Theories of Success

There is so much written about children and success:  How to raise children successfully, or how to raise children to be a success.  These two ideas may be different.  Raising children successfully puts the emphasis on parents and what they do or don’t do.  Raising children to be a success emphasizes the outcome for the child.  Either approach would seem to require a definition of success.  As parents, what do we mean by success?  What would enable us to see ourselves as parents – or our children as successful? However we define it, is the success of our children due to what we do as parents?  

Amy Chua, who created a stir several years ago with her Chinese Tiger Mom thesis, has written a book with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, in which they address some aspects of these questions.  Their theory, based on research, is that three traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America.  The definition of success they use is clearly academic and material success.  Of course the two are connected in the current discussions about education, particularly early childhood education and the importance of making it available to all children.  The idea is that academic success leads to material success.

The three traits these authors pinpoint is a superiority complex, impulse control, and a deep sense of inferiority.  The importance of impulse control is something we have heard a great deal about, for good reason.  Being able to control one’s impulses is central to achieving whatever one’s goals are in life.  It means being able to give up immediate pleasure in the service of a larger objective.  It makes possible positive social exchanges with others.  It is a defining aspect of maturation as children master the  pleasure principle that dominates the early years.  It is also at times a source of confusion for parents as children’s ability to comprehend what behavior is expected may exceed their ability to control their impulses – and therefore their behavior.

The other two traits seem contradictory.  How can a superiority complex and deep feelings of inferiority coexist?  The authors are describing specific cultural groups in relation to their status as first generation immigrants in this country.  Most immigrant groups have initially experienced feelings of inferiority and of being looked down upon.  The particular successful groups being discussed, however, also have a strong sense of being exceptional.  This strong feeling of being exceptional leads to feelings of superiority.

A Talmudic sage is quoted as saying that every person should have two pockets.  In one pocket is a piece of paper that says, “It is for me that the world was created.”  The paper in the other pocket says, “I am dust.”  This appears to mean that each person should have some sense of his importance as an individual; while at the same time have humility about his or her own relative importance in the world.  The authors seem to be describing the interplay of these two ideas as carried out by certain groups.

The feeling of being inferior can lead to a need to prove oneself, while a belief in being special can provide the drive to do so.  The theory discussed suggests that combining these two traits requires impulse control if it is to lead to success.  Feeling inferior provides a motivation to excel and prove others wrong.  The belief that one is part of an exceptional group can provide the confidence needed to carry out one’s ambitions.  But confidence and drive are not enough without having the ability to give up immediate pleasures for long-term goals.

The authors contend that their findings apply in particular to first generation groups who have something to prove.  Later generations have not achieved at the same level or in the same numbers.  A comparison is made to our own story as a country: the pioneers who settled and developed America had something to prove and earlier generations were raised with strong behavioral controls combined with a belief in hard work.  American ideals and experience gave rise to a belief in American exceptionalism.

It is certainly true that cultural values in this country have changed considerably.  Various media promote the pleasure principle and the belief in exceptionalism has become a kind of grandiosity in relation to other countries.  The culture as a whole has come to value happiness and self-gratification over older values.  In child-rearing, parents are often concerned about making children happy and avoiding frustration which sometimes interferes with setting goals and working hard to achieve them.

Often, an attempt to correct a problem leads to an over-correction in the opposite direction.  Possibly in our attempt to modify some of the controlled behavior and self-denial of earlier generations we have moved too far from self-control and are less able to apply ourselves to achieving our goals. On the other hand, the groups that excelled in the way described by the authors, have in turn paid a price for their achievements, as did our own forefathers and mothers.

The challenge that remains for us is whether it is possible to restore some of our earlier values without its earlier liabilities.

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