Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tiger Mother Meets the Drakon

Altered photo of an adult and tiger and tiger cub looking at a copy of S.M. Stirling's The Domination
In the midst of the controversy over Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the only thing I can think of is another book from a different genre -- science fiction.

S.M. Stirling's alternate history The Domination tells of an Earth where, after the American Revolution, the losing Tory colonists took their money and moved on to colonize South Africa, establishing a caste society with themselves on top and exploiting that land's tremendous natural resources.

More importantly for the purposes of the novel, this new people, calling themselves the Drakon, also began a regimen of breeding and raising their children for extreme mental and physical prowess, not to mention a cut-throat approach to life. By the time the story really gets going in the first half of the 20th century, they have become physically larger and stronger than people from other countries, and their battle commanders are unbeatable in the field.

Two Americans are sent as spies during the worldwide conflict that ensues, and half the story is about their semi-successful attempts to fit in and infiltrate, despite speaking the language perfectly. Part of the reason they can't fit in is because they were raised so differently.

In the later years of the century, the Drakon begin to experiment with genetic modifications of their offspring for speed, strength, immune resistance, and all the other embellishments you can imagine. From that time on, they are completely unbeatable.

So how does this dystopia make me think of Amy Chua's book, which, I admit, I haven't read yet (although I have read the selectively edited Wall Street Journal excerpt)?

One way is the "yellow peril" nature of the book's reception. As American readers seem to fear the products of the child-rearing techniques Chua describes (How will we compete?!), so do outsiders fear the Drakon. In Stirling's skewed world, they are right to fear. It's not so simple for us, here in reality.

Second, though, is my own reaction to the Drakon. The book makes you, the reader, fear them as well. But I also pitied them and felt they were a cancer that, even if it were the only vestige of humanity, would be best wiped out rather than be allowed to spread out of our solar system.

Which raises the key question -- what is the point of existence? For the Drakon, it is to win at all costs, but there is only emptiness at the core, nothing to win for. I suppose this is a weakness of Stirling's fiction. For the Tiger Mother (not necessarily for Chua, but for the archetypal Tiger Mother she describes), it seems similarly empty to me -- all form and no content, all math drills and forced marches toward piano recitals.

This reveals the lack of value I place on important abilities like mathematics, I suppose, and my inability to see the creativity in it. Much as I believe in the brain-developing role of playing music, doing it only because it's enforced against the child's will, without emotional content and interest to intertwine as skill increases, seems pointless. Again, I'm probably leaking personal bias here, since my own mother let me quit the piano after two years of whining. What about the 10,000 hours of practice we all need before we become expert at anything? Am I saying that parents should never enforce practicing, or that children should only do what they're naturally good at?

No. But I do say they should spend their 10,000 hours on something they're naturally inclined toward, and that before they're old enough to have some say in what that is (which emerges somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10, generally), a parent's job is to encourage trying different things, rather than putting a child on a path that can't be escaped later. You can't create a prodigy.

The irony of the whole Tiger Mother thing is that the way children turn out most likely doesn't come from parents in the first place. Judith Rich Harris's book The Nurture Assumption, summarizing decades of separated identical twin studies, shows that when basic needs are met and no abuse occurs, about 50 percent of how we turn out is genetic and the other 50 percent is unrelated to parenting, birth order, siblings, or peers. No one knows yet what it's from -- possibly the infinite improbability of the butterfly effect as it plays out in each child's cultural setting. Much of the time, separated twins turn out remarkably the same even though one had a Tiger Mother and the other didn't, Harris and the evidence would say.

Or they might not, but it wouldn't be attributable to the parents' actions.

Critiques of the Tiger Mother book (or perhaps, just the Wall Street Journal excerpt):

1 comment:

Patricia Cumbie said...

Really love the synthesis of the Drakon and the Tiger Mother. There's been alot of commentary out there about it. This one is original and refreshing.