“I want to tell her ‘Get over it. And whatever you do, please don’t give us a third book about your relationship with your mother. Writing’s supposed to be cathartic, not fixating.’” — an American friend’s words after finishing Amy Tan’s second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)
In this series, I’ve discussed both romantic love and parental love. It’s the latter that I’ve been more concerned with, though, as the series epigraph and the opening vignette about my ex-teacher and her mother show. Indeed, these two loves are very different emotions.
Romantic love separates into lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Lust, which need not entail romance or even liking the other, involves the hypothalamus and its release (in both sexes) of testosterone, estrogen, and other hormones; and fulfilled, it floods the brain with dopamine much as does taking cocaine. Romantic attraction, meanwhile, has been described by many neuroscientists as chemically akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder – as arguably less an emotion than a deranged, serotonin-“yoyo-ing” drive capable of stilling emotion centers of fear and anger and even able to neutralize the reward-system networks that normally ensure eating and other habits of self-care.
Only when the “romantic” bloom is off the rose do oxytocin and vasopressin, the “attachment” neurotransmitters fundamental to parent-child relationships, occupy the most prominent role in adult love relationships. Attachment is a complex matter, though, as I will explain somewhat below; it can be deranged, too; and childhood is the period when the later-adult’s style of attachment in romance is influenced by parental attachment style. Which brings me to …
The world’s most famous Tiger Mom
This of course would be 48-year-old Chinese-American Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (2010). Don’t underestimate Chua or her book; she’s acutely perceptive and a good writer. And contrary to what I’d previously thought, the book displays some diffidence about playing of the role of parental authoritarian; Chua says that she questioned herself considerably when her 13-year-old daughter smashed a glass in aMoscow restaurant and shouted, “I hate my life, and I hate you!”
Chua talks true in part when she says “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” This implicit criticism (which she in many places makes explicit) of the American fetish for “teaching” self-esteem is bang on; as she correctly stresses, true self-esteem comes from working hard to achieve mastery, from taking on demanding challenges.
A key word is missing from Chua’s sentence, though; she should have written “Chinese-American,” Chinese-Canadian, or some other compound “Chinese” term — not merely “Chinese,” — because countless Han parents in Taiwan don’t even understand let alone agree with her statement; the salary, position, test scores, rankings, reputation, and face concerns that they cherish bear no certain relation to being good at anything besides taking tests and, in fact, often get pushed on children precisely at the expense of the children’s becoming good at something.
Further, while Chua does credit the counter-balancing influence of her laissez-faire Jewish-American husband (also a Yale Law professor) as an ingredient in her daughters’ successes, she fails to note that the laissez-faire society she criticizes has also been a key to those successes. As Hong Kong psychologist Michael Bond notes in Beyond the Chinese Face (1992), much evidence suggests that Han-style strict parenting produces significantly more and better academic and artistic achievement (classical music seeming to be Han cultures’ favored art pursuit) in liberal societies, because both peers and the wider society provide valuable varied stimulation that young people are not exposed to in traditional Han-majority societies.
Similarly, Chua, who is no practitioner of the “harmony” value – she says the unpalatable straight out, even at dinner parties, – fails to discuss the deleterious effect of this value and of the inculcation of one-correct-way ideas on critical thinking in meme-ordered Han-majority societies (especially among the young, who, yoked to a regime of study, have little variety of experience from which to work out own understandings). Meaning: the Tiger Mom approach is far more likely to produce academic and artistic genius in theUS than inTaiwan and other Han-majority societies.
Genetics needs to be considered, too; what works for some children drives others to decades of depression or to suicide; the blogosphere teems with accounts in this regard from those once subject to strict Chinese-American parenting. Testimonies from “successful” products of strict Chinese-American parenting who later fell into depression are easy to find, too; and arguably, Amy Tan’s writing career is self-designed therapy for such an upbringing. (In fairness on this point, though, it should be highlighted that suicide rates for Asian-Americans are less than half those of non-Hispanic whites – and that they are a bit higher than those for Hispanics and blacks. To what extent and in what proportions these varying rates are the result of genetics, beliefs and practices regarding education, non-education-related cultural beliefs and practices, and social class is, of course, unclear.)
Finally, there is much question as to what degree Chua’s self-reported tyranny is hyperbole cooked up to sell books; many Chinese-American journalists and bloggers suspect considerable exaggeration in Battle Hymn. Some non-Han journalists do, too; and they hail the book as a bracing tonic intended to wake up mainstream American parents. Indeed, Chua herself has stated that this is one of her goals. (For a hilarious send-up of both types of parenting: [“Of course I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t be so terribly disappointed in how you’ve turned out”].)
False dichotomies redux
Is what one critical Han blogger termed (Tiger Mom) “Big Gulp Confucianism” the best remedy for American softness, though? This question returns us to theme of instrumental love. Chua admits, “The truth is I’m not good at enjoying life.” Though this confession may be further sales-oriented hyperbole, it underlines the key psychological truth: happiness is not figuring into the equation here; instrumental love down through the generations – Chua speaks in Battle Hymn of honoring the Tiger Mom ways of her female antecedents – is at work. This omission of happiness from the equation is central to whether “different cultures, different loves” is a truthful formulation.
Most Taiwanese teens and university students whom I ask about values say that they care foremost about being happy. Many have been hoodwinked into believing, however, that a lot of money is necessary for this. Money, they think means an easy life – means relief from pressure; casual enjoyment, the fantasized fruit of earning a lot of money, they see as the very definition of happiness (which again demonstrates that the becoming-good-at-something truth Chua perceives as integral to self-esteem is not actually much perceived in Han-majority societies). Not only are these black-and-white conceptions dull simplifications; they are light years away from the truth. Research shows that beyond a surprisingly-low income threshold, the incremental gains in happiness brought by more money dwindle from small to barely-existent.
“How can I be happy without financial security?” is the usual rejoinder, though, when I mention this research to my Taiwanese students.
Freedom from material want of course does matter for self-esteem and happiness, but no research supports the notion that financial security must be within view in order to be happy. Perhaps a bigger problem with the rejoinder today, though, is the wholesale lack of clairvoyance it reflects. Given peak oil, climate change, environmental degradation, possible financial-system collapse, and a host of other threats, even the wealthy today face the possibility that their financial security is largely a mirage.
Especially for the non-wealthy, then – and that is most of us — financial security depends less on the size of a bank account than on whether one has the knowledge and adaptability to generate earnings in rapidly shifting environments. Thus, even if the financial-security focus is accepted as paramount, self-esteem earned through mastery and self-chosen challenges would remain the spring from which the waters of happiness are most likely to flow for today’s youth. (That none of these understandings are even discussed in Taiwan is symptomatic of the dire threat that the persistence of a Neo-Confucian/authoritarian, non-liberal education system holds forTaiwan’s economic future; but that is a matter beyond the topic here.)
What, more specifically, is self-esteem? In the words of Nathaniel Branden, the most widely quoted psychologist on the subject:
Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: a sense of personal efficacy (self-efficacy) and a sense of personal worth (self-respect). As a fully realized psychological experience, it is the integrated sum of these two aspects.
Self-efficacy means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, in the processes by which I judge, choose, decide; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; cognitive self-trust; cognitive self-reliance.
Self-respect means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants, and needs; the feeling that joy is my natural birthright.
This definition lies beyond the reach of arguments regarding differences between “group”/”high-context” cultures and “individual”/”low-context” cultures. How a Tiger Mom’s approach can forestall a young person’s realization of self-esteem thus becomes clear: it lies in her usurpation of her children’s autonomy. In Chua’s case, she, not they, decided that they were to gain entrance to Julliard and ultimately play at Carnegie Hall.
This is diametrically opposite to the approach promoted by high-school students Alex and Brett Harris’s “Rebelution” as described in their book Do Hard Things. Fundamentalist Christians, the Harris brothers’ advocate young people (a) challenging teachers to demonstrate how students can immediately apply the material they are taught to the task of bettering the world, and (b) undertaking self-chosen community-action projects which they invite their parents to help out with.
The Harris brothers’ approach matches Branden’s definition of self-esteem. It also matches the understanding of an articulate 24-year-old male Taiwanese whom I teach:
“My mother always trying to tell me what to do and always doubting my choices for myself took some trust out of our relationship: She didn’t trust me to decide for myself so I had to often argue with myself about whether I should trust myself. This also made me wonder how much I should trust her.”
This male student has retained awareness. I meet many Taiwanese students in their teens and early twenties, though, the majority of them female, who have given up on trying to make – or have never tried making – real choices for themselves. Are parenting choices most inimical to a young person’s self-esteem and thus happiness really expressions of affection? “Different cultures; different loves”: this promiscuity with words in fact can be cornered and exposed: psychological research has already peeled away the outer layers of mendacity in this claim.
Attachment styles due to parenting styles or peer influence?
Psychologists commonly talk of four parenting styles: authoritative, permissive, authoritarian, and neglectful. The first two types are termed “responsive,” because they respect a child’s autonomy and desires. The second two types are “unresponsive” and are marked by either demand and control (authoritarian) or indifference to a child’s emotions and desires (neglectful). A fifth style, ambivalent, which is basically an inconsistent combination of permissive and authoritarian, is also often discussed.
Chua’s Tiger Mom style is obviously authoritarian. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that all parenting styles in Taiwan fall into this category; a growing number of parents are adopting the permissive style common in America (common less in parenting in America than in the education system!). From my questioning of such Taiwanese parents (limited sample, to be sure), their choice is a reaction to the authoritarian parenting they received. Contrary to these parents’ beliefs, though, their parenting style is as much a threat to their children’s self-esteem as their own parenting was. If through deprivation of autonomy authoritarian parenting often stunts development of a young person’s social competence and adult attachment style (in romance and as a parent); permissive parenting inflates a young person’s presumption and arrogance (ergo princess disease), which stunts competence in self-care and self-control. From a 2001 study:
…the authoritarian parent is demanding, but unresponsive to the child, tends to use punitive and harsh punishment, physical enforcement, reprimands, and prohibitive interventions (Kochanska, Kuczyniski, & Radke, 1989). Similarly so, the outcomes of authoritarian parenting tend to overlap the characteristics of avoidant attachment. The children of authoritarian parents have been described as anxious, angry, aggressive, and having low self-esteem (Baumrind, 1967; 1971).
…the permissive parent is generally described as lax, and inconsistent, and uses withdrawal of love as punishment (Connor, 1980). They also tend to show ambivalence about discipline by alternating praise and punishment (Baumrind, 1967). Similarly, mothers of ambivalently attached children are described as lacking in responsiveness and sensitivity to their children, and as being either too lenient or too controlling of their child (Egeland & Farber, 1984). Baumrind (1967) reported that children of permissive parents have low self-control and self-reliance, and are very immature while ambivalently attached children are described as anxious, immature (Karen, 1998), and show little initiative (Egeland & Farber, 1984).
Only the authoritative style, which according to parenting-style theorist Diana Baumrind “encourages children to be independent but still places limits and controls on their actions,” is good for developing self-esteem in children. This style is thus best, too, for helping a child develop a secure adult attachment style.
The picture is not black-and-white, though. First, though most parents generally fit one parenting style, most, at times, use aspects of other styles. Second, research does show that the authoritarian style, if it is not extreme, can produce “self-secure” young people often enough (again, though, this research was done in the liberal US; whether this phenomenon holds more or, rather, holds less, for Han-majority Taiwan is unclear.). Third, final outcomes do not depend entirely on parents; indeed in The Nurture Assumption, writer Judith Harris makes a decent case that peers have more influence than parents on a child’s self-esteem and ultimate happiness and success; and, despite the filial piety meme, this third point is no doubt truer each day in today’s Taiwan in which the Internet, I-phones, and social networking have greatly widened the generation gap, enlarging the ambit young people’s worlds far beyond the narrow, sole confines their parents knew of family, classroom, and cram school.
How much, though, does peer influence have a positive impact on self-esteem in a society in which young people silently question and defy filial piety in their own lives yet publicly observe not only filialness but also the harmony value? When none inTaiwan are smashing glasses in restaurants let alone telling their friends about having done so, how much counterbalancing of parenting can peer influence really have? Some, I would imagine, but less, I would guess than can be the case in theUS.
A final note on parenting-style outcomes for children: In America, children of authoritarian or permissive parents are twice as likely to become alcoholics and drug abusers as are children of authoritative parents – and are more likely to fall into such dereliction than are children of neglectful parents, too! (Children of neglectful parents often end up re-parenting themselves in adulthood and thus achieved “earned self-security.”) Would this not be at least as true, if not more true, in today’sTaiwan?
Oxytocin: the big lie-buster?
If psychology takes us halfway to the truth, neuroscience now seems poised to finish the job of exposing “different cultures, different loves” as a lie. Regardless of whether it’s parents or peers that wield greater influence over a young person’s attachment-style outcome, one thing is appearing more and more likely: types and degrees of parental love will before long be measurable in terms of the neurotransmitter oxytocin (and also the similar [in effect] vasopressin, which I won’t discuss here) both by itself and in combination with other hormones. From the New York Times in January this year:
Oxytocin has been described as the hormone of love. This tiny chemical, released from the hypothalamus region of the brain, gives rat mothers the urge to nurse their pups, keeps male prairie voles monogamous and, even more remarkable, makes people trust each other more.
Unsurprisingly, there are noticeably higher levels of oxytocin in secure mothers – the type who basically correlate with using and having received the authoritative parenting style – than in mothers with other parenting and attachment styles. From a widely-cited 2009 study:
On viewing their own infant’s smiling and crying faces during functional MRI scanning, mothers with secure attachment showed greater activation of brain reward regions, including the ventral striatum, and the oxytocin-associated hypothalamus/pituitary region. Peripheral oxytocin response to infant contact at 7 months was also significantly higher in secure mothers, and was positively correlated with brain activation in both regions. Insecure/dismissing mothers showed greater insular activation in response to their own infant’s sad faces. These results suggest that individual differences in maternal attachment may be linked with development of the dopaminergic and oxytocinergic neuroendocrine systems.
The above-quoted study has induced some researchers to conclude that the verdict is already in:
Craig Kinsley has proposed using the oxytocin response to identify women who might need a little boost to their mothering impulses. Yes, that could lead to the scary situation of rating women for their mothering ability. But, when we acknowledge how critical mothering is to our ability to love, it’s scarier not to.
The majority of researchers consider Kinsey’s radical proposal very premature, though; research findings are still too new and their complexities are still being discovered and sorted. It’s important to understand that oxytocin does not maintain itself at steady levels in a person; but indeed research thus far shows that secure, happier people have higher oxytocin baselines and appear to be flooded with it in bonding situations. To what extent are these baselines genetic, though, and to what extent are they adjustable? In my admittedly cursory search, I found no information on these questions.
Interestingly, oxytocin is also present in high amounts, along with the premier stress hormone, cortisol, when people feel distress over failed or deranged attachment. Could this particular finding help explain why non-secure, non-authoritative-style parents and their children are likely to say “different cultures; different loves”: because though cortisol (stress) is running the show with these parents, oxytocin – and thus attachment – is present, too (as is the case with stalkers)?
Whatever the answer there, as the NYT article quoted above notes, oxytocin has a dark side: though adults — mothers in particular – often experience oxytocin surges in the presence of babies and young children who were previously unknown to them, in general, the hormone is reserved for those one feels are part of one’s “in-group”; meaning oxytocin is also the hormone of the clan and of ethnocentrism. Could this feature of oxytocin also be part of what prompts the “different cultures, different loves” contention?
As said, research is still too new and neuroscience is too complex to jump yet to definitive conclusions. But scientific interest in oxytocin is ballooning; much research is underway. And everything about these early findings suggests that “different cultures, different love” is a false claim. I suggest, therefore, that it’s time to put the phrase in quarantine unless research somehow ends up supporting it– suggest that for now the following formulations appear more appropriate:
- Different cultures; different oxytocin levels
- Different cultures; different odds for self-esteem
- Different cultures; widely different percentages of parenting styles and attachment styles
- Different cultures; different QUALITIES of love
But doesn’t “different qualities of love” allow too much, actually? As commenter “Foplomat” said in the thread to Part VI of this series, “Love simply is.” Or as Buddhist-flavored Jesuit Anthony de Mello said, “You don’t have love; love has you.” Love defined as oxytocin-without-cortisol hardly “has” a parent when the latter forces an adolescent to study an unwanted subject or guilt-trips an adult child into living at home or into visiting home more often. Put succinctly: It appears that mothers good at self-security –at self-esteem – and happiness are mothers who love. Other mothers, it appears, are best said to be exhibiting far-from-optimal, “deranged” attachment.
The Net doesn’t care, however; the memes care zero about truth when their perpetuation is at stake. Are the memes really bigger, badder, and stronger than neuroscience and the provocations of alternatives (especially alternatives drawn from Chinese philosophy), though, in a cyber-connected, globalized world? Can’t just one Lysistrata take the Net down inTaiwan– in a wealthy Han culture?
Next: Part VIII: Different Cultures, Different Love? (II): Shun-tze, Lao-tze, Lu Xun, Fromm, Jung, Maslow, and Sandel – and Lysistrata — vs. Confucian Doctrine and the Net