I thought I’d heard enough about Tiger Moms, but perked up when I came across Tiger Moms and Orchid Kids, by Sam Gridley. Gridley considers how presumably harsh Tiger Mom parenting might generate success and happiness even in highly sensitive kids, the kind you’d think such treatment would crush. What kind of parenting are we talking about? Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins, describes the Tiger Mom approach in her Time story about Tiger Mom phenom Amy Chua:
It was the “Little White Donkey” incident that pushed many readers over the edge. That’s the name of the piano tune that Amy Chua, Yale law professor and self-described “tiger mother,” forced her 7-year-old daughter Lulu to practice for hours on end — “right through dinner into the night,” with no breaks for water or even the bathroom, until at last Lulu learned to play the piece.
For other readers, it was Chua calling her older daughter Sophia “garbage” after the girl behaved disrespectfully — the same thing Chua had been called as a child by her strict Chinese father.
And, oh, yes, for some readers it was the card that young Lulu made for her mother’s birthday. “I don’t want this,” Chua announced, adding that she expected to receive a drawing that Lulu had “put some thought and effort into.” Throwing the card back at her daughter, she told her, “I deserve better than this. So I reject this.”
In the conventional view of sensitive children, such treatment should crush them. Some consider Chua’s parenting to border on child abuse. Some think she should be arrested. Yet as Gridley notes, the sort of bidirectional sensitivity that I wrote about in Orchid Children— a heightened responsiveness not just to bad experiences but good, so that so-called risk traits (and genes) can be assets — might allow a sensitive child to respond to any substantial warm notes or overtones amid all this tigerish growling. The key is the nature of that sensitivity, which seems to rise at least partly from certain genes that psychiatry has generally characterized as risk genes, such as short variant(s) of the serotonin transporter gene, or SERT. Here’s Gridley quoting from and commenting on my Atlantic article describing the orchid hypothesis:
“Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.”
This point leads to a metaphor distinguishing two types of children: the “dandelions” who do pretty well regardless of circumstances, and the “orchid” children “who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.” The startling idea here is that the SAME genes that make us vulnerable to neurosis or psychosis also make it possible to achieve great success.…
So what does this mean for tiger mothers versus liberal, child-centered, nicey-nicey Dr. Spock mothers? Amy Chua, whose memoir and Wall Street Journal article set off the controversy, has raised high-achieving children by, she tells us, not settling for less. Screaming at the kids, insulting them, threatening, forcing them do what they hate (practice the violin, for instance)–all of these techniques are within bounds for Chua. Should we conclude that, if her daughters have “orchid”-type genes, their overstressed, abusive childhood will eventually make them socially or emotionally disturbed?.
Maybe not. In his works on education, Parker Palmer emphasizes that various instructional “techniques” may work, but the sine qua non is “teaching with heart and soul,” connecting with your students and also with your own spiritual self. A key to Chua’s approach, if we can believe her, is that she does in fact connect with her kids; they never doubt how much she cares about them. Contrast this with a tolerant, permissive, but emotionally distant parent—which type is more traumatic for the child?
I suspect that the unengaged type, the skittish kitty mom who’s too distracted to pay attention, or the tomcat dad who’s never home, is far more dangerous to youthful psyches than a tiger parent.
And—to return from felines to plants—if the characteristic of orchid children is their sensitiveness to different conditions, we might also suppose that they are (a) highly variable among themselves and (b) attuned to small variations in the environment. What looks on the surface like a harrowing childhood to you or me may not be so damaging to some orchid kids who thrive on tiny but well-placed raindrops of affection.
Gridley is suggesting that enough warmth amid a seemingly harsh environment — some love from a really tough parent — can render that environment nurturing. He has a real point. Environments are complicated, as are people. And both the literature and the particular case of the most famous tiger mom, Amy Chua, suggest that sensitive people can find nurturance in touch circumstances.
In the scientific literature, for instance, a lovely and ingenious 2004 study from Joan Kaufman and colleagues (pdf) found that even for the most genetically “vulnerable” kids in badly abusive homes (that is, kids with the so-called risk (short) version of the SERT gene), a single high-value relationship with an adult outside the family made them less prone to mental illness than nonsensitive kids from normal homes. (It’s a fascinating study; I wrote about it in more detail here.) It’s as if these kids did exactly what Gridley suggests: They spotted where the help was and focused on it.
Amy Chua’s own described experience offers a more granular example. Amid what would strike many Americans as overly harsh parenting from her Chinese parents, Chua (who as a Chinese American runs about an 80 percent chance of carrying the risky SERT variant) found an emotional mooring in the known love of her parents. Their discipline was strict, but she recognized that it was delivered from love and a desire to prepare them for tough world. This recognition provided a context into which she could receive the apparent harshness as nurturing.
Will it work that way for her kids? Seems early (and presumptuous) to say. The Chua girls are only now nearing adulthood, and while it seems a bit intrusive to even inquire as to their happiness, they apparently volunteer that they’re doing fine, thanks. I’d guess that while the Chua daughters and their mother might have a few things to work out, as every family does, these girls, even though they too probably carry the more sensitive SERT variant, will also carry enough love and support to mend any tiger-claw marks. As the Kaufman study shows, even seemingly marginal compensations can sometimes make up for truly abusive situations, even among the most sensitive children, and Chua’s parenting style falls fall short of the sort of abuse faced by the kids in the Kaufman study —‚and offers a lot more good as well.
This isn’t to cue up the nice music and say “Don’t worry, be nasty.” Yet it’s important to remember that a strong enough current of love and nurturance — a core of connection that leaves the child no consistent doubt about whether they’re loved — can offset the usual lapses and absences and even some episodes of deep trouble, even among the most sensitive people — to say nothing of strict but loving parenting.
What parent doesn’t worry about these things? What parent doesn’t sometimes feel she or he is failing? None of us behave always as we would have ourselves behave. Everyone unravels at some point and finds themselves yelling at the kids or feeling too overwhelmed to Show the Love. It’s the mix that matters — or not even the mix but the main ingredient, the central thing that makes up the essence of the meal, even if sometimes the seasonings make it taste bitter.
The Science of Success (aka Orchid Children) – The Atlantic
The depression map: genes, culture, serotonin, and a side of …
The Bright Side of the “Depression-Risk Gene”
I’m not vulnerable, just especially plastic
Radio hour – More orchidity, this time on New Hampshire Public Radio
Coming sort of soon to a bookstore near you: “The Orchid and the …
How I Wrote “The Orchid Children“
Are “orchid kids” the same as “gifted children”?
Does depression have an upside? It’s complicated
and some others