Black Swans and Tiger Moms

in Pop Culture
February 17th, 2011

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I am surprising myself this week by delving into the more psychological and less biological side of neuroscience. Upon seeing the haunting Black Swan over winter break, I was immediately intrigued by its psychological underpinnings. Not long afterward, a friend showed me a fitting article from the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua. As it turns out, Chua’s article is an excerpt from her highly controversial book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In her book, she describes to the Western public her use of persistence, force, and even verbal attack to get her children to be their best. Although shocked at some of the details, I found some of Chua’s arguments compelling. But how far is too far? Can we be driven insane by a desire to achieve, like the unfortunate protagonist in Black Swan? Or do the hours at the piano and the endless repetition of multiplication facts pay off in the end?

Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is the main character of Black Swan, a ballet dancer whose life seems to revolve around two places: the dance studio and the apartment she shares with her overbearing mother. The mother, we learn, was a dancer when she was younger and is channeling her unfulfilled ambitions into Nina, who she desperately wants to see take the lead in Swan Lake. Roger Ebert describes this tiger mom in his review of Black Swan as “a mother whose love is real, whose shortcomings are not signaled, whose perfectionism has all been focused on the creation of her daughter.” The daughter becomes so focused on perfecting her art, trying to please her mother and her ballet company director that the rest of her life unravels along with her concept of reality itself.

tiger-mom-and-cubOf course, for the number of hard-driving parents out there, I’m sure there are significantly fewer Ninas: people driven to insanity by their need for perfection. Still, Black Swan makes viewers cringe at the thought of putting someone through such a rigorous practice regimen and limited schedule as hers. In the same vein, Amy Chua’s book has received much backlash, as exhibited on the Today Show where the host read viewer comments on Chua’s approach deeming it “outrageous” and calling Chua “a monster.” Her daughters were not allowed to have sleepovers, participate in school plays, earn any grade less than an A, watch television, and the list goes on. In addition, she relates a story about her daughter Louisa’s struggles to learn a piano piece and the tactics she used to get Louisa to succeed. Chua forbade her daughter to leave the piano even for bathroom and water breaks, threatened her, told her to be less “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic” – terms she considers motivational.

In contrast, studies have shown that such verbal aggression is detrimental not only to kids’ self-esteem, but to their school grades. One such study, published in Child Abuse & Neglect showed that kids with verbally aggressive parents showed poorer marks in French, their native language, especially those students who perceived themselves as verbally abused. The authors pointed out that children who are the victims of such aggression tend to doubt their scholastic ability, their behavior and their general worth. Another more recent study in NeuroImage showed a 14.1% increase in gray matter volume in the superior temporal gyrus in subjects who were exposed to parental verbal aggression. Statements like these are compelling – but the first study failed to show any decline in math skills due to verbal abuse, and the sample size was quite small in the correlational second study.

As horrifying as Chua’s method sounds, when Louisa finally mastered the piece, she didn’t want to leave the piano and was back on excellent terms with her mother that same night. Oddly, it was an exercise in self-esteem: Chua didn’t want her daughter to give up; she wanted her to understand what it’s like to succeed when you didn’t think you could. In essence, she was berating her daughter to build her confidence because she believed in Louisa’s ability to overcome laziness and fear.

It is a fact of cognitive neuroscience that practice does make perfect (see Piano Teachers Must Be Neuroscientists). In the Time article reviewing Amy Chua’s book, psychology professor Daniel Willingham agrees. He says that once you’ve mastered a physical task like a piano piece, you can perform it without thinking about it, leaving certain areas of your brain free to engage in more complex interpretation of the music you’re playing. Rather than being stifled by verbal aggression, perhaps Chua’s children now have an extra outlet for expression. They may not be perceiving themselves as verbally abused either – it seems that Chua is somehow letting her kids know that she believes in their potential.

With such talent to express themselves with, how could a kid end up like Nina the  Crazy Ballerina? My guess is that driving children to succeed is not the issue: it’s instilling a fear of failure, a fear of accomplishing nothing, a fear that Chua pushed her daughters to overcome. In another article in Time article detailing the extent to which parents go to protect their young from everything, Nancy Gibbs writes, “we were so obsessed with our kids’ success that parenting turned into a form of product development,” as she discusses the overload on extracurriculars and safety devices that parents pile on to make sure their kids survive in this competitive day and age. In the article, Gibbs cites author Carl Honore, who says, “With children, they need that space not to be entertained or distracted. What boredom does is take away the noise… and leave them with space to think deeply, invent their own game, create their own distraction. It’s a useful trampoline for children to learn how to get by.” Regardless of whether or not kids can play the piano like Mozart, they tend to find a suitable creative outlet if given time. Do kids who have practiced assigned violin exercises for hours on end have time to reflect on what they are putting into their music on a more emotional level? If they’ve never had the opportunity to create as they please, as adults these people may not know how to cope with a lack of stimulation. Maybe this was the Black Swan’s problem: when presented with a role in Swan Lake that required her to branch off from her drilled-in technical ballet skills and become her character, Nina was afraid of the freedom and the possibility of failure. In my experience growing up with non-Tiger Parents (yet supplemented with Tiger Piano Teacher), it seems to me that a blend of discipline and hard work, along with time to just have fun and be a kid is the best formula for success.

Black Swan Movie Review – Roger Ebert

Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer? –  Time Magazine

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior – The Wall Street Journal

Effects of parental verbal aggression on children’s self-esteem and school marks – Child Abuse & Neglect

Exposure to Parental Verbal Aggression and Gray Matter Volume – NeuroImage

Helicopter Parents – Time Magazine

Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting – Carl Honore

8 Comments on Black Swans and Tiger Moms

  • Good point! Although I doubt that Amy Chua’s children really feel good about themselves.

    “If they’ve never had the opportunity to create as they please, as adults these people may not know how to cope with a lack of stimulation.” – They won’t know how to achieve when there isn’t someone giving them directions and guidance at every step.

    That’s why achievements that stem from self-discipline are so much more impressive than those of Tiger-children.

  • Often, the importance of self confidence and self esteem are overlooked. I cannot recall how many times I’ve spoken with someone who seemed to accept their own low self confidence or low self esteem. It is as if many people believe that it is physical or mental defect that cannot be helped. They fail to realize that they are in control to change it and improve their lives whenever they are ready to make the effort.

    Sometimes they just need a little support. If you know someone who has low confidence, do your part. Help them realize their greatness and when their fears get in the way, give them a little extra push.

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  • Re: How to Be Confident

    I have actually dealt with some like that recently. My girlfriend had low confidence and was working a job that didn’t pay very much for her level of education. She has an MBA and wasn’t using it to its full potential because she was not confident she could do the job. After much prodding, she started applying for upper positions in her company. Now, a year later, she is upper management and loves her job and new coworkers. It just goes to show what a little confidence can do.

  • Confidence and being self confident is a tricky thing. FOr me it has three essential aspects:

    The first is to not just accept that “being yourself” is suitable if it is not getting you the results you want.

    Second, never settle for less or being confident will not happen easily for you and third that there is no concept of failure, rather that becoming more confident is a process of attempting something new, observing the results, analyzing it and trying again.

    One must see each opportunity as a way to either achieve the goal and/or learning something that will assist the person in reaching their desired outcome. This is much more useful than seeing it as “success or failure”.

    I have written more on this as it relates to men being more confident yet it could apply to anyone.

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