Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: High-achievement recipe needs some sugar

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

'Why didn't you get 116 per cent?" My dad didn't actually say this every single time I or my brother or sister got our exam results at school, but boy, the message sure got in.

My strong-willed father went to medical school as a mature student and on one occasion, his already high grade was scaled up and he got 116 per cent. Good job, Dad. Still, I didn't find it motivating that however well I did, it was never good enough.

If anything, it made me want to give up altogether and have a smoke behind the bike sheds.

Maybe that's why I find the latest work by Amy Chua (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) so annoying and potentially destructive. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, written by Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, analyses high-performing groups in America (Indian Americans, Chinese, Cuban, Mormon, Nigerian, Jewish, Iranian and Lebanese) and comes up with a three-part mantra - the secret herbs and spices - that they say explains the success of these minority groups.

The first is a superiority complex, a deep-seated belief they are special or exceptional. The second appears to be the opposite, a feeling of insecurity, that whatever you have done is not enough. And the third is impulse control, the ability to delay short-term gratification for longer-term benefit.

Chua and Rubenfeld sound like cheesy infomercial spruikers as they promise this three-part recipe will pretty much guarantee your child turns out a bright-eyed achiever. "Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits."

I find this troubling for a number of reasons. First, I've obviously been bringing up my children all wrong. More problematic is that even though two Yale law professors have now cracked the special formula, I don't have the slightest desire to follow their instructions.

In fact, I think their edicts sound horrible. "The way to develop the Triple Package requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority ... the pride a person takes in his own strength of will."

Obviously, my unfortunate children are destined to end up on the minimum wage because I would prefer they learned humility and compassion than either superiority or inferiority.

The suggestion that children need to develop impulse control is much more up my alley, but the kind of Skinner-esque dog-training techniques used to encourage children to develop impulse control - bribes, basically - simply don't work with some children who are not naturally compliant.

On a deeper level, I'm also uneasy with Chua and Rubenfeld's Nietzschean assumption that career or work success is the sole indicator of leading a purposeful or happy life.

I prefer the Dalai Lama's view that the planet doesn't really need more "successful people". He suggests, instead, more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.

Also, I'm not sure what Chua and Rubenfeld suggest if you have a child with a disability, or a dreamy child with no inclination to have a triumph of the will?

Chua and Rubenfeld are academics so I am sure they can cite hard data to support their thesis. The book is released worldwide tomorrow, so I'm responding to an excerpt and commentary.

But one Indian American commentator wasn't buying it. She acknowledged cultural values undoubtedly do help their children succeed, an emphasis on education, for example, but pointed out this is not limited to any one group.

Personally, any time I have achieved anything, it seems to have been despite my childhood programming, rather than because of it. It has taken me many years to learn to override my anxieties and insecurity in order to get stuff done (I wrote my first short story only last year).

So these days, instead of listening to the hyper-critical voice that tells me I'm useless and hopeless, I have learned to speak kindly and gently to myself. "Good job ... even if you didn't get 116 per cent."

- NZ Herald

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