The premise is simple.
Some groups in America do better than others economically, and wife-husband authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld say there are three reasons why. As they outline it in their book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” these highly successful groups have a sense of cultural superiority; an insecurity about their place in American society and a need to prove themselves; and an iron-willed ability to delay gratification and invest in the future.
The groups Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld cite include Asian immigrants, like those who have dominated Pittsburgh’s recent immigration statistics; the Mormons; Cuban-Americans; some African groups; and Jews.
In the case of Asian-Americans, the authors attribute much of their meteoric rise in America to an intense emphasis on education, on studying hard and on entering high-income fields such as engineering, computer science and medicine.
Ms. Chua’s previous book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” described the strict methods she used in raising her two daughters and became a lightning rod for debates about parenting styles and how to rear successful, happy children.
As one Amazon reviewer of “Tiger Mother” put it, “I’m a native Chinese and came to this country with an advanced degree earned in China — I’m no stranger to educating children the Chinese way. Yet I don’t treat my children as she does and I know that most of the Chinese in the U.S. don’t educate their children in that extreme fashion. From reading the book I believe that her philosophies and behaviors are largely due to her seriously flawed personality.”
Besides laying out their theories on group success, Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld try to answer some of those criticisms.
The new book has an entire chapter, for instance, on “The Underside of the Triple Package.”
While the Asian emphasis on studying hard and always striving for success has had impressive results, they write, “when it goes wrong, or sometimes even when it goes right, the East Asian conception of the Triple Package can make life feel like a prison — a prison of expectations that can never be met.”
As one example, they refer to an interview with Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee, in which he said that his father, a professor, “never encouraged me. Even when I got the Oscar, he never encouraged me. So even though I had gotten an Oscar and had made some movies, now it was time to do something for real. He said, ‘You’re only 49. Are you going to teach, finally?’ ”
Despite painful experiences like that, Ms. Chua said in an interview, there is nothing automatically harmful about raising children with strict values.
“It’s partly because everything I’ve done has gotten so much controversy that people associate the ‘tiger mom’ approach with negativity,” she said. “When it’s done right, though, there’s nothing like it. Not only do you get incredible achievement, but you get happy, confident children who love their parents.”
Her critics respond
Ms. Chua, who like her husband is a law professor at Yale University, also believes that these Asian cultural values foster achievement even among less affluent immigrants.
“I think people are uncomfortable recognizing that a lot of Vietnamese and Chinese and Korean kids have parents who are working class, and these students also do much better than much more privileged students.”
Her critics complain that Ms. Chua has underestimated the influence of social factors on immigrant children’s success.
In a February essay in Slate, University of Southern California law professor Daria Roithmayr said the particular circumstances of each immigrant group’s arrival in the U.S. have much more to do with the group’s success than some universal set of cultural values.
“The academic community has uniformly dismissed Chua’s recent work with much eye rolling,” she wrote, “even as Chua and Rubenfeld are laughing all the way to the bank.”
In an interview, Ms. Roithmayr noted that many recent Asian newcomers, including Cambodian, Laotian, Thai and Hmong immigrants, have struggled economically and educationally.
“I think most academics agree that culture plays a role” in immigrant success stories, she said, “but it is a passenger on the bus, and the bus is a very complicated mix of structural support and historic circumstances and other factors.”
Min Zhou, a sociology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied immigrant achievement, says it is a complicated picture.
On the one hand, she agrees with Ms. Chua that the children of some working-class Asian immigrants do better than white students in test scores and grades.
In studying working-class Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants in California, she found that affluent Chinese students outperformed the blue-collar Vietnamese and Chinese children, on average, but the working-class children did better than more privileged white students.
On the other hand, Ms. Zhou’s research showed that it wasn’t just an emphasis on hard work and educational striving that made a difference for the less affluent families — it was also a whole network of mentoring companies and advice on which school districts to move to.
“Working class immigrants cannot afford Kaplan or Princeton Review, but they have their own version of that,” she said.
These parents enroll their children in cheaper tutoring programs set up by other Asian entrepreneurs, she said, and “they make sure that when kids go into the classroom in their regular school, they already have all the material covered ahead of time, and afterward, they do reviews of what they learned.
‘‘Asian kids work a lot harder and they put in a lot more effort. White children have access to supplementary education, but their extracurricular activity is less focused on academics.”
Ms. Zhou also agreed that deferred gratification plays a role in Asian families’ success. She recalled one Chinese immigrant father she interviewed whose son was talented in the arts, but who pushed his son to become an engineer.
“He said to me, ‘If my child’s passion is in music and art, but I want him to be an engineer and he has good math skills, I’m going to push him to be an engineer. Why do I push him? Because his ability to sustain his family as a musician is 10 percent or less. But if he becomes an engineer that percentage is 90 percent or more. I have made a sacrifice by doing a low-level job in America, and now he can make a sacrifice by becoming an engineer. And by the time he has children, he can let them do whatever they want.”
Does success last?
In “The Triple Package,” Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld also argue that immigrant groups’ success often has a shelf life of one or two generations, and that by the third generation, many immigrants have assimilated so much that they no longer push their children as hard.
But Suet-ling Pong, a Penn State professor who has studied that issue, said even that picture is complicated. A study she did in the 1990s indeed showed that educational attainment dropped in the third generation, but more recently she found that Asian-American students’ math scores had continued to climb into the third generation.
One key factor in how well immigrant children do, she said, is what country they end up in. In fact, immigrant children in most nations do worse than native-born students. “The U.S. is an outlier, along with Canada and Australia. One hypothesis is that in those countries that have long immigration histories, they have more inclusionary policies toward immigrants.”
A prime example: Korean students in America have very high achievement levels, but in Japan, they face discrimination in a country that occupied Korea during World War II, and Korean-Japanese students do not do as well as their peers.
“This is a very complex issue, why some immigrant children are doing better than others,” Ms. Pong said. “There are a host of factors — not just the family, but the schools they are in, and the larger society they end up in. Just picking on one aspect to explain these things doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issue.”
Ms. Chua’s response?
Americans, she believes, love to hear stories about individual success, but they are uncomfortable with tales of group success.
And while social factors do create some of the conditions for immigrants’ high performance, she said, “there are things that can be done in terms of behavior. Why can’t we talk about this? We have gotten hundreds of emails from educators and they say ‘This is what we want to talk about.’
“They say, ‘It’s actually a relief for us to hear about how it’s not about Chinese students being superior; it’s about drilling for two hours a night.’”
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Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar