System Justification Theory and the Tiger Mother

4 Feb

Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become a seemingly endless source of fodder for Internet blogs and discussion groups.  The book, largely meant to be a memoir, recounts the author’s methods of raising her two daughters; she allowed them limited time for playdates or TV, and describes grueling methods for both study and music practice.  When a short excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper fielded an enormous number of comments (7670 at this writing) expressing a wide variety of opinions on the topic.  Even The Onion has weighed in on the subject.

Why does this book seem to resonate with so many people?  One possible explanation is that it makes a distinction between a “Western” and “Chinese” parent in a time when many people seem to be particularly sensitive to any sort of cultural comparison.  Chua’s stereotypical model of “Western” parenting describes a childhood lacking in any discipline and in some ways signifying a lack of commitment by parents to make their children into the most successful people possible.  A New York Times article underscored the idea that there are many different types of skills needed to be a success, and believes that Professor Chua’s parenting style does not appropriately develop “soft skills” like communication and teamwork necessary in most business environments.

Blasi and Jost’s chapter on System Justification Theory (“SJT”) can serve to illuminate certain biases present in the story and in reactions to Chua’s assertions.  The author, as a Yale professor, is admittedly a fairly elite member of our society, so she is not looking at the system from a position of disadvantage.  The story clearly prescribes a particular path to success and shows an ultimate belief in the “winner’s” mantra as described by Jost:

I am deserving. My group is deserving.  And, fortunately, we live in a system that has the wisdom and justice to reward deserving people.

Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence,” but this idea necessarily presupposes that with excellence will come success.  It doesn’t really address the differences in educational opportunities available to many children, but seems to have faith that the current system will treat people fairly by recognizing hard work.  Losers in the system are clearly “lazy, unintelligent, poorly educated, or irresponsible” as described by Jost.  Jost and Blasi recognize that system justification theory can be used to analyze ideologies like the Protestant work ethic and a belief in a meritocracy: Chua’s entire child-rearing method has aspects of both.

Another interesting connection between Jost’s theory and Chua’s book is the possibility that Chua could be providing ultimate justification for the type of upbringing  that she experienced.  The article on SJT shows that even on a micro-level, within a particular family, people still use methods of ego and system justification to perpetuate particular social arrangements.  Chua herself was clearly raised by fairly strict Asian parents; she describes her father calling her “garbage” at one point when she was disrespectful.  One wonders if this book is simply a way to legitimize her own upbringing and defend her willingness to create a similar type of relationship with her own daughters.  Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she “decided to be an easy child to raise”: the fact that she called it a “decision” could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors.  Many of those commenting on the articles who described themselves as being being raised by parents similar to the “Tiger Mother” also spoke about how much they appreciated their parents’ tough love.

Chua’s story has important implications, I believe, for our legal system as pertains to victims of abuse.  I do not mean to suggest that Chua’s methods constitute abuse; her goal was clearly to help her children be successful, and as one article described, shows a fear that success is becoming difficult to obtain in a world of increasing competition and a less than robust job market.  This is a legitimate worry.  Furthermore, I cannot pretend to understand the complex relationship between another parent and child, because they are quite unique and often complicated.  However, recognizing that this justification can satisfy “needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty” as described by Blasi and Jost, and analyzing one woman’s story through this lens, leads one to wonder how the legal system could account for a demonstrable bias towards the status quo.  Before a real abuse victim can come forward, she or he must be able to recognize that she does not actually deserve the behavior to which she is being subjected, and SJT posits that this recognition is not automatic.  Furthermore, we don’t want to believe that our system is corrupt, but in many cases it is not the most hardworking who become successful, and frequently injustice is neither obvious nor easily corrected.


3 Responses to “System Justification Theory and the Tiger Mother”

  1. davidasimon January 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Great post! I thought this was an especially astute observation: “Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she ‘decided to be an easy child to raise’ the fact that she called it a ‘decision’ could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors.”

    That seems to me, as you note, in keeping with SJT. By claiming she could “make a choice,” Chua has actually attempted to rationalize her own situation. Not only is this a “willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors,” it is an attempt to introduce an element of choice into a situation where there was, essentially, none (or very little). Her “choice” to be an “easy child” diminishes the influence of myriad factors pushing her to obey her parents–not the least of which was the prospect of being branded (by her mother or herself) as lazy or undeserving; perhaps even a failure. Indeed, her perspective is particularly dispositionist: she claims that *she chose* to be an easy child; it was *her decision,* as it were. Therefore, she is bearing the responsibility of her upbringing without recognizing the other factors influencing her behavior. In this way she is able to justify the system in which she finds herself. As an ingroup member, her statements dovetail with SJT.

  2. riopierce January 31, 2011 at 2:17 am #

    This is a very insightful take on the ‘Tiger Mother’ furor. System Justification theory did not leap to my mind at first in connection with the Chua story. This may be a bias on my part, but system justification theory seems allied to a passive acceptance of the status quo; whatever you may say about Chua’s efforts, and people have said plenty, they require an extraordinary degree of effort on the part of Chua in order to maintain these high standards in her children. Also, Chua, in her piece at least, views hard work not as a normative good in itself, but as a means to an end, achievement. This distinction does not mute the relevance of SJT to understanding the mentality that Chua applies in her efforts. There seems to be a fascinating bifurcation at the heart of immigrant tradition that Chua’s efforts (which she explicitly connects in the WSJ piece to achievement-oriented minorities across all cultures, not just Chinese families) are the lingering remnant of. An immigrant may clearly understand that the system is unjust; they will not receive the same level of success that a native would get for the same work; yet at the same time, they believe that with sufficient hard work and persistence, they will break through the walls of privilege that the system has constructed. If success does come, their explanation may be more reality-based than other successful individuals, but may still be rooted in the ideas of SJT.

    I’m also curious about the widespread disapproval that Chua’s piece was met with. As prominently discussed in Joost’s article, a central tenet of the rhetoric that accompanies SJT, is the role of hard work as a critical element of success. X worked hard and achieved success. Y didn’t work hard and didn’t achieve success. Chua has simply taken the rhetoric associated with SJT to its logical extreme, if hard work achieves success, then lots and lots and lots of hard work will achieve lots and lots of success. But all of a sudden, Chua’s explication of the American Dream, according to her critics (who I’m sure have also dallied in the fantasy) is an American Nightmare. Perhaps Chua is not entirely unjustified in her puzzled response to her critics.

    I was also struck by your point about the response of Chua’s daughter, who believed that she was making an informed choice in consenting to Chua’s parenting style. The passage reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography in Consider the Lobster. Austin was a noted tennis prodigy, but her autobiography showed no self awareness of the brutal amount of training and practice from the age of three that was required to produce said prodigy-ness. Wallace marveled at Austin’s insistence that her mother was an easy-going coach, who made Austin practice 4 hours a day from the age of 3, but allowed her to take Mondays off. Chua’s older daughter, and Austin both may share a lack of awareness of the situational factors that account for their unique circumstances. Chua’s younger daughter, who is characterized in the book as ferociously resistant to her mother’s training techniques, may be simply more aware of the situational factors, and more willing to confront, rather than consent, to them.


  1. The Tiger Mother « The Situationist - February 7, 2011

    […] Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here. […]

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