and investment.

Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

The interventions in the “enriched parenting” programs include the usual: reading regularly to kids, providing encouragement, and simply giving the kids time to formulate and act upon a plan.

We need to think about these factors as social investments which the children eventually internalize, so that they are better positioned to succeed later in life.

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

Other research-based commentary on “tiger parenting”

For what I hope will be my last post on the subject, I wanted to share some gems I’ve found from my online meanderings following link after link on Amy Chua’s views on parenting. These all draw from relevant research to critique specific practices rather than an imprecise “parenting style.”

1. In this edited interview transcript with Scientific American, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg reviews the literature on many of the specific practices Chua describes, pointing out both the good and the bad. On his “good” list are high expectations, parental involvement, and positive feedback for genuine accomplishment (but not cultivating false self-esteem). On his “bad” list are excessive punishment, being overly restrictive, and squelching autonomy (characteristics of authoritarian rather than authoritative parenting). He further questions Chua’s views on desirable goals for her children and highlights the value of unstructured play for children’s development. Although he mentions cultural differences in parenting and acknowledges that Americans might misperceive Chinese parenting as being more authoritarian than it really is, he doesn’t analyze cultural influences in much depth here.

2. On Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar (an interdisciplinary social scientist whose background also includes psychology) provides a fuller analysis on both the authoritarian / authoritative parenting style dimension and the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting. Like Steinberg and others, she too affirms the importance of believing in effort over innate ability, noting that this characterizes Chinese more than American values. Ironically, she includes more detail than Steinberg on his own research, describing the potential for positive peer pressure among Chinese-American youth, whose peers encourage them to achieve rather than rejecting them for geekiness. Most thankfully, she highlights that the positive aspects of traditional Chinese parenting can be separated from undesirable authoritarian practices.

3. Finally, on the NY Times Freakonomics blog, Yale professor of law and economics Ian Ayres (who acknowledges being a friend and colleague of Amy Chua’s) delves into the cognitive benefits of some of these parenting practices, rather than their developmental or cultural consequences. While I’m disappointed that he discusses the benefits of “tiger parenting” without strong caveats against its harms (or an acknowledgment that they can be separated), I particularly appreciated his economic analysis of the attitudes and behaviors that may result.

One virtue Ayres extols is delayed gratification, which he quantifies as “the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future.” It’s another lens on the importance of grit, perseverance, and conscientiousness in enduring challenges while pursuing distant goals. He points out research indicating that these skills may be a stronger predictor of future success than intelligence (as measured by IQ).

(Although Ayres didn’t mention it, this further validates Dweck’s research on the importance of believing that effort matters more than innate ability in determining success.)

He also cites Ericsson’s research on the amount of effort necessary to develop expertise. Despite believing that such discipline is likely to transfer over to other pursuits, he admits that he would probably choose skills with more immediate benefits:

My personal bias is in guiding my children toward endeavors (like learning statistics or US History or corporate finance or Python — all subjects of daddy school) that I think are likely to pay higher direct adult dividends than music or sport skills that atrophy in adulthood.

Inclined though I am to agree with him, I wonder how effective such pursuits are as targets for kids to develop discipline and expertise. Aside from the value of music and sports in themselves, they also carry salient milestones—some culturally derived (such as soccer tournaments and numbered Suzuki-method books), but others perceptually evident—that help children self-assess progress. Computer programming has concrete markers of success in getting a program to produce the desired output, but growth in using analytical tools such as statistics is a bit harder for a youngster to perceive and appreciate.

Oddly, Ayres portrays Chua’s methods as an effective “taking choice off the table” technique for building discipline, despite this crucial difference between his parenting approach and hers: he explicitly involved his children in the initial choice process and explained the pros and cons of their choices, whereas Chua imposed her choices on her children. That initial commitment by the child is key. Without it, the child is simply following rules divorced from meaning. With it, the child learns to connect desire with dedication and goal with process.

Collectively, these articles echo the fundamental values of attributing success to effort, nurturing intrinsic motivation, and setting high expectations that I summarized earlier, while also adding a richer perspective on cultural differences, peer pressure, and delayed gratification in promoting perseverance. While these articles haven’t and won’t receive the audience that brazen storytelling attracts, they give voice to relevant research that too often whispers quietly from the archives.

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.