Amy Chua, the deadhead, and the dutiful daughter.

We all have things we fear, and one of my fears is cancer.  I’m healthy, knock on wood, but I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a terminal illness, to go through nauseating rounds of chemotherapy and then be alone in my apartment vomiting in the bathroom, and finally to…

(By the way, if you’d rather read a more lighthearted response to Amy Chua’s essay from “a Jewish mother,” Ayelet Waldman’s response is here.)

…get a voice message from my oncologist:  The treatment isn’t working, we need to talk about next steps.  I cannot be certain how I would feel but I know I would be frightened.  And I’ve wondered, if I were ever in that awful situation, what kind of oncologist would I want to have?  I’ve thought about two diametric opposites:  The deadhead, and the dutiful daughter.

The “deadhead,” as I’ll call her, started medical school a bit later than her peers.  Her first semester in college, she’d had a vague interest in medicine, but socialized to the detriment of her studies.  She then dropped out and followed the Grateful Dead around the country, crashing at friends’ apartments in different states.  Then, having explored life on the road, she returned to college, applied herself and did well.  Her talents and interests lead her first to medical school and then to a career in oncology, which she loves.

The “dutiful daughter,” in contrast, got a head start on her studies, started medical school at twenty-one, and completed a prestigious oncology residency before she turned thirty.  She went to medical school because it was expected of her, and choose oncology because it was the most prestigious program into which she could be accepted.

It’s clear to me that if I were seriously ill and scared, I would prefer the deadhead.  The dutiful daughter would be technically brilliant, of course.  But the deadhead would be able to connect with her patients on a human level in a way that the parent-pleasing success-driven dutiful daughter could not.  Because to thrive as the child of a success-driven parent it takes a kind of aggression and incuriosity that makes it difficult to connect deeply with other people who are not themselves success-driven.  And that is one of many criticisms I have of Amy Chua’s self-congratulatory parenting advice.  Hugo Schwyzer, a professor at Pasadena City College, did a good job discussing the very real pain that Professor Chua’s prescription for childrearing has caused many of his students.  But beyond the pain caused to the children of success-driven parents – and the fact that such pressure does not always lead to a good end – there is something else that ought to be considered when weighing Professor Chua’s advice:  If we define “success” as that which makes the world a better place, then many high-achieving parent-pleasing “successful” people aren’t really as successful as they seem.

Now, there’s no doubt that many children of aggressive, demanding parents will become outwardly “successful,” so long as they are intellectually gifted and sufficiently complaisant.  But we often think of “success” in the wrong way.  We know it’s to the benefit of society for children to become high-achieving adults, because people who are successful in this way act to the benefit of society – they cure the sick, feed the hungry, create works of art, and so on.  Yet many supposedly “successful” people – a brilliant oncologist, for example – may be less beneficial to our society than we suppose.  And the reason for this is what I would call behavioral externalities.

To digress:  Most environmentalists will tell you that externalities must be taken into account when considering the best way to use natural resources.  For example, a zoning board debating whether to grant a permit for a widget factory shouldn’t only consider the number of widgets the factory will produce, but should also consider the amount of sludge the factory will discharge into the river.  The sludge is an externality, a negative consequence of widget production that may outweigh the value of the widgets.  The problem is, the advantages of the factory are easy to quantify, but the negative impacts of pollution affect people further downstream and further removed in time.  The harms of pollution are real, but not as obvious and easier to minimize.

So, consider again the case of the dutiful daughter who becomes a brilliant oncologist.  Most people would say she is a “success,” and it’s easy to understand why we value her accomplishments.  If you come down with cancer, an oncologist comes in handy.  But:  If she berates and humiliates the nurses who work under her to the point that they develop insomnia and don’t want to come to work, if she quarrels with colleagues with whom she has co-authored a study so as to cause a significant delay in its release, and if she becomes irritated with patients whose illness returns despite her brilliant treatment, then she’s poisoning her workplace and frightening her patients.  We would all have been a lot better off if she’d pursued a career as a janitor.  The problem is, her behavioral externalities are not going to be as obvious as her apparent accomplishments.  If she saves a cancer patient, she will be praised.  If she humiliates a competent and compassionate oncology nurse to the point that the nurse feels compelled to leave the medical profession, this will be downplayed.

I use the example of a physician with an aggressive personality, but I could just as well have been talking about any professional.  The behavioral externalities of many “successful” people poison society such that the benefits of whatever highly-productive work they do is outweighed by the pain they cause others.  And the parenting style advocated by Amy Chua only exacerbates this.  Why this is so could be the subject of a book, rather than a blog post.  But the main reason is that she advocates conditional love of one’s children – love contingent on work and accomplishment – which will produce an adult with a kind of emotional coldness.  And she advocates the aggressive, brute-force over-riding of the will of a child to achieve her own ends.  This kind of human interaction, learned by a child, can later translate into workplace bullying and aggressive office politics.

It may well be that Amy Chua is a good parent and does, despite her rhetoric, feel an unconditional love for her children.  But whether she is a good parent, and whether things have worked out well in her family is really beside the point.  The important question is whether the child rearing advice she offers would be beneficial if adopted by most parents.  It almost certainly would not be.

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7 Responses to Amy Chua, the deadhead, and the dutiful daughter.

  1. GuessHandsOn says:

    I’ve studied at one of the best electrical engineering departments in the nation.

    Most of the professors caused what you call ‘behavioral externalities’.

    They are brilliant people; I’m told nonetheless.

  2. David says:

    I think Amy Chua needs to get her head examined for writing an article like that.

    Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with ambition and success. Ambition and success is not, and does not have to be paired with narcicissm, aggression and “behavioral externalities”.

    I wonder how the ideal parenting model would work. I think it personally would be a relationship between parent and child which would start with the parent having most of the control and then a gradual transition into a relationship of equals. I also think that the parent would provide direction and motivate the child to find their own inner passion or interest. Much like a good teacher would.

    Would there be room for the parent to “force” the child into anything? I’m really not sure about this. Part of me says no, but part of me also recognizes that there are times when a parent would have to intervene if the child was stepping down a path that is destructive. Alternatively, the parent could push a child if they believed that doing so would provide a structure that the child had difficulty providing for themselves. When I think of this, I think of classics like forcing a kid to do their homework or complete a school project.

    But the main lesson learned here? I think its that extremes have no place in parenting.

  3. GallingGalla says:

    (I’m here from Feministe)

    When my partner (now deceased) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was treated by such a “dutiful son” oncologist. The disease was advanced when discovered, well beyond the point that the tumor could have been surgically removed. The prognosis for advanced pancreatic cancer is 3-6 months. My partner lived for a year.

    The oncologist maintained an attitude of forced cheerfulness. Everything was “going well”, treatment was “successful” until it was obvious that it wasn’t. He upbraided my partner for not maintaining a sufficiently positive attitude. Exactly how was he supposed to maintain such an attitude when he was vomiting almost daily both from the effects of the cancer and from the chemo? When he was in the emergency room every few weeks for this complication and that?

    I was my partner’s primary caregiver, and the doctor was utterly unsupportive of me. He would become angry when I dared to obtain medical notes and test reports, when I dared to asked what was meant by “several areas of possible liver neoplasms”, when I dared to note the rapid deterioration in his lab results.

    This went on until the situation became so grave, with multiple metastises to his liver and his mental state deteriorating, that the doctor finally admitted that he did not have long to live. And then the doctor totally washed his hands of my partner, doing absolutely nothing to provide palliative care.

    I’m totally with you: If I need one, I want my oncologist to be a deadhead.

  4. David says:

    I don’t know which one my dad’s oncologist was.

    The only thing that I remember about him were the exchanges between him and my dad over the phone whenever he’d get a new round of tests to see if the new treatments worked.

    I don’t remember if he was a good doctor or not, but I do remember the one thing that helped. Every time that he had to give my dad bad news he choked up to tears. I suppose knowing that there was an empathetic human being on the other side of that bad news relieved some of the pain.

    So if I were to accept the premise of the original question I’d choose the deadhead. But I don’t really like the grateful dead – so I’d go with a different band or artist. Maybe a techno head. Maybe someone who has bought every nightwish album.

  5. Clarence says:

    As usual, people take these things, and having little time, run with them.

    Amy Chua has written a book.
    She later backed away from these extreme parenting practices.
    It’s probable that the reason that selection from her book was given so much prominance was to get people talking and emotionally invested, so that perhaps sales of the book might increase, in other words, get Chua’s name out.

    I hope this information which I picked up at Slate a week ago, almost, helps.

  6. ARC says:

    I know of several bloggers who contacted Amy Chau for clarification on her article. She said that WSJ selected, edited, and published the piece without her active supervision, and that by the time she knew what it said it was too late for her to get it retracted. The book, supposedly, tells the story of how she learned that that parenting style was unhealthy (when her rebellious eldest daughter defended the obedient youngest against her mother) and changed.

  7. hamoboy says:

    I actually read Amy Chua’s book, and the climax of the narrative is her “deadhead” daughter defying her mother and threatening to kill herself. The conclusion of the book, you can be sure, is completely different from the WSJ article (which was most likely selected to cause controversy). She concludes by realizing that her forceful brand of parenting was plainly not working for her younger daughter, and not very beneficial for her elder one, and she amends her parenting style to something less extreme and more tailored to her daughters wants and needs (old habits die hard, and there are some signs she still hasn’t given it up totally).

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