WASHINGTON — Okay, I’ll admit it: I, too, was annoyed by the pushy Chinese-American mother who bragged, in a Jan. 8 Wall Street Journal essay, about rearing child prodigies. It took me a few hours of fuming to remember the many parents I know who’ve pushed their children to superior academic performance without resorting to Amy Chua’s harsh techniques.
Indeed, most of my upper-middle-class peers — black, white and brown — are parents obsessed with their children’s achievement. They provide ballet lessons, violin lessons, math camps, drama camps, SAT tutorials, foreign language classes, summers abroad — all in pursuit of a spot at an exclusive college and a path to a well-paid profession.
Still, Chua, a Yale University law professor, could not have picked a more opportune moment to publish her parenting memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Declaring most American parents deficient, she picked at the scab of upper-middle-class anxieties at a moment when Americans fear their nation is in decline and will soon be outworked and outmaneuvered by a rising tide of well-educated Chinese.
Yet, those upper-middle-class parents need not worry. They are already passing on to their children the traits to ensure their future affluence.
The absurdity of this heated debate is that it has little or nothing to do with the majority of American parents, who don’t have the resources to engage in the hyper-vigilant, time-consuming and obsessive “child farming” of which Chua speaks. Unfortunately, their children will be left behind as income inequality increases and educational attainment drives the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Americans still believe their country provides equal opportunities for all, that anybody can rise to great heights as long as he works hard and plays by the rules. Our belief in the egalitarian nature of our democracy is so great that more than half of Americans identify themselves as middle-class, including 40 percent of those with incomes below $20,000 a year, according to a 2008 poll by the Pew Center.
But, mythology aside, countless studies have shown that social mobility in the United States is not what we believe it to be. While most parents still want their children to have brighter futures they then did, research has shown that children in modern America have difficulty rising above the economic station of their parents.
Well-educated and affluent parents — both Chua and her most vociferous critics — are able to provide any number of advantages, including more expansive vocabularies, a fondness for books and high- quality childcare. The child builds on those advantages over time, helping him their children to levels of academic achievement with which children from less-affluent homes cannot compete.
Make no mistake: I’m not just talking about the poorest children. I’m also talking about that vast swath of what I’d call middle-middle-America, a hardworking but less-educated segment of plumbers, police officers and factory workers who can’t afford fancy tutorial services for their kids. They don’t have time to supervise hours and hours of piano practice. They don’t feel confident interrogating a teacher about his classroom technique.
Can’t their children still attend college? Certainly. Many of them will at least enroll in college — starting along the path that best assures a comfortable future in a global economy. But only half the students who enroll end up with a four-year degree; those with less money and less rigorous high school preparation are more likely to drop out.
Unless we can summon the will to help more of those students attain two- to four-year college degrees, we will lose the great middle class that has been central to our beliefs in American exceptionalism. It’s those kids — not Chua’s daughters — who deserve our attention.