Analyzing Amy Chua’s “The Triple Package”

I remember a little over a year ago, the many faces of social media (not to mention TV and good ole’ fashion newspapers) were a-buzz with commentary about Amy Chua’s new book. Chua is the Yale professor, and Chinese American, who gained notoriety in 2011 with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. Her new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, has her being called, on Twitter, “a full blown racist.” In fact, James Nye from Britain’s Daily Mail writes, “Chau [is] uncomfortably close to racism.”
I read the book. What choice did I have? After all, I work at the American School of Bombay, a community made up of families from over 40 different nationalities. In her book, Chua identifies eight “cultural groupings” (she intentionally avoids terms like ethnic, racial or religious). She states that these eight are, “exceptional and do much better in America than others.” She measures their “exceptionality” by income, occupational status, and test scores…to mention a few.

I found the book provocative, insulting, inspiring, superficially stereotypical, and most importantly worth my time to read. It got me thinking about ASB. I found myself transferring Chua’s “three culturally advantageous traits” into the culture of international schools; in particular ASB. And what I discovered, inspired me. Here’s my reworking of Chua’s theory.

Chua’s first trait is what she calls: A Superiority Complex. In the simplest of terms, and I paraphrase, Chua contends that any group that collectively believes they are inherently better than any other, has an advantage when it comes to success. At face-value this sounds like a pretty good definition of racism. However, if we rework Chua’s contention of a “superiority complex” to become an, “advantage complex,” then I think we (parents and educators) can get excited. Here’s my thinking: What if we were able to instill in our children the belief that given their enormous economic, social, and educational privilege they have an obligation to be highly successful (defining ‘success’ is an entirely different issue, not for today). And once successful, students have an ethical obligation to leverage their “advantage” towards enhancing the lives of others. After all, our children come to ASB, and various other international schools, with “more of everything” than 95% of the world’s population. Then, ASB gives them “more than they could get” from 95% of the schools in the world. So, why should we not expect our students to be more successful than 95% of the world’s population? And why should our children not know that we expect them to leverage their success to benefit the 95% of the rest of the world?

Chua calls her second trait: Insecurity. Basically, in the “cultural groups” she considers exceptional, “one’s best work is never accepted as good enough.” Thus, these groups breed deep insecurities about performance and are in constant pursuit, but never achieve, their best work. Again, if we changed the context of Chua’s logic (and took out the hurtful toxicity inherent in making a child believe they’re never good enough) we might find one of the foundational pillars of great parenting and teaching: striving to maximize a child’s potential. I’m not talking about expecting more than is possible; nor settling for less. I’m saying: parents and educators should clearly and lovingly and supportively and unwaveringly demand that our children achieve what they are capable of.

Chua’s third trait is: Impulse Control. Here she means, “the ability to delay instant gratification in the service of a greater goal.” I actually don’t have to rework or detox this one very much. It resonated with me. In fact, it reminded me of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the 1960’s. The Stanford study offered children a choice between the ‘instant’ reward of a marshmallow sitting in front of them or, if they waited, they would get two secret rewards. Follow-up studies, on the children many years later, found that those who were able to resist gratifying themselves instantly tended to have made better life choices, gone further with their education, lived healthier lives, and considered themselves “happier” than those that took the marshmallow.

We could call this trait GRIT. A concept we’ve been talking and reflecting about at ASB for the past few years. Another definition of grit is, “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve the objective.” Developing grit in our children should be a goal of every parent and teacher.

In closing, I hope my scrubbing of Chua’s 304-page book down to six paragraphs gives us something relevant and important to think about.

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