In an article in the New York Times, Yale professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, real-life husband and wife, offered some interesting theories about what makes a child successful.
The article (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/opinion/sunday/what-drives-success.html?_r=1) is intended to generate interest in a book they co-authored, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”
Chua and Rubenfeld observed ethnic, religious and national-origin groups in the United States, it being a melting pot of various and wildly divergent cultures. They then compared these groups to the general white American population.
The findings are interesting. “Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies,” the authors say in their NYT piece.
They continue: “Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.”
Sure, the authors say, it could be that rich parents automatically pass on their advantages to their kids, or that immigrant parents naturally got to where they are because of their high skills and education levels. But there are more reasons for kids being driven to success—and they are not altogether obvious.
The Triple Package—the set of traits that are apparently shared by “strikingly successful groups”—consists of superiority complex, a sense of inadequacy, and impulse control.
At first blush, it seems odd that somebody can feel superior (deep-seated belief that one is exceptional, or belongs to an exceptional group) and inferior (insecurity, or feeling that what you’ve done is never good enough) at the same time. But the authors say these can be felt simultaneously by an individual – this feeling of needing to prove oneself, because precisely one knows one is a cut above the rest.
The inferiority comes from the exorbitant expectations of parents, making children feel as though nothing they do would be good enough. The pressure builds when it is emphasized that the family’s honor depends on the children’s performance.
Remember Tiger Mother? That’s Amy Chua herself, setting very high standards for her two daughters who must practice their musical instruments for hours, ace their tests, and who were not allowed on dates or sleepovers.
Impulse control, on the other hand, is the ability to delay gratification, something that many deem essential to maturity.
The authors observe that white American parents are more focused on building their children’s social skills and self esteem. The conclusion one can derive out of this is that it is an explanation for American kids being perceived as slackers, while the kids from other racial groups are achievers.
Of course, these are just theories, and critics have started to speak out. For instance, in a blog published by the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri says Chua is at it again, imposing her views and parenting skills and announcing she knows better than the rest of us. The new book is derided as an argument that the eight racial groups “are better- equipped to take on Life” than others are, opening the couple to accusations of racism and plain arrogance.
So how do we transport this entire issue into our context? First, we would have to define what success really is. Other people measure their success in terms of wealth, financial security and material possessions. Others, by their positions in the organizations to which they belong. Yet others say they define success by their ability to “whistle on the way to work”—finding meaning and fulfillment in what they do, no matter the (lack of) financial rewards. For others it is having a solid family life, a stable marriage and happy children (“happy” of course can set of a whole new discussion).
Second, does success also need to be a class issue? There are stereotypes that children born with the proverbial silver spoon do not have much drive. They do not see any value in working hard because they are living the good life already. Everything has been spelled out for them. They reap the benefits of the socio-economic stature of their parents just by being born into these families. Conversely, children with a lack of privileges would tend to strive to beat the odds just so they could get out of the rut. Aren’t we all enamored with rags-to-riches stories?
Then again, it could also be that parental success could be a motivation for kids to excel in their own field and find their place in the world. And then, poverty and lack of access to education may extinguish opportunities just because disadvantaged children would not even know what they are missing, what they could be, or that they even have the choice.
Third is the nature-versus-nurture argument. This entire issue so far has assumed we are all shaped by our environment. How about natural traits? It is not uncommon to see families with children, some of whom are “successful” while some are “works in progress.” How do we then explain the different turnouts even when siblings are subjected to the same parenting/ motivational style?
The Triple Package may in fact be a formidable cache of traits, especially when developed through grit—something that “requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will,” say Chua and Rubenfeld. But there is also no fixed formula for success, not even a cast-in-stone, singular definition of what success really is. One does not have to be the best parent; just a good parent, who knows the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of one’s child and enabling him or her to take on life in the manner that makes him or her thrive